Solving The Prep Problem

I’ve loved maths since I was a child and first realised the wonder that 4 times 6 was the same as 6 times 4. My love sent me on a journey that lead to a PhD in pure maths. A lot of specific technical knowledge and talent has been vacated over the last thirteen years to make room for other things in my brain, but I’d like to think that the maths mindset has never left me.

There’s a shorthand that a lot of people use when they think about maths – “it’s all about getting the right answer” – as if that’s always simply one thing. Different problems lead to different solutions though; in some cases the “right answer” is really a whole collection of things, a solution space.

It’s the same sort of thing with the problem of “how to do a PhD well” or “how to prepare for a viva”. Neither has a right way. There are lots of possible solutions that might work for someone.

The solution space for viva prep is huge:

  • You could spend an hour every day between submission and the viva, doing something purposeful to help you get ready.
  • You could do nothing, no further work after submission.
  • You could read your thesis the day before and leave it at that.
  • You could read your thesis every day and try to impress it all into your brain.
  • You could read lists of questions and try to figure out what to say.
  • You could cover your thesis in notes and helpful marks.
  • And you could do combinations of all of these – and even more.

Time is a variable, confidence is another – though it’s much harder to measure – as well as access to resources, personal needs and circumstances. All these variables, and more besides, have to go into the equation for how to prepare, when to start, what to do and everything else involved in viva prep.


But… One thing I know about the maths mindset, or how I tend to think about things, is that it is easy to overcomplicate things. To try and factor in everything, or solve the biggest, grandest problem – when actually, there are much simpler ways to look at things, or even to consider just parts of the problem. For starters:

  • To get ready for the viva, to begin with, you need to have read your thesis. So do that.
  • It could be helpful to find out more about the viva. So make a note of when you’ll read the regulations.
  • You need to decide if you want to ask for a mock viva. So have a think, and ask or not.

I try to think about the Big Problem Of Viva Prep For Everyone. You only need to think about the little problem of getting yourself ready. It’s much simpler, and you can probably identify all the variables with ease.

Take a look, and then solve for you.

Four Years

That’s how long I’ve been writing this blog. Longer than I spent on my PhD!

I started with the following short post in 2017:

I’ve got a few questions for you: Did you do the work? Did you show up at the library or the lab or the office? Did you overcome obstacles through the tough times? Did you learn, did you grow, did you develop?

If you did all of these during your PhD, how could you be in a bad position for the viva?

It’s understandable if you are nervous, but it’s no accident that you’ve got this far. Keep going.

I’ve written about a lot of different aspects of the viva in the last four years, over 1400 posts, but this remains a core message of the blog. The final two words of that first post resonate personally, particularly given the last year or so.

Keep going. That’s my overall plan for this blog. I’m proud that Viva Survivors has reached so many people over the last four years, but equally happy that it’s had such an impact on me personally and professionally. I’ve been thrilled in the last twelve months to use this platform to reach out and share webinars. I’m looking forward to sharing more exciting things in the coming months.

If this is your first post or your hundredth, thank you for reading!

If your viva is coming soon, keep going. You’ll do it.

If your viva is behind you, keep going. There’s even better stuff ahead.

And again, thank you for reading 🙂

The Standard

You need to have made a significant, original contribution with your research. Defining the standard for that is hard, but we can rule some things out. The standard is not…

  • …producing two papers during your PhD.
  • …having at least six chapters in your thesis.
  • …70,000 words.
  • …a minimum of 200 references in your bibliography.
  • …working yourself into a shell of your former self.
  • …perfection.

The standard is good enough.

Are your research and your thesis good enough? Are you good enough?

Good enough might still be tricky to define. Together you and your supervisors can establish some helpful criteria that can show you’re meeting the standard. It has to be discussed because every thesis is different, but figuring out what good enough means for your work, and knowing you’ve met the standard is a huge confidence boost for the viva.

“How Can I Help?”

If you’ve had your viva, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, ask these four words first, before you start to offer your story, your opinion or your advice. See what support someone needs. Get a sense of how they’re feeling.

If you’ve not had your viva yet, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, still ask how you can help. Your friend might need a sympathetic ear, a sounding board, someone to listen or someone to ask more questions to help them reflect.

You don’t need to have had your viva to help someone else with theirs.

Popular Culture

When I was a teenager, me and a few friends liked superheroes. We bought random American comic books from this one newsagent in our home town that stocked them. This was the mid-1990s. No real internet, no way to connect or find out more. There were three or four of us in our school who loved superheroes, and hundreds who didn’t. The thing we liked wasn’t popular.

Jump forward twenty years and superheroes are everywhere. The biggest movies are about superheroes, saving the day in two to three hours of screen time – they’re not universally liked but they’re much, much more popular than when me and my few friends were reading about them.

Popular culture changes over time. Nevermind the popular: culture changes. It’s steered by people, by time, by events, and hopefully – but sadly not always – for the good.


Over the last decade I’ve seen that the culture around the viva is changing. More and more candidates feel less and less worried. Still nervous, but not overly concerned.

The viva is less unknown, it’s more common for people to have an idea of what to expect, more common for candidates to take steps to really get ready.

The culture around the viva in the UK is slowly changing for the good. If you’re not seeing it for yourself then take a few steps to finding out more. Ask a few friends about their vivas. Check the regulations. See what expectations are valid and what you can do to be ready.

Like superheroes, vivas aren’t universally liked – but you can be ready to save the day when it comes to your two to three hours of screen time.

When You Speak In The Viva




Every question is an opportunity, a prompt for you to share something. No tricks or traps, just invitations to add something to the discussion.




There’s time in the viva. Enough for you to use it well. No rush, no hurry. Engage with your examiners’ questions.




Be as certain as you can – not because you have to be right about everything, but because to do otherwise wouldn’t help you to present yourself and your work as best you can.




One Bite At A Time

“How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time…

It’s an old joke or proverb, depending on how you look at it, but there’s certainly wisdom as well as eye-rolling.

You could never have done your PhD in a week. It takes years of slow, patient work. Learning, discovering, growing. You eat away at the problems of your research one bite at a time.

Getting ready for your viva is similar, but on a shorter timescale. A day of cramming is inferior compared to a few weeks of small tasks, getting ready by nibbling away at a finite to-do list, bit-by-bit. Confidence builds in the same way.

Slow, careful ways that lead to success.

Nervous & Confident

Nervous and confident aren’t polar opposites.

If you feel nervous about something – like, say, your viva – then you’re recognising it’s important. Nervous isn’t the same as being anxious or being worried, although it might not be comfortable. Nervous is a recognition of something in your future, not something inherently bad or to be feared. “This thing matters to me.”

Being confident about something – like, say, your viva – is believing with good reason that you have talent or knowledge to be able to deal with a future situation. “I can do this.”

Being confident about your success in the viva helps to put nervous feelings in perspective. Confidence helps to balance the discomfort of nervousness.

You could go around and around trying to figure out what triggers your nervousness, wondering what you could do to stop feeling nervous – or you could take steps to build your confidence for the viva. Reflect on your talent. Summarise your progress over years of work. Really think about all that you’ve done and know.

Feeling nervous before your viva isn’t bad, but being confident is very good!

Little Things, Big Differences

I’m still not going to reveal my secret bread recipe, but I’ll share some of the little things I’ve learned that help me bake a good loaf:

  • Blending different bread flours gives a better flavour than just having one type.
  • Ratios really matter! It took time, but I found that a strict connection between quantities of flour, yeast and oil really help. For every 100g of flour, use 2g of instant yeast and 5ml of olive oil
  • Knead less, prove more.
  • Longer proving in general seems to lead to better flavour. Dough that rests in the fridge overnight nearly always tastes better.

Whatever the recipe, for whatever the situation, tinker with the little things. Tinker, repeat and see what happens. The big ingredients or steps can take you so far, then the little things help you find big differences after that.


Back to your PhD and your viva.

What little things did you try in your PhD? How did they help? Where did you see great gains for trying small changes? And how could those small changes help you now in your viva?

What small things could you do now that might make a big difference for your viva?