Spider Shadows

Every now and then my daughter goes through periods of worrying about spider shadows in her room at night: not spiders, but things that look like the shadows of spiders in the dim half-light of her nightlight.

We’ve explained they’re not real, we’ve shone torches in the past to show there’s no arachnid casting the hazy outline she thinks she sees. But when she feels she’s spotted one, she can’t help but fixate on it – and so my wife and I have to act again, try something new.

 

What are the viva shadows that keep you awake? Do you worry about things that your examiners might ask you? Are you finding yourself concerned about what might happen in your viva? Or how it might feel if you’re not quite ready for anything and everything that could happen?

Viva shadows can only be resolved through action. Like my daughter’s spider shadows, you might need help to expose the reality of the worries and concerns you have. A supervisor can shine a light on what you’ve done, and show you that it really is good. A friend could tell you about their viva to reassure you that yours will be too. Your supporters can give you the space and time to get ready.

Spider shadows and viva shadows don’t go away by themselves. Find someone who can help you with your viva worries. You’re the only one who can be ready for your viva, but you don’t have to get ready alone.

Action Overcomes Fear

I looked back over the last three years to see how I’d been inspired by Halloween previously:

I’m not going to be silly or spooky today though – this year has had enough fear and worry in it.

If your viva is coming up and you’re worried or afraid, the first step to resolving the situation is to figure out what the problem really is. Ask for help from someone, or think about how you’re going to do something about it. Then do something! And remember why you’re doing it.

Your fears come from somewhere. Beating them comes from you.

Head In The Sand

Ostriches, despite popular legend, don’t put their head in the sand to hide. It’s a common comparison to make for people avoiding problems though, I’ve used it here on the blog at least once before. In that post I encouraged viva candidates to not hide from concerns – figure out what’s wrong and do something rather than worry and avoid.

Ostriches actually put their head in the sand to check on their eggs and see if they’re alright. Building on this new information, still don’t be like an ostrich with your head in the sand repeatedly!

  • Concerned about expectations? Find out and write them down. Done.
  • Worried you’ll have trouble finding things in your thesis? Make a list of key points, stick bookmarks in your thesis. Done.
  • Unsure about your examiners? Spend time reading their work and write a summary for yourself. Done.

Don’t hide from your problems, but don’t keep checking on them either. Feel a concern? Act on it and resolve it, as best you can. Then move on and keep doing what you can to focus on getting ready.

Tensions

As I was setting up one of my last Viva Survivor sessions before social distancing (three months ago!), one of the participants piped up, “Are you here to put the fear of God into us?”

The room had been quiet, and tense with the What’s-all-this-about-then?-wonderings that seminar rooms have before training or workshops. Her question cut through and made everyone smile.

The tension of a room of people was eased with a single question.

There are lots of tensions surrounding the viva:

  • The tension between being an expert and being examined;
  • The tension from the upcoming change of state, candidate to graduate;
  • The tension between of the unknown elements of the viva;
  • The tension between the nerves you probably feel and the confidence you want to have.

It’s important to realise the tensions first, before you try to do something about them. They’re the reason for your actions – a big to-do list won’t get done well unless you get to the causes behind the needs.

General tensions aside, reflect on what’s troubling you about the viva, then explore what you can do about it. And as the person from one of my last seminar-room sessions did, perhaps all you need to do is find the right question to ask.

Viva Horror Stories

The internal examiner dabbed the red away from his lips and paused before settling his stone-grey eyes on the shivering candidate.

“How,” he began, his voice like the echo of a whisper, “How… Hmm… How did you arrive at this choice of methodology?”

A look of pain passed the candidate’s face, a long-held fear finally realised! A moment of sheer terror, a buried tension risen to the surface like a zombie erupting from a grave. No choice, no alternative, but to state with quivering voice:

“I…! I did it… Because my supervisor told me to!”

And with that they fainted.

“Pity,” said the internal, taking another red sip from their chalice, “I had such high hopes for this one.”

A snarling from the external examiner’s secure crate reverberated around the seminar room.

“Well, quite,” said the internal, “A perfectly acceptable answer. And I really wanted to know why they had settled on Magnusson’s ‘Treatise on Ancient Awakenings’ as well…”

It’s possible you’ve heard of a real viva horror story. I know people have negative experiences, but it’s not the majority of experiences, not even close. And they don’t “just happen”. There are always reasons why: problems with the thesis, a research issue that was overlooked, a breakdown between supervisor and candidate.

Good horror stories, the really scary ones, have no reasons.

The Thing is just there in the ice, waiting.

The zombies march, and we don’t know how they came to be.

Dracula is.

There are reasons why you did a PhD. Reasons why you’ve got this far. Reasons why your thesis is done. Reasons why you’ll pass your viva. You can be scared by viva horror stories, but you can always unpick why they happened that way. You can be nervous in advance of your own viva, but it’s possible to unpick where that fear comes from. What drives it, what makes it worse, and maybe what could make it better.

Ten Questions For Pre-Viva Nerves

It’s understandable to be nervous, anxious or scared about the viva. It’s not just any other day of your PhD.

You can be nervous, and hope that it doesn’t affect you too much, or you can be nervous and think about what you can do to make things better. Here are ten questions to help you unpick and cope with pre-viva nerves:

  1. How nervous do you feel on a scale of one to ten?
  2. In what ways are your nerves getting in the way of your prep?
  3. What do you think lies at the root of your nerves?
  4. What could you do to make yourself feel one bit less nervous?
  5. What will you do?
  6. How many positive things can you think of to boost your confidence?
  7. What ones do you think you could try in the next seven days?
  8. What ones will you try?
  9. What are you feeling most anxious about the viva?
  10. What are you going to do about it?

“I’m nervous” or “I’m anxious” isn’t enough. You can’t stop there. You have to work past worry I think, not be stopped by whatever barriers are going up. It’s easy for me to just say that, but if you’re in that place you have to do something about it.

I hope these questions help. Take a look at the following tagged themes on the blog too – worry and viva anxiety – there may be something useful among these posts for you.

What Could I Do?

I’m fond of short questions. After a chance conversation in a workshop last month I’ve been reflecting a lot on “What could I do?”

“What could I do?” is, I think, at the heart of the research process. It’s the problem-solving question. “What could I do?” starts the journey, long or short, to the next step.

Need more feedback than you’re currently getting? What could I do?

Unsure if you’ll hit your submission deadline? What could I do?

Not feeling quite prepared? What could I do?

Examiner just challenged you with a comment? What could I do?

Around the end of the PhD, in preparation for the viva and in the viva itself, What could I do? is one of the strongest questions you could bring to bear on any challenge.

PhD done and looking for your next challenge? What could I do?

(What couldn’t you do?)

Facing Doubts

The end of the PhD can be an anxious time. If you’re worried, or unsure, or feel like an impostor, then you’re the person who needs to take action.

You don’t have to face everything alone, but you do have to face it. Don’t forget that there are people around you that you can ask for help. If you don’t need help then figure out what you’re going to do, and get it done.

Doubting if you’re ready isn’t enough. Thinking about why you have doubts isn’t enough. You have to work your way out of the situation.

Don’t Panic!!!

Don’t panic during your prep or in the viva.

Don’t do it. De-list it as an option. It’s not on the table.

Find something that looks like a mistake in your thesis? Don’t panic. What can you do instead?

Examiner asks an odd question? Don’t panic. What can you do instead?

Examiner makes a critical comment? Don’t panic. What can you do instead?

If you weren’t allowed to panic, what would you do instead?

Forewarned Is Forearmed

I got a striking question at a workshop last month:

What are the skills or tools to arm myself with for a successful viva?

I like this question a lot. There’s a built-in assumption that the viva is achievable. You can prepare for it, it’s not about luck. Like the PhD, it’s about talent and work.

My answer?

Arm yourself with your thesis. Annotate it in a useful way.

Arm yourself with knowledge about the viva. Ask around for the regulations and expectations.

Arm yourself with opportunities to discuss your research with others. This will hone your ability to think and talk for the viva.

For most candidates, these aren’t any new skills or tools to acquire. It’s simply a continuation of practice. Preparing for the viva isn’t difficult if you’ve done the work to produce a thesis. You have all of the skills you need to meet the challenge ahead.