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.

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.

1 2 3 7