Worry

It’s Friday the 13th and I’m not worried. I’m not particularly superstitious, so when this date rolls around or a black cat crosses my path or I spill some salt I don’t worry that that means something bad is about to happen.

But I am, by nature, a worrier!

Before the pandemic I worried about train times, the distances between a hotel and a venue, and whether or not the seminar room I would be in would have what I needed. Now I sometimes worry about whether or not my broadband will keep going, or if an image choice for a slide will work in communicating what I want.

Most of the time, before the pandemic and in the present, my worries were a distraction. For all the worry, even when things went wrong, I still figured something out.

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” He probably wasn’t the first person to say it, but it’s a helpful reflection. It helps me when I am tempted to imagine worst case scenarios or start problem solving before it’s even certain that there is a problem.

It’s natural to be nervous about your viva. It’s understandable to be anxious if you have a specific problem. But if you find yourself worrying, perhaps stop and ask if you really need to. Do you need to worry? Is there a problem or just something that’s getting in the way?

And if that’s the case, and perhaps the thing you’re worrying about isn’t that likely to happen, is there something you can focus on instead that will help more than worrying?

What’s Your Worry?

Don’t keep your viva worry bottled up in your brain where you can merely be anxious about it.

Write it down. Tell a friend. Talk to your supervisor.

Your worry could be unfounded. Talking to someone who has had their viva or knows about the process could put your concerns in perspective. They could help you see what you can do to help yourself.

Your worry could be easily resolved. Being clear with yourself and knowing what’s wrong and could allow you to move forwards.

Your worry could be a tough situation – in which case exploring what you could do and what you will do, possibly with support from others, will allow you to work past that worry.

It’s natural, given the importance of your viva, that you might have worries. If you do then you can also do something about them.

How Will You Feel?

I ask “How do you feel?” a lot.

By my records I’ve asked this question in seminars and webinars at least 300 times, to over 5000 PhD candidates. It’s good to reflect on in a seminar but that’s one moment, weeks or possibly months before the viva.

I can’t ask the title of this post because it would be impossible to answer well! Who knows how you will feel on the days leading up to your viva, or in the moments before it. It’s helpful to reflect on how you might feel though, because however you feel, now or later, there is always something positive you can do to help for the viva.

  • If you felt worried: you could ask someone you trust for advice.
  • If you felt unprepared: you could make a plan and help steer yourself closer to ready.
  • If you felt great: fantastic! Now, what could you do to really hold on to that feeling?

However you feel now, there’s something you can do to help yourself. However you might feel in the time leading to the viva, there will be something you can do to help yourself. Reflect, then decide on what you’ll do to help.

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.

Facing Fears

If you’re not just worried about your viva but afraid, to the point where it is having an impact, you need to stop and find help.

The right person could be your supervisor, a colleague, a friend or family member. You have to pass your viva on the day by yourself, but you don’t have to prepare for it alone. If you feel fear before your viva it won’t be removed by simply sweeping it to one side.

Tell someone who could help. Get them to gently help you see what the issue is. Make small steps towards resolving it. For example, being worried about answering questions won’t be overcome by jumping straight into a mock viva – a short, sharp shock is not what this doctor prescribes! But one question is a start. Maybe even writing something down rather than speaking first.

If you’re facing fear: Who could help? What steps could help? And when will you start to make them?

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.

Afraid, Nervous, Worried

What do you do if you feel something like this – afraid, nervous, worried – about the viva?

Let’s ask another question: what would you do if you were unafraid, not nervous, not worried about your viva?

You would prepare – and if you don’t feel great, you need to prepare too.

  • If you’re afraid, you need to prepare. If you’re not, great! But you need to prepare.
  • If you’re nervous, you need to prepare. If you’re not, that’s cool – but you need to prepare!
  • If you’re worried, you need to prepare. If you’re not, I’m happy for you, and you still need to prepare for the viva.

However you feel about your viva, the courses of action you have to take are the same. You need to read your thesis, write and think about your work, find opportunities to practise unexpected questions and do what you can to be confident.

You might feel that you need to do more or less of things because of how you feel. Doing something won’t just help you get ready, it should also help you feel ready.

Making A Fuss

It’s not making a fuss if you ask your supervisor for help before the viva.

It’s not making a fuss if you think something is wrong with your viva or the outcome and believe you need to appeal something.

It’s not making a fuss to make a complaint about your viva.

It’s not making a fuss if you feel nervous or worried and need to share that with someone to try and get some help.

I often say the viva is not the most important thing ever in a person’s life, but that doesn’t mean you need to just trivialise it. It’s right to not just dismiss any concerns or worries. Make the most of your viva. Make it the best it can be. And if you need to ask questions, ask for help, make a complaint, appeal or whatever to do that then that’s what you need to do.

It’s not making a fuss to do what you need to do for your viva.

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.