You’re Not A Failure

You’re not a failure if you don’t answer every question you asked during your PhD.

You’re not a failure if your thesis is smaller than your friend’s thesis.

You’re not a failure if you’ve not submitted papers for publication.

You’re not a failure if you find typos in your thesis after submission.

You’re not a failure if you’re asked to complete major corrections.

You’re not a failure if your confidence wobbles before the viva.

You might feel nervous, or scared, or worried about any of these.

But not every question has an answer. Theses vary in size. Plenty of candidates opt not to publish during their PhD. Most candidates have typos. Some candidates are asked to complete major corrections to make their thesis better. And feeling a lack of confidence is not uncommon before important events.

The way you feel doesn’t mean you automatically fail.

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.

Omens

A red sky in the morning, a black cat, what your horoscope says, spilling salt or breaking a mirror…

…all could mean something bad will happen. If you believe. If you attach particular significance. Otherwise, they’re just events.

Similarly, examiners who are expert in your field, typos, unresolved problems in your research, unanswered questions from your data, and so on…

If you want them to be ominous, if you want them to be problems, then they will be. If they’re just facts or things, then maybe you can do something about them. You can look into something more, think about it more, do something and probably keep things that seem negative in some kind of perspective.

“Omens” are just events. It’s our interpretation that means something.

If your interpretation of your viva situation seems ominous, your next step is to think, “What can I do to change my perspective?”

Weak Spots

Why didn’t Achilles wear a boot?

If you know there’s a problem, wouldn’t you try to address it? If you know you have a weak spot, wouldn’t you at least try something?

For example, I knew my background knowledge on one of my thesis chapters was a bit shaky. I just hoped my examiners would focus on the results instead. I could explain how I’d tackled it. I could explain the results. I just crossed my fingers they wouldn’t ask me to explain what a certain kind of manifold looked like and why it was relevant.

Hoping it won’t come up is not a solution: actions help.

If you have a gap in your knowledge, take action. If you have trouble remembering a reference or an idea, take action. If you want to boost your confidence, take action.

Weak spots in your thesis or research probably aren’t as devastating as Achilles’ heel, but if you’re aware of something that could be a problem it’s up to you to do something about it.

Don’t just worry and hope it won’t come up. Do something.

White Knuckle

I really don’t like rollercoasters. I’ve been on two, hated them both, and don’t intend to go on any more. They’re just not for me, but if you’ve never been on one you should give one a go if you can.

Rollercoasters can be scary, but you have total about how and when you go on. No-one is ever surprised to find themselves on a rollercoaster. And having done one, you don’t have to do another. You might hate it, just like me, or you might love it. It’ll spin you around either way, and then it’s over. In some ways, the anticipation – the thought of simply being on a rollercoaster – might be more stressful than the ride itself.

The viva can feel like a rollercoaster for some candidates.

Tension grows as you prepare, going higher and higher until the day and then zoooooom! It’s all over almost as soon as you’ve started, you don’t remember every part and you leave slightly stunned. “Wh-? Did that just happen?!”

And for some people the anticipation of the viva might end up being more stressful than the viva itself.

Knowing

I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.

An old friend of mine used to say this regularly. It’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, and my friend would use it to help him think about difficulties that he had with colleagues or customers. If somebody bothered him, his first action was to try to get to know them better. That could help him figure out a way around the problem he was having.

It strikes me that this sentiment is probably true of the viva. When I ask most candidates about the viva they tell me they’re worried, scared, unsure, uncertain and many more words. They don’t like the sound of it – and at the same time they often don’t know much about what actually happens there.

If they were to get to know the viva better, I don’t think they would necessarily remove all anxieties, but I do think they’d like it more.

Knowing more about the purpose and processes of the viva can only be a benefit.

So, in advance of your own, who can you ask? Where can you go to know the viva better?

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?