My Comfortable Shoes

I didn’t feel particular nervousness about the viva, but I don’t remember feeling great about it either. To feel a tiny bit better I wore my most comfortable shoes. I continued to do this for years afterwards when I was in situations – mostly work-related – where I felt uncomfortable.

In fact, I did everything I could to make my situation comfortable. Comfortable shoes. A preparation routine. Arriving early to make sure I had plenty of time. Anything and everything I could think of to feel more comfortable and more capable.

The nature of the viva can make it very uncomfortable for some candidates. It’s to be expected: general nervousness or apprehension about what might happen can be unsettling. Feelings of nervousness about the viva aren’t bad in themselves – they’re normal responses to the environment you’ll be in – but they aren’t comfortable and they aren’t always helpful.

So, if the event could feel uncomfortable, what could you do to increase your comfort?

  • You could find out more about what to expect and possibly remove anxieties that aren’t necessary.
  • You could have a mock viva to remove discomfort at thinking about questions and responding to them.
  • You could take something with you that helps you to feel good or better.
  • You could invite your supervisor to your viva to be a friendly face – assuming that’s how you feel about them!

What could you do to increase your comfort at the viva? Once you have some options, decide what you will do to be more comfortable on viva day.

Thought Experiments

I like thought experiments, both philosophically and in fiction. It can be fun to ask what if? and then follow that thinking to see what might happen next. It’s useful in the kind of work I do too, thinking through how a session might run or how a new webinar might help someone. It can identify issues that need addressing in advance – or eliminate headaches before they happen!

 

Thought experiments allow us to get ahead of problems sometimes, but they can also be a distraction. A lot of what if questions about the viva are completely understandable but can also be very distracting:

  • What if my internal asks about something I didn’t do?
  • What if my external asks about something I can’t remember?
  • What if someone disagrees?
  • What if I lose my train of thought?
  • What if I feel nervous?

I have specific advice for each of these, but the general response to all of them is: “Then you would pause, think and ultimately respond to the situation in the moment in whatever way seems best.”

Because that’s all you can do.

You can prepare, you can practise and you can ask yourself what if – in the end you have to stop worrying and wondering about thought experiments.

Remember who you are, what you did, what you can do and what you bring to the viva.

Where You’re Meant To Be

For all the nerves you might feel, despite any knocks to confidence or worries about research, it’s worth remembering that if you are headed towards your viva date you are precisely where you’re meant to be.

You did the work. You learned. You grew. You got better. Your thesis is proof of that. It’s not perfect, and neither are you, but by now both of you are good enough to meet the standard.

If you don’t feel that, you’re the only one who can change that feeling. Find out more about the viva perhaps, work to boost your confidence, do the necessary work to get ready – and remember that this is where you’re meant to be.

Right here, right now, on track to succeeding in your viva.

What You Need

You need to feel prepared and confident for your viva.

What does that mean for you? I don’t know.

I can make some guesses:

  • You might feel you need to read your thesis a lot, so it sticks in your mind.
  • You might need to know about your examiners, to feel happy with who they are and what (you think) they might ask.
  • You might need to make a lot of notes, read a lot of papers or have a mock viva.
  • You might need to read the regulations or you might simply need to ask a few friends about their vivas.

You will need particular things to feel prepared and confident for your viva. You are the only person who can figure out what practical things will help you feel that way.

Holding On

At the start of a new academic year I’m reminded of how much my life has changed over the last few years; while for the most part I am very happy with where I am now, I still remember vividly how sharp and how stark things have been at times.

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances – and while it doesn’t have to be dire to be difficult it helps to reflect a little and remember how you have made it through.

If you have survived this far that means you kept going. How? What did you do through your PhD to make it so far when things have been so tough? What have you learned about yourself? How did you adapt?

As your viva comes closer, whatever else you feel, remember that you persisted. Whatever bad times you’ve had, you held on, you made it through. You were determined, often enough, to get to the end. How did you hold on? And what you can do now to keep holding on until your viva is done?

Stretches

When have you been stretched during your PhD? What projects or work have you done that was a challenge to your skills and knowledge?

I think it’s unhelpful to view the PhD (and the viva) as the most awesome and incredible challenge in the world ever™ – but it’s also unhelpful to not recognise the growth that happens through the challenges someone faces along the way.

Reflect on the challenges. Reflect on the stretches – when they happened, why they happened, what you learned. You couldn’t have got this far without becoming better. Whenever your viva is, remember that throughout your PhD you have become more than what you were at the start.

More talented. More skilled. More knowledgeable. More accomplished.

All the stretches along the way have helped you become who you are today. Remember that and be confident for the viva.

Presenting Helps

Two words I wish someone had shared with me over my PhD journey.

Presenting helps in so many ways to build someone up – both for the challenges of doing a PhD, succeeding in the viva and being more ready for life afterwards.

Presenting helps because it makes you think of your audience. To communicate you have to think about who they are, what they want and what they need from you.

Presenting helps because it encourages you to be clear. You have to really think about your message, how you express it, how you structure it and so on. This can be a real benefit for writing, for thinking and for asking questions.

Presenting helps because it makes the presenter nervous – of course, that’s not always a comfortable thing! It helps because, if you take some time, you realise that nervousness is related to the importance of what you’re saying. You have something valuable to share.

Presenting helps because it’s an iterative learning process: there’s always something to learn, something you can take away for the next time.

Presenting throughout the PhD can help you a lot. Presenting as part of viva preparation can be really useful to help explore the words you use to explain your research – and to clarify what makes your work valuable.

Describe The Ideal

How would you describe an ideal examiner for your viva?

Think about the qualities or attributes that they might have. Describe their research.

There might not be an individual you know of who meets these criteria. It may be close though: someone who satisfies three or four out of five points you might write down.

Now, what could you do to share this idea with your supervisor? You can’t choose your examiners, you can’t find perfection, but can you find someone close to the ideal you have in mind?

Suddenly September

Where does the time go?! Just like that autumn is around the corner, Christmas is really not that far away when you think about it and 2023 is within shouting distance!

Of course, there’s no suddenly about it. Day by day we move forward, the weeks pass, the months go by and then we’re at another mark on the calendar.

Little by little we “suddenly” find ourselves at September.

 

It’s helpful to keep this in mind for your viva too.

It doesn’t suddenly appear. You’re not going to suddenly be surprised by it.

It may feel like you’re all of a sudden at the viva – where did the last few years go?! – but it really is the case that you’ve worked your way to that place over a long period of time.

Day by day you work on your PhD. Week by week you find new things. Month by month you get better. Year by year you make something that sets you apart.

Every Day The Same

With hindsight my PhD journey feels a lot like the movie Groundhog Day.

Every day was get up, go to the office, do some maths, go home, go to bed, get up, go to the office… And so on. There was a definite rhythm to things; my days and weeks punctuated with breaks, seminars and meetings at the same times.

Until submission! Until the viva! Two very different days, days when everything changes. No more repetition, and like the end of Groundhog Day, uncertainty – but positivity – about the future.

What will happen next? Who knows – but it won’t be the same as every other day.

I don’t mean to sound negative about my PhD. It was a formative time in my life; I didn’t find all the answers but at least I realised what I was missing. I had a good foundation to build on for life afterwards. However it was hard: every day the same, more or less. Work work work work work, and occasionally some results, then back to work.

I’m not negative, but it can be hard if your experience is similar to see the change in yourself. The development in your abilities, talents, knowledge and the contribution you make. If you don’t see that, by the time you reach submission day or viva day you might feel unprepared for the new challenges ahead.

Before your viva take a little time to reflect on your PhD journey. The thousand or more days of the PhD have made a difference to you.

What is that difference? How far have you come? And how does that set you up well for the viva and for life after the PhD?

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