Brianna E Robertson-Kirkland, a PhD Candidate in Music at the University of Glasgow, follows up her post-thesis-submission musings with reflections on the viva process.
The Viva is perhaps one of the most intensive exams a student will ever take, not just because it marks the day a PhD researcher will find out if their work has met the mark, but also due to the fact that it is an exam unlike any other. It is not a sit down, written exam with pre-selected questions; rather, it requires the student to answer questions on the spot about any aspect of the thesis. In many ways, the trick to surviving the Viva is to trust that you know your work better than anyone else—but that is easier said than done! Approaching the Viva can, and often is, characterised by intensive stress as doubt and insecurities force the student to question anything and everything about their work and the implications of the Viva itself. Thus, the Viva Monster grows and grows as each day looms closer.
So, what is the best method of combating this Monster? Is it distracting oneself with other activities? Reading and re-reading the thesis, trying to come up with every possible scenario of question that could be asked? Or is it simply submitting to the Monster itself, allowing the fear to take control, leaving the student unable to think of anything but the approaching day? Of course, even asking such a question, or conceptualising the Viva as a monster at all, is just one approach to the issue at hand. In discussion with a colleague, for instance, she felt very comfortable approaching Viva Day, confident that she would not have been allowed to progress to this stage unless the work was of passing quality. However, even this reaction can come with its own psychological baggage. Despite a positive outcome, she described having post-Viva blues, likening the day to the day after a bride’s wedding, where the big event that she had been looking forward to for so long is suddenly over and gone in a flash.
In my recent blog post, PhD submission: Relief or Grief?, I discussed the grieving process that I underwent after submission. This continued for many weeks, but in the month approaching my viva, my grief turned into a much deeper and more crippling emotion: fear. I wanted to take control of the situation, but doubt kept rearing its ugly head, telling me that my work was not good enough and that somehow this would only be cruelly revealed at viva stage. What added to the pressure was I had set myself a goal to graduate this summer, making the outcome of the viva essential for that goal’s success. On reflection, this goal was perfectly reasonable and I am happy to say that I have achieved it, but at the time it is what tipped me over the emotional edge. What could have relieved this pressure was simply not imposing a graduation deadline on myself at all—but then again, this may not always be possible. In which case, it is important to think prior to submission about the graduation goal, and critically ask yourself when you would like to graduate and when you need to graduate. In terms of applying for postdoctoral funding, a later graduation date may suit but does require research and planning in advance.
However, because I built this day up in my mind, I knew that I wanted to make a big deal of it. I planned a lunch and drinks with friends the same day as the viva, telling them I wanted to spend the day celebrating (or commiserating). I even said this in the invitation and while they may have thought of the potential ‘commiserations’ as a joke, for me it was a very real possibility. In any case, I knew that whatever outcome I wanted to be with people I was close to and it gave me something to look forward to rather than to fear. Other plans that were implemented: I took the week off work; I turned on an out-of-office on all my email accounts and scheduled a relaxing outing the day before the viva so that I could not read my thesis. Out of all the madness of the previous months, this is perhaps the best strategy I could have implemented for my own needs, as it meant that I could quieten my mind and take some time to allow (or even force, as necessary) myself to relax.
It also allowed to me to get back in the driving seat when it came to my emotions. In truth: I should have given myself much more time off in the months leading up to the viva. Instead, I tried to distract myself with other forms of work—whether it was admin, teaching, funding applications, job searching etc.—yet this only piled on the pressure! Time-off is incredibly important for both mind and body in this charged atmosphere or anticipation, even for self-confessed workaholics.
That being said, during my week off, I didn’t do nothing. Rather, early in the week, I read my thesis and had asked a friend who had recently gone through her viva to give me a mock version of the examination. I had thought about asking my supervisors for a mock-viva but by the time I had taken control of my academic destiny, I felt it was too late to ask them to arrange this. I was lucky that I had a friend I trusted, who I knew would be encouraging but critical and who had recently gone through the experience. A mock-viva is useful for visualising the situation and knowing what questions may be asked and I would recommend organising it, even if just informally with an experienced colleague.
The viva itself, contrary to what I thought, was not a scary experience at all. In fact, I received many encouraging comments from the external examiners. Moreover, I was glad that I had planned a celebration and I am pleased to say that in the weeks post-viva, the weight of my psychological burdens has lifted and I am feeling back to my old, happy self (being called ‘Doctor’ is not getting old anytime soon!). Whether you feel comfortable approaching your viva, or think it will be the worse day of your life, I’ve come out of mine with one universal piece of advice: it is important to make a big deal of it. This is the culmination of a massive piece of work and it should be celebrated. In fact, the celebrations I planned post-viva are things that I am certain have helped in lifting those post-PhD blues!
I am happy to say that my grieving period is over and I feel inspired and ready for the next stage of my career. However, for some the PhD students, the outcome may not be the result that is expected—whether it’s the outcome of the viva itself or the lingering of that aforementioned grief—which may cause even more anxiety and depression. If this comes to pass, it is important to take time away from the PhD to think about what you have achieved, and how to move forward from where you stand in the now. Take the time to relax, to refresh and rejuvenate so that you are able to examine any corrections or rewrites with a clear mind, and remember that any comments noted by the examiners are not a personal attack but a way to enhance the work—work they believe in, because they care enough about your idea to help you to improve it. If you are unsure of what is required, book some time with your supervisor to discuss the corrections and what is best for your future. A PhD may lead you to your desired career goal, but you will have learned so many other skills that can open up other career options you had never thought about: doing a PhD, after all, can teach you so much about yourself, how to think, and how to cope with intense situations. Do not underestimate this learning experience, and if you’re able to hold to its value regardless of what comes next, it can and will make you a much stronger person regardless of where your next steps take you.