Confidence Follows Your Actions

You can do more than hope you are ready for your viva.

Look back across everything you’ve done. How have your actions built up your research, your knowledge, your talent? To get to submission and then the viva you must necessarily be good at what you do. Look for the actions that have built you up. See how you can find confidence within your past actions.

Look at the place you are in now. If you need reminding of your talent or you need to do something to boost how you’re feeling, then take action. What helps you to feel confident? What puts you in that state of being? If you have no idea then ask others what they do!

Confidence follows your actions.

The Verdict

After my viva, after a short break in my office, my internal examiner came to collect me by saying, “Nathan, it’s time for your sentence,” as if I was a man in court on my way to see the judge.

He meant it as a joke, but it didn’t feel like a joke for a moment or two!

You can’t pick what words others might use to describe your viva. Maybe you prefer the result. The outcome? The verdict? The level of corrections? The ending?

You can’t pick what words others use, but you can help yourself by choosing yours. What words are helping you (or not) when you think about your viva?

Lying to yourself won’t help, but you can choose to think of passes and outcomes rather than corrections and verdicts.

And sentences!

Exploring Prep Ideas

The final flourishes that complete a piece of art. Shining your shoes before an interview. Proofreading and checking one last time.

All of these sorts of things can only make little differences, because the big difference has already been made (you’ve painted something, been accepted for interview, written something).

Viva preparation is the little differences you make to get ready; responses to things you see as gaps or absences in your readyness.

Make a list of the gaps, then explore each and think about what you could do. Why-How-What makes a nice structure for this exploration:

  • Why is this a problem?
  • How might you address it?
  • What will you do?

Explore what stands out to you as possible areas or tasks for viva preparation. Prioritise them if you’re busy: do the things that will have the biggest impact. Remember that this preparation is building on something that’s already pretty accomplished.

The Pieces of the Viva Puzzle

There’s a lot of things wrapped up in the idea of a viva. It’s uncertain sometimes, what to do, how to be, what do you need, what do you have… Keeping track of all of the parts can feel hard.

Maybe it’s like a 1000-piece jigsaw without a picture to guide you. Hard, but not impossible. A challenge, but there are methods for solving the problem: find the corners, find the edges, group colours, start building it up, and so on.

With uncertainty you can’t always have step-by-step instructions, but you can have a method that moves you forward.

Remember: you’re already moving when your viva comes around. This isn’t the beginning, it’s the next step. So where are you? How did you get here? What could you do that would take you closer to ready? And what are you going to do next?

What are the final pieces for your viva puzzle?

Build Your Own Resources

Whenever I commit the time to make a resource, I’ve chosen to make something as broadly useful as possible. The tiny book of viva prep is designed to be useful to everyone. The list of thesis examination regulations took time to do because I was trying to find all of the regulations.

I hope PhD candidates find my resources useful. As part of your viva prep I strongly encourage you to make your own too. Write summaries of key chapters of your thesis. Create a list of key references in your bibliography. Annotate your thesis pages to make them even more useful. Write lists of key questions you’d like to ask your examiners if you had the opportunity.

There’s a place for lots of useful viva prep resources: broad resources to start the process, and highly focussed ones just for you. There are plenty of people, me included, who can help with the generally helpful pieces. Only you can create the specific ones to help you get to and through the viva.

Remember the resources you build now are built on years of work too: you’ve created a lot of resources to get this far.

Power Ups For The Viva

The following is by no means an exhaustive list of power ups for the viva!

  • Wearing the right outfit for you.
  • Having a mock viva.
  • Two cups of coffee.
  • Re-reading your methods chapter.
  • The right conversation with the right person.
  • Knowing the regulations.
  • Listening to music that helps you relax.
  • Doing something that helps you feel better.
  • Making notes about examiners.
  • Wearing your good day socks.

Some are common sense. Some make sense. Some seem like nonsense – but they only have to help you feel powered up for your viva, they don’t have to be for everyone.

Some you could do regularly to help. Others are one-offs. Some you have to wait for the viva to come around.

For some you can see the direct helpful link, and for others you can probably see that they’re helpful placebos, things that remind or encourage.

You might not be in total control of how you feel about your viva, but you’re not powerless either. What power ups will you choose to use?

If Not Now, When?

This question has been rattling around in my head at Viva Survivor sessions lately. If someone says they’re not ready for their viva when they submit their thesis, gently challenge them with this question.

(gently!)

For some it will be a little nudge to think, “Oh, there’s still time. I’ve submitted, but I can take time over the coming weeks to get prepared. I’m not ready now… but I soon will be!”

For most candidates, I hope it would be a little nudge to think, “Oh… If I’ve got this far, there must be a reason… My work has to have something, or I wouldn’t have submitted…”

If you’re unsure whether or not you feel ready for your viva, gently challenge yourself with the question, and see how that nudges you.

Practically, when candidates submit their thesis they are capable of meeting the challenges they’ll find in their viva. There’s a big difference between being ready and feeling ready.

So, if you don’t feel ready now, when will you? More importantly, what could you do to help you find that state?

Catastrophising

One day in January, around 5pm, I noticed our house was getting cold.

I checked, and realised the boiler wasn’t on. I tried a few things and realised it wouldn’t come on. I called our boiler service people, they talked me through a few checks and realised there was nothing I could do: someone would have to come and see it.

“OK, we aim to get someone out within 24 hours; we’ll be in touch as soon as possible,” said the helpful person on the phone. This was around 5:30pm.

I started imagining…

Well. 24 hours. So the house is going to be cold all night. No showers. OK, kettles to fill a shallow bath. Hot drinks. Where’s our electric heaters? Hot water bottles for bedtime. Blankets, get all the blankets out. OK. OK… Don’t panic. It might not be fixed tomorrow. So what do we do? Stay with mum? Stay with sister? Maybe. OK. What about work? Nevermind work, what about money? The central heating is broke, BROKE, the boiler won’t fire… How much is a new boiler? How long will it take?? How long will I be paying for it on the credit card???

Ring-ring. It’s now 6pm. “Hi, this is the boiler guy! I should be with you by 7!”

So he’ll be here soon. But it’s going to be expensive. Well. OK, seriously, don’t panic. Don’t panic. Disrupted evening, late night, but I’m not out tomorrow. We’ll be fine, we can do this. We always find a way to make it work… But I suppose I’d best pack things up in the office, as the boiler is in there, and when they have to replace the boiler I’ll need to work somewhere else for at least a few days I think-

Knock-knock. It’s now 6:45pm. “Let’s take a look… Oh, did this happen? … Right, and let’s try this… OK, there’s the problem! All done! No problem, bye!”

It’s 7:10pm. All sorted. No fuss, no headache, no drama and no more cold as the radiators start pumping out heat again.

Sometimes, something goes wrong and before you know it, you’re imagining the outcome is going to be awful. It can feel impossible to put the brakes on the runaway train of catastrophes that lurch ahead in your brain. If you don’t know what the problem is, all you have are questions. If you don’t know the exact answer, all you can do sometimes is imagine it’s the worst possible option.

In your viva, it’s entirely possible that your examiners won’t like something, or won’t agree with you, or aren’t sure about a choice you’ve made. It’s natural for there to be typos, or paragraphs that don’t communicate what you want, or ideas that can be challenged. And none of them are necessarily catastrophic: in some cases, you won’t know what’s motivating the questions or resistance or different opinion. And in the absence of that information, your brain instantly jumps to catastrophe.

So: ask questions to get answers.

If your examiners say they found mistakes, don’t worry straight away: ask them where and ask them why. If they don’t agree with something, ask them why, so you know what you need to respond to. If they aren’t sure about something, ask what they would need to be convinced. You may need to do nothing to resolve the situation.

As with my boiler “catastrophe” you might realise there is nothing you can do but wait, listen and try not to obsess.

Totals

How many days did you show up and do the work during your PhD?

How many papers did you read?

How many questions did you ask yourself or others?

How many times were you called on to respond to a question?

How many times did you present something?

How many times did you sit down at a keyboard to write your thesis?

How many people have told you something you did was good?

A few of these questions will have exact answers; others, might have ballpark responses you could guess. But all together, the totals tell you – and others – that you are ready for your viva when it comes. You have done the work, you have what it takes, you are ready.

And if you need to, you have time to increase those totals: keep showing up, keep sharing your work, keep asking questions, keep responding.

Keep going.

Values & Valuable

Different people value different things.

Whether or not a job, a house, a partner, a research idea or anything else is suitable or good to you will depend on what you see as valuable. For your thesis then, there are two useful sets of questions to consider.

First, what do you value in your field? What is it that you think is “good” or “useful”? What topics or ideas do you think are better? Consequently, how do you see your thesis as being valuable? What contribution does it make? Why does that align with your idea of what you value?

Second, what might others value in your field? What might they then see as being valuable in your thesis? What ideas are people looking for? What contributions have you seen others value recently, at conferences or in papers?

Different sets of values might still find common valuable features in your research. Perhaps by considering what others find interesting, useful or significant, you could find a new perspective on your research.