Worst & Best

It’s normal to be nervous for your viva. It’s understandable if you have worries or feel anxious about what could happen. It would be very human to think about what might go wrong – but rather than focus on the worst case scenario, think about what you could do to be at your best.

You can’t control what happens in the viva – your examiners’ questions or opinions, what it might feel like moment to moment – but you can take charge of what you do to get ready. You can take practical steps to prepare and build your confidence. Your preparations can help you present the best possible you in the viva.

The worst case viva scenario is extremely unlikely. You being at your best for the challenge is almost guaranteed.

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.

Confident or Arrogant

Some viva candidates find themselves concerned that they might overstep the line from being confident about their research to being arrogant in their thesis defence. I understand the worry, but typically think there’s not a great deal to be concerned about.

Feeling confident is what you need for the viva. Feeling arrogant is something you really don’t want when you meet your examiners.

Confident says to examiners, “I’m ready for you.” Arrogant says, “I’m better than you.”

Confident comes from building knowledge and talent through hard work. Arrogant assumes that they’re the only one who could do that work.

The distance between confidence and arrogance isn’t stepping over a line: they are opposite ends of a spectrum. You have to take a lot of steps to walk from well-earned confidence to the bluster of arrogance. Find confidence in honestly reflecting on how you’ve got to where you are, rather than rudely proclaiming that you’ve made it.

“Not The Word I’d Use…”

I’ve asked over six thousand candidates in workshops, seminars and webinars, “How do you feel about your viva?”

Less than 1% have said they felt excited.

There’s probably some selection bias there; if you’re attending a session about getting ready for the viva then perhaps you’re less likely to feel excited.

Candidates often feel nervous, which is a similar flavour of emotion; nervous and excited are both a reaction to how you anticipate something, but nervous has a much more negative sense to it. Candidates often express concern or worry: rather than being simply nervous about the viva, they have a particular aspect that they’re focussed on, a problem that needs a solution.

Many candidates feel unprepared. Thankfully that’s a temporary state; work moves you from unprepared to prepared. Work also helps with worry, you have to do something to change how you feel. Preparation won’t help nerves directly but it can help to build confidence. Confidence helps a candidate feel capable – they know what they know, they’re sure of what they’ve done, they can do what they need to – even if they then feel nervous they can put that into perspective.

And, on occasion, preparation and learning more about the viva could help someone to feel excited. As they know more of what to expect they could come to see that perhaps this is an event that’s not a final hurdle to jump or an encounter they need to win. It’s an opportunity to enjoy.

It’s not likely though. On most occasions when a candidate tells me they are excited they hastily clarify, “Er, excited to be done!”

 

You feel how you feel. It’s not good or bad to feel one thing or another, but understand that some states are more or less helpful for you. How you feel cannot simply be changed, but you can work towards a different state. So: how do you feel? How do you want to feel? What could you do to try to change how you feel?

The Wrong Thing

I can’t imagine what someone could say in the viva, without going to flippant extremes, that would be so wrong as to lead to a terrible outcome.

Wrong couldn’t be saying too little or too much; your examiners will help steer the conversation.

Wrong couldn’t simply be factual error – your examiners would rather check details than simply let an inaccuracy through.

Wrong couldn’t be the result of nerves: your examiners are human and would understand. They’d give you space to get past nerves.

Wrong couldn’t be simply saying “I don’t know” – that wouldn’t be wrong, that would just be not knowing something.

It would be wrong to be arrogant, it would be wrong to pick a fight, it would be wrong to assume that you know what’s what for everything connected to the viva!

But would you do that?

If you are worried, consider what you could do to lessen those worries. If you’re nervous, explore how to build your confidence.

And if you’re still worried about being wrong, remember that it’s far more likely that you would say the right thing than the wrong in your 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.

Grumbles

I’m forty in a few months. As much as I like to say, “I’m fine!” whenever anyone asks me about my health, the truth is I’ve started to pick up a few grumbles here and there.

My right knee likes to ache. My lower back shouts at me several times a year. Various pandemic-related restrictions – both externally-ordered and self-imposed – have reduced my overall fitness, and increased my waistline.

Maybe more than a few grumbles! But this is now a time to take stock and do something. Not to skate further in one direction, but change path, look into things that concern me and make them better. Little grumbles get bigger, they won’t just go away, and I won’t always be able to put them to one side probably.

 

What are your viva grumbles? What do you push to one side when perhaps you need to pay a little more attention? If there’s a question, a problem or an idea that you’re concerned about, then you can probably do something to make it better.

Small grumbles with your thesis, your research or your confidence won’t go away by themselves. Nerves about the viva will only magnify any issues. Reflect now on the causes of your grumbles, then figure out what you can do to improve the situation.

Expecting Different

Whatever you have heard about vivas, good or bad, specific or vague, your viva will be different.

You may have expectations about the length, about the general outcome, about what questions examiners tend to ask or themes they tend to be interested and all of these are useful for being confident in the process and in yourself.

Still, your viva will be different. Every viva is unique, building on a singular thesis and candidate. A candidate has to balance the knowledge that there are general expectations and unique experiences. And different is OK!

  • Different-not-bad: an experience that doesn’t match expectations doesn’t mean it must be negative.
  • Different-but-fine: maybe slightly longer than expectation doesn’t mean that the outcome is in jeopardy.
  • Different-but-not-to-be-concerned-about: a viva over video, or where you’re asked to give a presentation, or if something is unusual because of the kind of research you do – it’s just different!

If you listen to enough stories you can see the common experiences that are worth paying attention to, but also notice that each viva is different. Yours will be too.

Different but not bad; fine, and not to be concerned about.

Mismatched

Today marks five hundred daily posts for the blog(!), and so I wanted to pause and say something about what I see as the biggest, trickiest and most persistent problem surrounding the viva:

In general there is a great mismatch between the expectations and feelings of PhD candidates in advance of the viva, and the reality of the viva and the usual outcomes.

Most people worry in some way that they won’t pass, but most people pass the viva with no problems. I ask candidates in workshops how they feel about their viva. Over 80% say something like nervous, anxious, worried, unprepared, unsure and so on. Yet over 90% of candidates typically pass their viva with minor or no corrections.

Horror stories of incredibly long inquisitions, terrifying examiners with egos as big as buildings, complete railroad questions and total thesis rewrites permeate the space around vivas – and they don’t match the general reality of what happens in the viva and what happens as a result. Thousands have a viva in the UK every year. That’s a lot of people who invest time, energy and focus in being worried about a terrible thing that never happens.

What can be done?

We need to challenge the spread of misinformation, urban legends and negative experiences that surround the viva. We need to help candidates feel prepared for the reality of the viva, partly by making sure they have realistic expectations, partly by helping them see what could be useful to be practically ready.

Some ways forward, because this is a problem that everyone can chip away at:

  • Had a viva and it’s gone well? Find an avenue to share your experience. Write a blog post. Tell colleagues. Tweet about it.
  • Know someone who needs help? Help them! Don’t just say “you’ll be fine,” do something practical.
  • Share resources that help. There are lots of them out there. See what your university provides, see if it’s good, and pass it on.

Over time we can crack the Viva Mismatch Problem. It’s not intractable. We can get to a point where PhD candidates will expect that at the end of their research they are ready for the reality of the viva, not a nightmare, but a conversation – not torture, just talking.

As for me, I’m going to keep writing, keep making things, keep sharing what I do in workshops and sessions. If you think what I do is useful, then do think about subscribing to get the daily posts in your email. Tell someone about it if you think it will help them.

…500 posts! That’s a lot.

Onwards and upwards…