The Best Of The Best

It’s awards season. Great movies, shows, actors, directors, writers are all in competition. Five great people are up for this award, who will win?! Ten movies could all get that award – except, they can’t, only one can. Not just the best, but the best of the best.

Of course, PhD candidates don’t compete that way, not for their viva, not for their PhD, but language and mindset creep in.

You have to be better than good, better than great, you have to be perfect, you can’t make mistakes, you can’t go blank, you can’t slip up, you have to be better than anyone else!!!

To which I say, simply: no.

For the viva, for your PhD, you only have to be good. You have to be your best. Everything else is doubt and worry. We can’t sweep it away by saying “don’t worry.” You don’t have to focus on it either. Be your best. Be as good as you’ve become by the end of your PhD. Keep going.

And eventually, cross the stage and claim your prize.

How You Feel

If you feel good about your viva, ask yourself, “Why?”

If you feel nervous about your viva, ask yourself “Why?”

If you feel forgetful, ask yourself “Why?”

If you feel excited, ask yourself “Why?”

Different emotions seem good or bad when you think about your viva. In all cases, unpick them a little. However you feel, think about what you need to do next. You may not be in total control of how you feel, but you can do something. You might not need to change anything, but maybe you can add to how you feel.

Good and ready.

Nervous, but confident.

Forgetful, but prepared.

Excited and grounded.

So how do you feel? Why? How could you add to that in a positive way?

Press Enough Buttons

Our washing machine broke a few months ago and blew a fuse. The power was off all around our house.

In the moment, I knew the sort of thing I needed to do in our fusebox, but couldn’t tell which fuse had gone. It took a little experimentation (and a call to my father-in-law) before I figured out what needed to be done. Ten minutes later the lights were back on.

You might know the sorts of things you need to do to get ready for the viva, but not which specific things will help you feel ready. You might know you need to do something, but not know the thing that will help you feel confident.

So pull some levers. Flick some switches. Press some buttons.

Try things: reading, annotating, presenting, rehearsing, priming, deciding on what you will wear… The list of things you could do to get ready for the viva is long. You don’t need to do everything, but if you press enough buttons you’ll figure out what helps you feel and be ready. Press enough buttons and you’ll feel confident for the viva.

Press enough buttons and the lights will come on.

Creation or Discovery

When I was a mathematician, some of my colleagues said maths research was like sculpture. A big block of stone was chipped away at until you had the art you were trying to make. You have to start with everything and keep working until you have the proof you wanted.

I was always fond of that analogy, and of the two philosophies that followed. One mathematician might say they were really creating the maths and results. Maths is an act of creation. Another mathematician would say the maths was already there, hidden, waiting to be revealed. In this way, maths is an act of discovery. I loved hearing different takes on this, and personally, when it comes to maths I’m on the side of discovery – the ideas are out there waiting to be found!

I’ve heard similar thoughts and feelings from people in other lines of research too. Often though, I notice people enthusiastically discussing this topic but missing something fundamental. Creation or discovery don’t happen by accident, only through work. Whether you create an equation or discover it, you do the work.

Whatever you have in your thesis, whatever kind of research you discuss in your viva, it only happens because you did it.

You Have More Than Hope

You have all the days you spent working for your PhD.

You have all the nights you spent as well.

You have all the questions you asked.

You have all the answers you found.

You have all the lightbulb moments when something came into focus.

You have the nervous times before a talk, and the moments spent sharing what you’ve done.

You have the questions you were asked and what you said in response.

You have your thoughts and feelings about your research.

You have all your motivations that push you on.

You have your friends, family, colleagues, supervisor and community.

You have expectations for what will happen.

You have a thesis! And everything else you wrote and crossed out to get it into one book.

You can hope your viva goes well, but you have more than hope.

You’ve got this far for a reason. Keep going.

Better Words

Being clear matters. Words help shape how we see and feel about things. Better words can help someone else understand what we mean, and can help us see things differently.

For example, in the last year I changed how I described one of the points in my viva prep session. I would talk about some of the help candidates could get from their supervisors after submission.

Previously I had said something about “…getting feedback after submission, not to resolve problems, but more feedback so that you can see what your supervisors think about the whole thesis and PhD journey, what their take is…” and so on.

I would see candidates understand eventually, but also see it took a while for people to get it. The notion of “feedback” was complicated; when someone hears feedback they expect that they would then have to make changes, but that’s not possible after submission.

The message was getting through, but it wasn’t as good as it could be – it wasn’t as clear as it needed to be.

After a few months’ reflection I changed my message. I now tell candidates they can help themselves by getting their supervisor to “…share their perspective on your work; what strengths do they see? How might someone do things differently?” And I use these words deliberately to emphasise that it is just seeking opinions rather than judgements, perspectives rather than feedback.

Over to you! What words could you use to better explain your research? How could you better describe how you feel about your viva? How could you help others understand your thesis contribution?

Reflect and think about the words you choose to use. How could you make them better?

Nervous or Excited

Like a lot of important things in life, candidates tend to be nervous or excited for their viva. Two sides of the same coin, the currency that marks out something as a big deal, and your viva is a big deal.

Which side of the coin is showing?

  • If you’re nervous, why? What has you that little bit concerned? And is it only a little bit, or something more? What could you do to help how you’re feeling?
  • If you’re excited, why? What sounds good to you? What are you doing to get ready to meet your examiners? Is there anything else you need?

Being nervous isn’t “bad”, but I’d personally prefer to be excited rather than nervous – generally it feels better! If you’re nervous, what could you do to flip the coin to excited?

Limits of Control

You’re not in control of your viva and the situation around it. You’re not totally out of control either.

You can’t control who your examiners are, not directly…

…but you can control what you know about them through research before your viva.

You can’t control what questions they ask or what they think…

…but of course, you will influence them with your thesis.

You can’t control how you will feel on the day…

…but you can control what you do in preparation, where you focus, how you get yourself ready.

You couldn’t control everything that happened over the years you did your research…

…but time and again you could steer yourself, change direction when needed, make small adjustments, and lead yourself to where you are now.

Which means, I think, that even if you can’t control everything about your viva, you can do enough to get yourself through it.

Opening Questions

How did you get interested in this area? How would you summarise your research? Could you tell us about your most important contributions?

There are other potential opening questions. None are trivial, all rely on a deep knowledge and talent that you alone have.

Opening questions often ask for summaries, considered opinions and so on. Your examiners don’t ask because they imagine you have ten short monologues prepared. They ask because they expect you will have been asked questions like these many times before. Responses should flow relatively naturally as you’ve thought about these ideas many times before.

They’re not asked because they’re easy. They’re definitelynot easy questions with easy answers. Instead, they’re asked because they give a natural way for the viva to start. Here’s a chance for you to start well. Here’s an opportunity for you to let your nerves and anxieties recede and let you knowledge and talent take the foreground.

You’re the only one who could give a great response to opening questions. Because of what you’ve done and what you know, you will give a great response to whatever question starts your viva.