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.

Fighting The Hydra

Combatting nerves and anxieties ahead of the viva is like cutting the heads off the hydra of myth: cleave away the head of concern about typos, and it’s replace with two heads of slightly-unclear passages. Become certain that your examiners are good choices, and you can then stress about what each of them might think.

Every attempt to squash away nerves or thwart little anxieties will make you more and more open to spotting things that could make you nervous. It’s fine to practically assess and fix issues, but doing so to try and push nerves away is not a great strategy.

Unlike ancient heroes though, you have a choice: you don’t have to fight this hydra at all. You have to prepare, but your goal does not have to be eliminating nerves – more will always pop up – instead you can work to build your confidence.

Turn away from the worry-hydra. Work to become more certain of your ability. Worries are not the real challenge in the viva. Greater confidence in yourself and in your work can help you to respond to challenges in the viva, and also put pre-viva worries in perspective.

Excited (To Be Done)

In viva prep sessions I ask candidates how they feel about their viva. Often, the group are between a few weeks away from their viva to a few months before submission, and there will be a range of emotions in the room. There’s lots of worry, concern about being unprepared, maybe uncertainty about what they feel.

And typically one person who raises their hand and says, “I’m excited actually…”

…but then they hurriedly qualify their statement with, “…erm, to be done!”

Excited that it will soon all be over. Excited that soon they will feel relief. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it saddens me that the most positive people seem to feel is “excited (to be done)”.

I don’t have a magic wand to wave, but if I could I would aim it to help people feel:

  • Excited that they get to discuss their work with examiners!
  • Excited to have achieved something big!
  • Excited to have come so far and learned so much!

I suspect these candidates do exist, but perhaps feel like they can’t speak up as much. Maybe it’s hard to seem positive around others who don’t.

If you want to feel some flavour of excitement for your viva, even excited to be done, but are stuck on something like worry, anxiety or fear, then think about what you could do to move yourself. What do you want to feel, and what could you do to get you there?

“But There’s A Problem”

I think nearly all PhD candidates can point to at least one thing in their thesis or research that’s a Problem.

A specific issue, question, idea, result – a thing – that invites reasoned concern. Non-hypothetical, something you can talk about, analyse, offer opinions on, but perhaps something that is still undecided. Is it good or bad? Right or wrong? Perhaps it opposes conventional thinking, or is different to how your examiners might think or approach a topic.

Unlike vague hypothetical worries – resulting from general nerves over the importance of the viva – a Problem can become a focus for concern that can’t simply be defused by general practice and prep. If you have a Problem, you can’t push it away. You have to work with it. Dig deeper, learn more, write notes, discuss it with your supervisor and be ready to discuss it with your examiners.

Remember too that a Problem is not automatically disqualifying. A good thesis does not mean a perfect thesis. A Problem does not mean a fail or even major corrections. After three or more years of research, there may not be the space to remove all problems or Problems from a thesis. You may simply have to say, “This is as far as I could come.”

Also remember, that after three or more years, if you have a Problem in your thesis, then YOU are the person best qualified to understand it. Your work, talent and time created this Problem, but also made you the person most capable to discuss it in the viva.

Facing Fears

If you’re not just worried about your viva but afraid, to the point where it is having an impact, you need to stop and find help.

The right person could be your supervisor, a colleague, a friend or family member. You have to pass your viva on the day by yourself, but you don’t have to prepare for it alone. If you feel fear before your viva it won’t be removed by simply sweeping it to one side.

Tell someone who could help. Get them to gently help you see what the issue is. Make small steps towards resolving it. For example, being worried about answering questions won’t be overcome by jumping straight into a mock viva – a short, sharp shock is not what this doctor prescribes! But one question is a start. Maybe even writing something down rather than speaking first.

If you’re facing fear: Who could help? What steps could help? And when will you start to make them?

Tensions

As I was setting up one of my last Viva Survivor sessions before social distancing (three months ago!), one of the participants piped up, “Are you here to put the fear of God into us?”

The room had been quiet, and tense with the What’s-all-this-about-then?-wonderings that seminar rooms have before training or workshops. Her question cut through and made everyone smile.

The tension of a room of people was eased with a single question.

There are lots of tensions surrounding the viva:

  • The tension between being an expert and being examined;
  • The tension from the upcoming change of state, candidate to graduate;
  • The tension between of the unknown elements of the viva;
  • The tension between the nerves you probably feel and the confidence you want to have.

It’s important to realise the tensions first, before you try to do something about them. They’re the reason for your actions – a big to-do list won’t get done well unless you get to the causes behind the needs.

General tensions aside, reflect on what’s troubling you about the viva, then explore what you can do about it. And as the person from one of my last seminar-room sessions did, perhaps all you need to do is find the right question to ask.

Bloopers & Highlights

How often do you compare yourself to others?

I did this all the time during my PhD.

One office mate was determined to complete his PhD quickly. My friend at the next desk was a superstar, she had real talent. One of my best friends seemed so calm all the time. Compared to my friends, I was terrible.

What was I doing? How could I do a PhD if these people set the standard?

Of course, I only saw one side of their stories, and a distorted view of my own. Comparing “talent” and “progress” is a losing game during a PhD – if there’s even a game to be played! But so many people do it.

Is it any wonder candidates get to their viva and doubt themselves?

I spotted a really helpful YouTube video by one of the former podcast guests, Dr Pooky Knightsmith, and it resonated with me. The video is aimed at teachers comparing themselves to their colleagues, but a lot of the same ideas apply to postgraduate researchers too. Instead of comparing your bloopers – your mistakes – to your friends’ achievements, maybe try talking with them. Instead of dwelling on your slip-ups, focus on your own highlights. Think about how you can make them even higher!

Explore your highlights before your bloopers when it comes to your viva preparation.

The Terrible, Terrible Silence

Silence, in almost any kind of meeting, is almost unbearable. Do you know what I mean? The gap in conversation invites tension, creates a shared awkwardness… Sometimes it can feel almost overwhelming.

I used to notice it a lot when I was standing in front of a seminar room. Often just before I started or whenever I would ask a question. Everyone waiting for someone to speak, but perhaps not wanting that person to be them.

And I know that people worry about it for their viva. What happens if you have to pause? What happens if you have to ask for a moment? What happens if someone doesn’t speak for a short time? – something likely to happen given the time it takes for signals to move around the world between different places!

The answer to all of these is that nothing bad happens.

Silence is a by-product of a necessary pause in things. A wait before we begin, a pause while you think, a moment while the signal comes back. Silence isn’t bad, it just feels bad.

The only way past it, I think, is to practise: have a mock viva, pause before you answer and get comfortable with the silence. Use whatever meeting software might be used for your remote viva and take time to get used to those little delays.

Sit with the silence, and see it for what it is. Not terrible, not bad, not somehow good: just one small part of the viva process.

Rabbit Holes

Tread carefully when preparing for your viva, in case you find yourself tumbling down a rabbit hole.

  • Read one paper by your examiner, and find yourself lead to another, then another, then…
  • Spot one typo and you’ll wonder what else you’ve got wrong, and you’ll see something else, and…
  • Underline something to make it stand out and you’ll want to make something else stand out, then another sentence, and then…

You get the idea. There’s always more things you could do to get ready for the viva. And there’s so much you can do to help yourself that it can be tempting to do more and more. If you start your prep without a plan but just a goal (“get ready!”) then you can just keep going and going until all you can think about is doing more, and wondering have you done enough?

So start with some limits. A to-do list, finite and bounded. This, this and this, and no more. Decide before you turn to page 1 of your thesis, what are the things you have to get done. You can add to the list of course, but you have to have a good reason.

Don’t tumble down a prep rabbit hole! Tread carefully when you make your plans.

Not Ideal

There’s so much about your viva that might not be exactly how you want it to be.

You find typos or a clunky paragraph after submission.

You’re busy and struggle to find preparation time.

Your first choice examiner can’t do it.

You feel more nervous than you want to be.

You worry there’s something missing in your thesis.

You worry you should have done more.

Worry and mistakes and missed opportunities are all not ideal. But the best thing to do is ask, “What can I do?”

Then act. Do something. Don’t diminish how you feel, or just stress about would be better: work to get closer. Work to do something that helps.

So underline your typos or pencil in a correction.

Make a plan for your prep and do what you can.

Learn about your examiner’s research.

Ask yourself why you feel nervous and work on the root cause.

Examine whether there’s really something missing, not just a worry.

Ask why you didn’t do more – probably, because you were doing something else in your thesis!

If something’s not ideal, you can feel disappointed or cross or upset.

But then act. What can you do?