When I was preparing for my viva, one thing I did not consider was how I might feel. It turned out to be a kind of symbolic milestone for me, prompting a fairly baffling array of emotions. Of course this won't be the case for everyone, but here I describe my own experience and suggest a few ways to make sure unexpected nerves don’t get in the way of success.
Part of what makes the viva a challenging prospect is the idea that it’s the culmination of a long period of intense study. In my case, this was compounded by some difficult personal associations. These weren’t directly related to my research: I love my topic, and enjoyed it even in the frantic final stages of writing up. However the years of my PhD were not easy – illness left me bedbound in my first year, I’d had time acting as an unofficial carer, and struggles with what I now recognise as grief and depression. There were plenty of good times too, and I feel extremely lucky to have had this opportunity. But like many people, I found that dealing with other pressures throughout my PhD often made it hard to focus on work and research.
Fast-forward to the viva, and it should have been a triumphant moment. I’d navigated a lot of problems and in practical terms, I was well-prepared. I’m a confident speaker, I know my stuff, and I’d had time to re-read the thesis and make notes (see Alison Garden’s very thorough checklist of ways to prepare for the viva). I recommend talking to others – but not too many – about what to expect and how to prepare. There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, and in confusion I turned to my supervisor for help. His advice combined encouragement (“you are the expert!”) with practical strategies (“don’t sweat the small stuff, but hold your ground on the big ideas”). I’m paraphrasing there, but the unofficial pep-talk assuaged my anxieties, offered some valuable perspective, and left me feeling much more confident. After that, I didn’t expect to be nervous. Nevertheless, as I sat in the corridor waiting to be called in, I was shaking with nerves from head to toe.
Some of the fears rushing through my mind pre-viva were rational, some unfounded. Here’s my Big Four:
· Self-doubt. Anxiety that I didn’t deserve to be there: that I hadn’t worked hard enough, or researched thoroughly enough, that my thesis wasn’t ready. I certainly haven’t read every critical work mentioned in the thesis cover-to-cover. There are sections I want to improve, and a lot more I could write. My thoughts teemed with a litany of failures and problems, real and imagined.
· Nerves: the self-fulfilling prophecy. I was shocked by how nervous I was. I’d barely slept the night before and couldn’t eat that morning. I worried I’d be so anxious I wouldn’t be able to answer questions – I’d stumble over words or misunderstand what the examiners were asking or just ramble on endlessly.
· Fear of irrational hatred. Itself an irrational fear: that my examiners would dislike specific things about my thesis – the writing style, the structure, a topic I had chosen, the theoretical framework I’d used, the list of possibilities was endless and I wouldn’t be able to say or do anything to change their minds.
· Uncertain future. This hit with particular vehemence as I waited for the viva. I don’t have a long-term job or fellowship lined up, and even if/when I do find something, I don’t know where, when, or what it might be. Waiting for the viva, these fears accumulated unhelpfully with the others above. For me, the viva brought me one step closer to having to deal with this uncertainty, and I found myself reeling at the prospect.
The impending viva brought up anxieties I wouldn’t have anticipated, and talking to others afterwards I’ve found that many had a similar experience. So here are some suggestions of ways to respond – before, during and after the viva.
· Know your own tendencies. In my case, self-doubt is a problem I’m still working to resolve. A lot has been written about “impostor syndrome” in academia: feeling inadequate or undeserving of your achievements. It’s easy to label, but much harder to recognise and overcome. Pre-viva, a combination of nerves and overthinking can turn you into your own worst enemy. If you know you tend to be self-critical, remember that the problems you see will not be evident to everyone. I also recommend working out ways to justify decisions and explain perceived errors beforehand – this often gets easier with practice. And keep a mental list of occasions when your doubts were proven unfounded; the viva is now one of these, for me!
· Practice hiding nerves. As I said before, I’m a confident speaker. This doesn’t mean I’m not nervous – it means I’ve learned to hide it. This is mainly through practice: speaking at conferences, teaching, participating in public events. The first time I addressed a full lecture hall, I was shaking so much I had to put my papers down. It’s not pleasant to do something that makes you feel this way, but it’s worth working at it if you can. Despite my fears (and sleeplessness) beforehand, the adrenaline I’ve learned to summon kicked in, and my examiners were surprised when I admitted afterwards that I’d been nervous. There are also practical tactics to mitigate nerves during the viva. The best advice I got was to take a notebook or a piece of paper: if you’re asked a difficult question, pause, write something down, think for a moment. This gives you a chance to gather your thoughts and courage. Another, this one from my supervisor: “don’t gabble”. If you're a nervy fast-talker, bear in mind it burns up time and only means you have to answer the next question sooner. Make an effort to speak slowly, take time to think, and remember to breathe!
· Don’t accept unfair comments, but don’t overreact. As it turned out, my examiners were both so lovely I feel bad for admitting “irrational hatred” was a worry for me. I fall back on others’ advice: bear in mind that you have at least two examiners, and if you’re subjected to comments which seem entirely unfair and/or personal, the other examiner can and should step in as a moderating influence. Defend your thesis calmly and reasonably, and hold your ground on the most important points. The flipside of this anxiety is that it’s important not to confuse criticism with attack. I got some tough questions in my viva, but would have answered much less coherently if I’d treated them as antagonistic. It’s also helpful if your examiners are a known quantity. Obviously don’t be a creepy stalker, but if it’s feasible, familiarise yourself with their books and/or articles, and perhaps go along to a lecture or talk.
· Uncertain future. Hey, I don’t have a solution for this. You’ll notice that my bio doesn’t say “Dorothy Butchard is/will be a postdoc/happily employed person at…”. But it certainly helped when I reminded myself not to let worries about the future affect the present. Reaching the viva is an achievement in itself, something to be proud of. Remembering this helps to separate it off from fears about the future, and to concentrate on the task in hand.
In the end, my viva was a big success. My examiners were generous, interested, with thought-provoking questions and helpful advice about plans for publication. Even so, a few hours after it finished, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably in a pub. I wasn’t upset: it was relief. I felt as if many of my troubles from the previous few years had come crashing together, concentrated into anxiety about a single event. Looking back, the emotions accruing around my viva feel faintly embarrassing, and it would be easy to brush them off now it’s done. But I hope revisiting them here might help others to anticipate these kinds of fraught reactions, and more importantly, find ways to prepare for them.
· Oliver Burkeman on “Impostor Syndrome”: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/nov/09/impostor-syndrome-oliver-burkeman
· Mythbusting the “ogre examiner” horror stories: https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/are-phd-examiners-really-ogres/
· Weird tips for overcoming nerves (you never know!): http://careers.theguardian.com/careers-blog/10-quirky-tips-beating-interview-nerves-job
· Breathing exercises to reduce anxiety: http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counsellor-articles/breathing-exercises-for-anxiety-reduction-relaxation
· Nadine Muller’s helpful viva checklist: http://www.nadinemuller.org.uk/the-new-academic-guides/surviving-your-viva/
· Practical viva advice collated by the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/jan/08/how-to-survive-a-phd-viva-17-top-tips
Dorothy’s viva was in December 2014. She’s currently teaching at the University of Edinburgh, writing articles, reading a lot, applying for jobs, and hoping for a great year in 2015.
She can be found at http://edinburgh.academia.edu/dorothybutchard / @dkbutchard