Do You Feel Nervous?

It’s not a bad thing if you feel nervous before the viva, or at the start.

It’s probably not comfortable. Nervousness can sometimes grow into feeling overwhelmed or anxious because – but by itself it’s not a terrible state.

Nervousness recognises the importance of something: your viva matters. Success means something.

If you feel nervous, don’t fight it. Focus on the work you’ve done. Remind yourself that your ability and knowledge, your effort and research outcomes are what has brought you to your viva. Focus on all of that and you’ll find enough confidence to put your nerves in perspective.

Yes, your viva is important, so you might feel nervous.

Yes, you did the work, so you can feel confident.

In The Way

If you feel worried or anxious before the viva then stop and ask yourself, “Why?” What is getting in the way?

 

For example, if you feel unprepared it could be that you’re pressured with the time available. It could be that you’re not sure what to do. It could be you’re now concerned something is missing in your work. Any of these could be in the way, but all have solutions – you have to know what is in the way before you can work to remove it.

If you don’t feel confident it might be that you don’t know what to expect from the viva. It might be you are feeling especially nervous. It might be that you just don’t believe you’re ready. All of these and more could be reasons why someone doesn’t feel confident. All can be overcome, once you know what the barrier is.

And if the thought of talking with your examiners makes you uncomfortable, perhaps it’s because you don’t know that much about them. Perhaps you don’t know what the tone of the viva is supposed to be like. Perhaps you don’t always feel certain when discussing your work. Whatever is in the way, you can take actions to improve how you feel.

 

There could be lots of things in the way of you feeling good about your viva. There are also lots of things you can do to help yourself. You just need to know what is in the way so that you can start a plan to get past that barrier.

Nervousness To Spare

You might be nervous for your viva. Your examiners could be nervous about doing a good job. Your friends and family might be nervous for you. Your supervisors could feel some nerves about the outcome.

Everyone nervous because it, your viva, matters.

We’re wired to be nervous when something is important – it doesn’t have to be something bad. All the people connected to you and your viva could feel nervous. It’s not comfortable, but it’s not a sign that there’s something wrong.

You can’t squash nervousness away, but you can use it to recognise the importance and then respond accordingly. Prepare, get ready and ask for help from others.

There’s nervousness to spare when it comes to you and your viva. But it’s there because it’s important: your success matters.

Worst & Best

It’s normal to be nervous for your viva. It’s understandable if you have worries or feel anxious about what could happen. It would be very human to think about what might go wrong – but rather than focus on the worst case scenario, think about what you could do to be at your best.

You can’t control what happens in the viva – your examiners’ questions or opinions, what it might feel like moment to moment – but you can take charge of what you do to get ready. You can take practical steps to prepare and build your confidence. Your preparations can help you present the best possible you in the viva.

The worst case viva scenario is extremely unlikely. You being at your best for the challenge is almost guaranteed.

Worry

It’s Friday the 13th and I’m not worried. I’m not particularly superstitious, so when this date rolls around or a black cat crosses my path or I spill some salt I don’t worry that that means something bad is about to happen.

But I am, by nature, a worrier!

Before the pandemic I worried about train times, the distances between a hotel and a venue, and whether or not the seminar room I would be in would have what I needed. Now I sometimes worry about whether or not my broadband will keep going, or if an image choice for a slide will work in communicating what I want.

Most of the time, before the pandemic and in the present, my worries were a distraction. For all the worry, even when things went wrong, I still figured something out.

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” He probably wasn’t the first person to say it, but it’s a helpful reflection. It helps me when I am tempted to imagine worst case scenarios or start problem solving before it’s even certain that there is a problem.

It’s natural to be nervous about your viva. It’s understandable to be anxious if you have a specific problem. But if you find yourself worrying, perhaps stop and ask if you really need to. Do you need to worry? Is there a problem or just something that’s getting in the way?

And if that’s the case, and perhaps the thing you’re worrying about isn’t that likely to happen, is there something you can focus on instead that will help more than worrying?

The First-Year Viva

I write and publish this blog with the final PhD viva in mind, but there are other times when some of the ideas and advice might be applied. The first-year viva naturally springs to mind: a test that marks confirmation that a postgraduate researcher is on track. After a year of work they have made progress, are showing their potential and their department is confident that they will complete their PhD.

Thoughts on how to prepare for the first-year viva are very similar to the final viva. Ideas of who can support you, expressed throughout the many posts of this blog, are the same: your supervisors, your colleagues, your friends and family. The expectations for first-year vivas are very similar.

Everything is smaller though. Shorter than the final viva. Less work expected. Less prep needed. The stakes and the desired outcome are nowhere near as great as the final viva.

Of course, for all the same reasons that one might feel nervous for the final viva, you might feel nervous for your first-year viva. Worries about what to expect. Uncertainty about whether you’ve done enough. Anxiety about whether or not you are good enough.

All the same remedies are needed as for the final viva. You can’t simply change how you feel. You can work to get past the worry and stress. Do the prep. Ask for help. Reflect on your journey so far. Remember that you’re learning, developing, but capable. You are good enough.

Ask others from your department about their experiences in the first-year viva to learn more about what to expect. Then use that to work well and work past any doubts you have about the future of your PhD journey.

It’s Not Wrong To Be Nervous

Feeling nervous means you recognise that something is important. Humans feel nervous about all sorts of things, from weddings to wars, because they recognise that what is happening matters. They might be deeply involved or a bystander: if the outcome is important and they’re paying any attention then they might feel nervous.

Your viva is important. You, of course, are deeply involved. The outcome matters. Of course you might feel nervous, and if you do there is nothing wrong.

If you feel uncomfortable as a result then that’s not great, but that’s not the end of the story. You can talk to others to get help and put your feelings in perspective. You can reflect and help yourself to get things sorted out. You can work to build your confidence.

It’s not wrong to be nervous, but it might not be comfortable. If feeling nervous isn’t helping you then consider what else you can do to change how you feel.

What Are You Holding On To?

We have a fireplace in our living room that looks like a coal fire. It’s not. It’s a gas fire.

It’s not connected up. The previous owners of the house had it disconnected and we’ve never needed it. We use the mantlepiece to stand pictures and ornaments.

In front of our not-fireplace we have a shiny metal stand with a set of fireplace tools. Tongs for moving coal, a brush and shovel for sweeping ash, a poker to stoke the coal fire.

Again, the coal fire is fake, the fireplace doesn’t work and we have a set of tools just to one side that we never use. We don’t need any of it! And yet we keep it all the same.

 

All of which is a long way to get to ask you: what are you holding on to that you don’t need any more?

Maybe you’ve submitted your thesis and have been holding on to an idea that you didn’t quite finish exploring.

Perhaps you’re a little stuck in your prep focussing on parts of your work that just aren’t important.

Or it could be that you’re holding on to an idea of who you are, what you can or can’t do, and that idea isn’t helping you any more.

It might be hard to let go sometimes. But if you consider what you’re holding on to, even if you can’t get rid of it completely, perhaps you can reflect and see what will help you more.

Don’t Deny Nerves

If you feel nervous about your viva there is a reason. Don’t try to put it to one side or squash it down, because that feeling is trying to draw your attention to something.

  • If you feel nervous because you don’t feel ready, then take time to prepare for your viva.
  • If you feel nervous because of something that doesn’t seem right in your thesis, then talk to your supervisor and figure things out.
  • If you feel nervous because you don’t know what to expect then find out more!

And if you just feel nervous but can’t put your finger on why then most likely you are recognising that the viva is important. This matters to you. Still, don’t push away your nerves, but instead focus on building your confidence, a counter-feeling that will help bring your nervousness into perspective.

Boo!

Whether it’s Halloween or any other day of the year, your viva is not a scary story in your future.

No-one is going to jump out at you in your viva.

Nothing startling. Nothing horrific.

No terror. No torture.

Your viva is unknown but not unknowable. You can’t know exact questions but you can know what they will be related to. The viva isn’t a spooky mystery with shadowy figures lurking in the background: your examiners are right there in front of you, and you know who you are.

There might be surprises, but even then, if someone asks a questions that’s unexpected you can still take your time to think it through. You don’t have to respond to some immediate terror confronting you.

However you might feel now, once you’re done you’ll realise that your viva was not so scary after all.

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