Turning your PhD defense into an awesome day

The PhD defense is usually described as a very stressful, and sometimes scary, event. I don’t think it should be because, you see, the day of my viva felt like Christmas. I’d been preparing for a whole month and I was so excited.

Since viva season is approaching, I’ll share with y’all some tips and tricks on how to approach your defense with a positive mindset and make this day as special as it deserves.

1. Your mindset is everything

By the time you get to this stage, in most countries and establishments, you know you’ve passed. Not a single supervisor worth their salt would let you get this far if you were not ready. So tell your imposter syndrome to shut the f*** up for a minute and enjoy how far you’ve come, how much you’ve accomplished. 

Now, each country has their own “ritual”. For some people, the defense will be a talk, and your family may even be in the audience - for others you’ll spend 3 or 4 hours in a room getting grilled by two academics. The latter is the UK system that I went through - as defenses go it is on the stricter and longer end of the scale. Still, I was looking forward to it.

After all, when has anybody listened to me ramble about spectropolarimetry for 3 hours? This is the energy I had going into my viva:

Me to my examiners

Me to my examiners

Anyway, try to think about this as your best opportunity to show off the awesome stuff you did during your PhD.

This is not like any exam you have taken before - YOU are the expert on your project. 

2. Preparing for the defense

Obviously if you don’t feel prepared you’ll be quite nervous going into your viva or talk (hint: you’ll never feel 100 percent about it, so let go of that idea). There is no universal way to get ready for it and I would advise you talk to people in your institute to see what is expected of you. Also, not everybody is going to have a lot of time to dedicate to this since some will have already started another job. That’s life.

In my case, I was quite fortunate in that I had a whole month and no other responsabilites (or none I couldn’t put aside). But I didn’t spend this time reading over my whole Thesis again and again; I didn’t spend ages figuring out every little detail. 

I focused on the background, the big picture.

I read a textbook on my topic and revised some broad astronomy knowledge from my undergraduate degree that were relevant to my work. The way I saw it, it would be the last time for a while when I’d have an extended period to dedicate to learning (or re-learning) on a broad level - and this would be useful, if not for the viva, for the research I would continue to do. Six months later I can confirm this was extremely beneficial.

But that is just me. The advice I would give all of you is to do whatever you need to make yourself feel more confident going into your exam.

3. Planning for an awesome day

To make your “defense day” as special as it deserves, make plans with your friends! Think about what you would like to do to celebrate after your exam: get everyone to join you in the pub, make a reservation to your favourite Indian restaurant… or whatever makes you happy (those are examples of what makes me happy).

Another thing I did was make thank-you cards for everybody in the astronomy group — I’d been there for 8 years, I knew and loved them all. Now, that takes some time and I know that’s not for everyone, but preparing a little speech would also be an option, and I’m sure there are others. The idea is that this is a great opportunity to reminisce about the good times, and to express gratitude.  Gratitude feels AWESOME and this exercise will put you in such a positive mindsets in the days leading up to your defense. 

4. Christmas is here

On the day of the viva, forget about revisions. Self-care is your number one priority. 

For me, staying away from the University until my viva (scheduled in the afternoon) was a good way to not build up tension before going in.

As you are waiting for the defense to start, treat yourself. For example, I had booked a manicure -- something I’d always wanted to try. I took a bath, I got ready as I watched Netflix, I think I even did some yoga. I made myself a nice lunch at home, and then I slowly walked to the office…

A defense is a big thing, and very emotional. But these emotions don’t have to be negative. Don’t be scared if you don’t know something (you can’t know everything) - look forward to the learning experience. Don’t panic if your examiners express a different opinion to yours - see it as an interesting conversation between colleagues. 

You are a scientist, you are an expert.

This is a great time for your peers to learn from you and for you to learn from them. All I wish for you is to get excited about this really important milestone. You’re going to be great, and I have no doubt you’re going to have a blast. 

You deserve this.