A scientist’s life is full of stress. An experiment is not working— stress, experiment working but producing results opposite to the previous one— stress, somebody using the last of the reagent you need now— more stress.

But these are unexpected stresses, small and overcome easily. The ‘planned stresses’ such as meetings with your supervisor or (an even bigger one) your research project examination involving an external examiner or a committee.

The big event anticipation may be the worst bit. I find it useful to reduce the stress by repeating the mantra “It’s not now, it’s later, so I have nothing to worry about yet.” Practicing your talk or having a mock exam with your fellow Ph.D. students helps as well.

In my experience, drinking coffee or another stimulant just before the exam does not help. You are already full of an internally produced stimulant, adrenaline. Warning: having an excess caffeine in your blood may lead to a temporary logorrhoea and sweaty palms.

It’s also useful to set the scene with following conditions:

  • You are the person who knows most about your project. The examiners will not think of all the questions and probably will notice the weak spots you are thinking about now;
  • Nobody expects you to be perfect, just adequate to your level;
  • They are not there “to get you”. Every institution prides itself on the student retention rate, e.g. that the students who start the course will finish it. The odds are in you favour.
  • Your examiners are the result of a natural selection for being nice to the students. Academics who are unduly harsh to the students are rarely invited to the examinations, because scientists like to avoid unnecessary complications.

As for the examination itself, do try not to wind yourself up. Assume that everything is going well. If you didn’t hear or misunderstood the question, ask again or try to rephrase: “Did I understand correctly that…?” Honestly, saying that you “don’t know something, but will find out about it” looks much better than inventing an incorrect answer.

The above is what you do. What you preferably don’t do is cry. It may have gotten you out of punishment for that smashed phone as a teenager, but it’ll not give you any advantages now. It’ll just make your examiners uncomfortable, which might diminish your chances of successfully applying for a job or reference with them. Practice taking deep breaths to calm yourself. If you feel like you might start to cry, look up, breathe deep, and take a sip of water. Remember that no matter how bad you might feel, it will all be ok and, more than likely, you’re doing just fine.

I finish with the good news that the level of stress inversely correlates with your career stage. I was stressed to the point of nausea before a school exam and was actually disappointed with the lack of questions after talking to a 300 people at a conference. Things will get better.

See also:

BsB video Stress in the Lab – Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them