The First Year Viva, or The Definitely Not Breaking Point

Vera Veldhuizen is a second year PhD researching children’s war literature from a cognitive perspective.

So the way the PhD works at Cambridge, at least for this department, is that after the first year you write a report (the length of a master’s dissertation) which you then have to defend at a viva. If you fail, you get kicked out of the programme. If you pass, you’re on until the end. Mine is tomorrow. I can’t wait.

Over the course of the summer I’ve spent many an evening working, defiantly not working, and any variation thereof to prepare for this moment that’s coming up. The stress has gotten to a point where I can’t sleep, but that is also just how I am and completely unnecessary. Because everything is going to be fine, right?

So let me help you in your preparation for this landmark in your thesis.

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PhDs. Are they fun? No comment.

Yes, this moment is important. And yes, it is stressful.

No, I am not dealing with it well. However, you can learn from my mistakes!

First off, your document does not have to be perfect. It has to be good, yes, but nobody is expecting you to have a finished thesis at this point, and there will be gaps in your arguments here and there. Acknowledge them! If you say “I haven’t done this yet, I will do it in the future, and yes I am aware of it”, that is satisfactory enough and everybody can move on happily.

Secondly, enjoy your summer. Take some time off, even if it is just a week. Not only will it help you feel more like an actual real-life person, you’ll also be able to look at your work from a fresh angle once you get back to it! Just working on and on all day every day not only negatively impacts your physical and mental health, it impacts your work as well. Remember, if you’re too close to your text you can’t distance yourself enough from it to edit it critically.

Thirdly, it’s not the end of the world. The report and the viva are there for you, of all people. This is your chance to actually put your research together and see if and how it fits and works, your chance to show it to other people and say “look, I am doing something and it is important” (even if you don’t always feel that way). Even if it is officially a possible outcome of your viva, the point of it is not to fail you. The point is for you to get feedback from colleagues who are not as close to the text as you and your supervisor are. A fresh look. Friendly conversation with scholars. In a stressful and terrifying setting.

Yes, this is a landmark moment for you and your work, however, not all landmarks are a trial by fire. (Can you tell this post is mainly me trying to calm myself down?) Know your document, do a mock viva, and you will be fine. Just remember to show up.

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And yes this happens all the time.
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