Common Qs About The Viva: How Can I Avoid Nerves?

It would be very easy for me to say that PhD candidates shouldn’t worry about being nervous. After all, I’ve finished my PhD, and any negative things I remember about the experience are in the past. I’ve also got several years of experience of talking to candidates and graduates: I can’t say “don’t worry” except in a reassuring I-know-you-won’t-believe-me way. If you are prone to nerves, there is very little I can do in a piece of writing to help you avoid nerves entirely.

But perhaps I can share some things with you that could minimise their impact. I’ll do my best.

Nerves are not the worst thing ever

Unless they start to overwhelm you, a little in the way of nerves is a good thing. They keep you alert, they keep you present. They can make you a little paranoid perhaps – “that question was unexpected, OMG why are they asking that?!! I’ve failed, I just know it!” – but in and of themselves, nerves are not terrible.

If you feel them, try to figure out the root cause. Nervous? Why? I just am,” is not enough. Dig deeper. There is a reason.

  • Is it because the viva is a big day? It’s still just a day.
  • Is it because you aren’t sure about some parts of your research? There are things you could do to feel prepared.
  • Is it because you’re unsure about your examiners? You could research them.
  • Is it because you’re worried about life after the PhD? Start making plans!

Whatever the cause of your nerves, you can uncover it: once you’ve found it, you can do things to combat it. Which brings us to the next point.

Counter-attack nervousness

Do things which counter-attack nerves. Read your thesis. Talk to people about your work. Maybe ask for a mock viva. Read some papers, and mark up your thesis. Look online for common viva questions, and think about how you might answer them. Practise talking aloud.

Find reasons to laugh! Is laughter the best medicine? My doctorate in maths doesn’t give me authority to write a prescription, but in my personal opinion, laughter really helps. Do things which let you laugh – even if that’s watching your favourite sitcom. Laughter helps you relax, and if you’re nervous then relaxing can really help. Find situations which allow you to laugh, and do it.

As I’ve mentioned in one of these posts before, Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk is powerful. When you adopt confident poses, research suggests that you actually are more confident. You don’t just feel more confident: at a hormonal level you respond more confidently. And it’s not a hard thing to do. Check the video for how simple it is: sitting or standing, you can adopt a power pose and actually be more confident.

“Don’t worry.”

It’s easy for me to say, but words do have an impact, right? The words in your thesis have had an impact – otherwise you wouldn’t be at the viva. Your supervisor and institution are backing you on this. They believe in your work. They believe that you have achieved the right level of competence to be going into your viva; your research is what it needs to be, and your thesis is good enough to get you to this coming day. Words have power. They shape the world. So read this article, find as many others that help and read them too. And find the words that help you be the best you can be in your viva.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

PS – please take a look at my Patreon campaign for the Viva Survivors Podcast!

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