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.

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 control 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.