The Viva Voce Exam: Fear of the Unknown

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The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
— H.P. Lovecraft (horror fiction writer)

A sunny day in July, 2015: I was dressed head-to-toe in the immaculate discomfort of a suit, standing alone in a disused office in my university. Surrounded by silence, my gaze struggled downward towards the tips of my feet but only as far as my choking neck tie would allow. In dull sunlight, my black shoes disappeared into the grainy blue carpet as I waded back and forth, from wall to wall, anxious about what was to come. My hands were in my pockets. My head was on another planet. Through the deep breaths and the wandering thoughts, there was a strong temptation to feel utterly helpless. That was the day of my final PhD exam: the viva voce. I needn’t have been so scared. So, why was I scared at all?

We humans have an enduring fear of the unknown. It’s stressful, crippling, and demotivating all in one bitter soup. In academia, the viva voce examination is a classic source of such anxiety…but how can students manage the stress, and how can supervisors help students prepare effectively?

Viva Voce (n.): a supplementary oral examination [often abbreviated to ‘viva’] following upon one or other of the ordinary written examinations [typically a thesis].

During the first two years of my independent academic career, I’ve had the opportunity to see PhD viva exams from the ‘other' side. Rather than being the student - troubled and uneasy - I’ve now been a convener, an examiner, and a supervisor to students going through the viva process. When I’ve asked students before (and sometimes after) their exam what they were most nervous about, their wonderfully diverse articulations can be distilled to one commonality:

They didn’t know what to expect.

This fear of the unknown is not new. Worrying about a viva exam is a specific case of a much bigger problem. Psychologically, the powerlessness that comes from fearing the unknown is thought to be at the root of several anxiety disorders. You can read more about that here.

The original trailer for Alien (1979) pounces on our fear of the unknown.

Fear of the unknown isn’t all bad. In the right setting, it can be entertaining, too. The very best horror movie directors all use it: Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie Alien is a masterful illustration of how to pray on our subconscious fear of the unknown. When you watch the trailer, you know something is wrong. Something is there but you don’t know what or where it is. Out of sight and out of your control, your imagination leads you to the most horrifying conclusions before you ever see any alien.

Whilst unknown horrors can be entertaining at the movies, it’s not so fun in real life. Fear of the unknown can truly damage some students’ ability to give their best performance in exams. Away from the movies and back to the university, mentors can provide valuable support for students worrying about their upcoming viva exam. The fear of the unknown can be managed.

1. Set the scene.

If you’re the supervisor, examiner, or panelist, you will get the student’s best self if you set the scene. Where will the exam be held? When will it start? Who will conduct the exam? Is it a private panel or public lecture? The student preparing for their viva presentation or interview should understand everything they can about the process and mechanics before the event. Let the student know what is in their control. Being part of the decision-making process leads to a greater sense of involvement and control for the student. In her 2015 book, Presence, body language expert, Dr Amy Cuddy, explains that being aware of the present situation and the accompanying body posture you adopt can have mesmerising consequences - good and bad - on confidence and performance in interview-like scenarios.

2. Make it a discussion, not an interrogation.

A recent study on the mental health of PhD students in Flanders, Belgium, revealed that PhD students were 3.5 times more likely to lose their self confidence compared to the general public. These students don’t need any more excuses to lose their nerve. Setting aside a student’s fears of the unknown with a short and welcoming introduction at the outset of the exam helps them bring their best and most present self to the room.

3. Remind students that they are the expert in the room.

The viva isn’t all about students being tested on their knowledge. It’s also a chance for them to teach. They are the only person who has worked on their project right at the coalface. No one else has read the literature in the exact same way they have. No one else sees the world through their unique scientific lens. Alas, this is an easy point to forget in the throes of a pre-viva panic. Mentors can help a student gain confidence before a viva by reminding the student that they are the one whose experience has brought new scientific knowledge to table.

There is no one-size-fits-all for managing students’ fear of the unknown in exams but all mentors want their students to do the best they possibly can. How will you decide to help your students manage their fear of the unknown?