Failing In Advance

My hero Seth Godin describes anxiety as “failing in advance”.

In seminars I would estimate at least a third of candidates I ask describe themselves as nervous, anxious or worried about their chances of viva success – with anxiety being very common – even though the vast majority of vivas result in the candidate passing.

If you had anxiety about your viva, what could you do to help yourself?

  • Find out more about the process: having more certainty could help you to see you have what you need to succeed.
  • Remember that you don’t have to have a viva, you get to have a viva: it’s at the end of a process that you have continued through for a long time.
  • Invest a little time in getting ready: perfection isn’t needed but you can be prepared.

A little work can help lessen or remove anxiety. A little work is also what will help you to feel ready for success at the viva.

Get Comfy

Your viva could feel a bit uncomfortable in some ways. It could be there’s parts of your research you would rather not talk about. Or you’re nervous about unexpected questions. The fear of going blank and forgetting something could make you a little anxious.

Not all of these things are within your control, either the possible event or your response, but there is plenty you can do to help make your viva a more comfortable experience.

  • Take time to get ready. What will help you feel prepared?
  • Consider the setting for your viva. If you’ll be at home, what could you do to make your space more encouraging?
  • Remind yourself: you can’t know everything but you must know a lot to have reached this stage of your PhD journey.
  • Decide on what you will wear for your viva. Something that is physically comfortable but also helps you to feel good could be ideal.

You can’t control all of your feelings about your viva, but you can do a lot to help how comfortable you feel.

Things That Aren’t Big Deals

This is a non-exhaustive list of things that candidates, in my experience, consistently throw lots of energy and attention at – despite none of these things really being problems.

  • Answering every question you set out to with your research.
  • Not publishing during your PhD.
  • Not citing your examiners in your thesis.
  • Citing your examiners in your thesis.
  • Finding spelling mistakes in your thesis after submission.
  • Pausing to think in the viva.
  • Being asked to complete corrections afterwards.

It’s not wrong to feel concerned about something, but better to check if it really is a problem. The list above is non-exhaustive, but it could be exhausting for you to deal with. It’s much more useful to find things that are really worth your attention before the viva. Invest time in getting ready. Invest attention in your confidence. Invest your time in finding out more about the viva.

Cloud on the Horizon

Off in the distance, on the edge of a clear blue sky is a single cloud. Something to be aware of, but not something that needs to be acted on. The wind may never blow it your way, and even if it does, how could one cloud spoil a beautiful day?

That’s one way you could think about viva worries.

  • There could be a particular question you’re worried about.
  • A piece of the viva process could make you feel unsure.
  • The uncertainty of whether or not you have done enough could make you doubt.

But what are the chances that one little worry is going to ruin everything? Like a single cloud on the horizon, it’s really not that likely.

If you feel worried then figure out the root of your concern, why you feel worried. Then see what, if anything, you need to do as a result.

Spider Shadows

Every now and then my daughter goes through periods of worrying about spider shadows in her room at night: not spiders, but things that look like the shadows of spiders in the dim half-light of her nightlight.

We’ve explained they’re not real, we’ve shone torches in the past to show there’s no arachnid casting the hazy outline she thinks she sees. But when she feels she’s spotted one, she can’t help but fixate on it – and so my wife and I have to act again, try something new.

 

What are the viva shadows that keep you awake? Do you worry about things that your examiners might ask you? Are you finding yourself concerned about what might happen in your viva? Or how it might feel if you’re not quite ready for anything and everything that could happen?

Viva shadows can only be resolved through action. Like my daughter’s spider shadows, you might need help to expose the reality of the worries and concerns you have. A supervisor can shine a light on what you’ve done, and show you that it really is good. A friend could tell you about their viva to reassure you that yours will be too. Your supporters can give you the space and time to get ready.

Spider shadows and viva shadows don’t go away by themselves. Find someone who can help you with your viva worries. You’re the only one who can be ready for your viva, but you don’t have to get ready alone.

It’s Not Just You

You’re not the first person to feel nervous, excited, unprepared or whatever you feel before your viva. Ask around, find out how others coped.

You’re not the only person in your viva who might feel nervous, wanting to do a good job. Remember that your examiners also want the viva to go well. And you’re not the only person in your viva who will be prepared. You prepare because you want to pass; your examiners prepare because it’s the right thing to do, to show up ready to examine you.

You’re not the only person who will have felt uncertain during the viva before – so again, ask your friends about what their vivas were like, what they did when they felt unsure.

And you’re not the only person who will feel thrilled when you pass, so consider how you can celebrate your success when you’ve finished.

Nervous Correlates

If you feel nervous before your viva there is typically a simple explanation: you’re recognising that the viva is important.

You need to pass, you’ve invested a lot of work to this point, and even though the vast majority of candidates pass, there’s still that little quiet voice saying, “Come on, you’ve got to do this!”

You will. It’s important, so you feel nervous. You can choose what you put your attention on. Let your actions focus on doing the viva well, rather than on beating away your nerves.

How To Answer Difficult Questions

In some cases, you won’t be able to.

The viva is not a question and answer session or a quiz. Some questions won’t have memorisable facts that you can serve up to your examiners; instead, you will have to offer another contribution, a response – a detail, an opinion, an argument, a feeling, a hunch, a question – in order to keep the discussion moving forward.

Your response may not be the entirety of everything you want to say. It may be that you have to pause and reflect first, make notes, stand up and draw something, or ask for clarification.

You may not be able to answer a question, but after a little thought you will always be able to respond.

If the question is difficult, then you owe it to yourself to think a little more, pause a little longer, take a little more care, even ask for a little more, so that you can respond as best as you possibly can. That response could be an answer (truth, or an argument with a lot of evidence), but it could be something else that is just as much what your examiners could be looking for.

Every question, not just the difficult ones, deserves a little time, a little space, a little thought in order for you to give your best response.

Being Thankful

Every night before we put our daughter to bed, we share what we’re thankful for as a family. We’re thankful that we’ve had three meals that day, that something funny happened, that we’re part of a nice school community, that we read a good story, that we have a family… Big or small, serious and silly, we share what has helped that day be good (or what has been good in a hard day).

We’ve done this for three or four years I think, and it helps. It helps us not take things for granted.

It’s helped a lot this year.

I think it would have been a valuable thing to be aware of as I was finishing my PhD. It was easy to put a lot of pressure on myself, to doubt that things would go well in the viva (so many doubts!!), but I had a lot to be thankful for:

  • I could have been thankful that my supervisor was patient and supportive.
  • I could have been thankful that I had a community around me that cared.
  • I could have been thankful that I knew my examiners a little, so had some idea of how they would behave.
  • I could have been thankful that my thesis went in on time.
  • I could have been thankful that I had ample time to prepare.
  • I could have been thankful that I had results I was certain of.

But for the most part I read my thesis, made notes and wondered what my examiners would say. All of the above was true, but I didn’t recognise it. Simply reflecting on “What are you thankful for?” could have helped me appreciate some of it. I probably would have still been nervous, but perhaps with a little more perspective on how I’d got to the viva, and what that might mean. I think it would have helped me.

I offer it as a thought: when it comes to your PhD, your thesis, your viva – what are you thankful for?

 

Massive thanks to Dr Pooky Knightsmith, who was my guest on the podcast a long time ago! I spotted her daily practice of being thankful some years back on Twitter, and this inspired our family bedtime routine.

Find The Words

My daughter will be seven in just over a week. I don’t know where the time has gone.

I’m an obnoxiously proud parent. Don’t get me started, or I’ll tell you all about how well she reads, how she loves to dance, and how mature she can be.

But she won’t eat vegetables. Soft carrots, a little broccoli and smooth hidden-veg sauces are the limits. Peas, corn, mushrooms, onions, cabbage, sprouts… We can’t put them near her!

As mature as I think she is, she’s still only not-quite-7. She can’t explain why she won’t try some vegetables, it’s beyond words for her.

Meanwhile, your viva worries and concerns are explainable. They might be uncomfortable, you might bristle at the thought of whatever it is, but you can put it into words. It’s good to do so. Then you can start to work past where you are.

For example, why do you worry about your examiners’ questions? All questions or just some? What in particular?

Or what do you not feel ready for? It won’t be everything – what exactly? And what could you do?

Once you find the words to describe what you don’t like or you don’t want for your viva you can start to find solutions. Once you find the words you can start to work your way to a better situation.

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