Viva Prep & Wiggle Room

It’s helpful to be kind to yourself and generous with timing for your viva prep. Getting ready doesn’t have to take long, but it won’t be the only thing you have going on.

When it’s time to plan your prep, spread the work out as much as you can. Something else may come along and disrupt your plans. Leaving yourself wiggle room gives you room to breathe, room to reshape your plans, space to not stress.

That wiggle room can always be used to rest if things do go according to plan!

Finding Reasons

There are general reasons why people pass their viva. There is a structure to vivas, most candidates pass, the viva can be prepared for – all reasons that can help someone feel confident. As useful as these are, they’re not as valuable as the personal reasons you could find.

  • I will do it because I solved my research problem…
  • I will do it because I’ve had a mock viva…
  • I will do it because my supervisor says I’m ready…
  • Or I will do it because I have my lucky socks on!

Of course, some reasons are perhaps better than others!

Still, look for your reasons. Taken together, these threads can make an unbreakable strand of confidence. Something that needs no further reasoning for yourself, simply: I will do it.

How I Do This

The most common question people ask me about Viva Survivors is, “How do you write and publish a daily blog?!”

Here’s the short version:

  • I write everything myself: no out-sourcing, no guest-posts. I write posts weeks in advance, not on the day of publication.
  • I’m organised: I have notebooks that capture ideas. I have plans for the coming weeks of what posts are going to be written for which days. I also have a wallchart with lists of topics in case I find myself wondering what to write.
  • I have a general workflow: I try to have at least two weeks of posts ready at all times, in case of illness or problems. I have a pattern for how I work: I draft seven posts on one day, then come back to edit them the next.
  • I have tech and services to support me: Viva Survivors is a WordPress site that is simple and works well. I use Buffer to pre-write tweets to post to my Twitter account.
  • I keep records: I have a big spreadsheet that tracks post titles, dates of publication and word counts. I’ve published every day for nearly four years and seeing the records of this is a big motivator.

A spreadsheet isn’t the only reason I’m motivated to keep going though! Knowing I can help people helps me to write on days when I’m tired, distracted, bored or stressed. Knowing that a few hours later I’ll have a few more posts written gives me a boost.


How did you do your research? What methods and processes did you use? What tools or techniques? What and who supported you?

The how isn’t always as fun to explore as motivations or outcomes – the why and the what – but how you did your research will come up in your viva. Reflect on the how of your research in the weeks leading up to your viva and you’ll be prepared to explore it with your examiners.

A Little Pride

Not arrogance, but just a glow from knowing you’ve done something well. Something to talk about, something to celebrate. Where do you find that in your PhD?

Explore how you could share that with others. Ask friends to listen to you talk about the best of your research. Your examiners won’t be expecting you to have monologues ready to reel off in your viva, but the more comfortable you can become talking about your work, the more confident you’ll be when you need to engage with them in the viva.

What are you a little proud of?

Remembering Sir Ken Robinson

One day in late-August I found myself bursting into tears while casually browsing through a friend’s Facebook posts. They’d shared a short memorial post, and that was how I learned that Sir Ken Robinson had passed away. I cried reading the news, and felt upset for weeks afterwards.

Today would have been his 71st birthday. I never met him, but after finishing my PhD it was his voice that started me on the path I’ve been on ever since. His 2006 TED Talk connected with me in a profound way. Over the following years I read his books, pre-ordered them when he published more, scoured YouTube for more talks and reflected on his message, his presentation style, his wit and his passion.

Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent” was a framing that helped me as I explored how I could help researchers in the space I’d found myself in. His encouragement to try things, even uncertain things – “you won’t find anything original unless you’re willing to be wrong” – helped me to develop my work, my business and myself.

If you’ve never heard of Sir Ken Robinson before, I’d encourage you to learn more about him, his incredible life story and the great work that he did. We’ll feel his impact for a long time to come.

And for you, for today, I’d encourage reflection on your talents. By this stage in your PhD journey, you must be talented in many ways. How do you define your talents? What makes you certain of them? How will they help you find success in your viva?

And what might you do with your talents after your PhD is completed?

You Can’t Do Everything

You couldn’t do everything during your PhD and you can’t now when it’s time to get ready for your viva.

Before you start your viva prep take half an hour to make a list:

  • Take ten minutes to write down everything you could possibly do to get ready. It will be too much.
  • Take five minutes to quickly rank ideas: how important are they? Which feels more necessary?
  • Take fifteen minutes to tidy up the list: writing bookmarks is not useful; writing add bookmarks to starts of chapters is better. Adding a detail about how this will help you is even better: add bookmarks to starts of chapters to help navigate thesis.

Use this list to help you as you make a plan for your prep; focus on what helps you the most.

You can’t do everything, but everything you do will help you.

Everything you do to get ready for your viva will be enough.

Refresh Your Memory

Read your thesis, at least once, before your viva. Once might be enough to help you recall the general flow of what you’ve set out and remember the most important details.

Write out a paragraph for each key project you’ve done, to refresh your memory of how you got started.

Read the most recent paper by each of your examiners and look at their staff pages to ensure you know a little about them.

Make a bullet-point list of your results and conclusions. Make another list of all your achievements from the course of your PhD.

You don’t need to have a photographic memory to succeed in the viva. Being able to recall key information easily can help though – and reminding yourself of your achievements can help ground you in the hard work you’ve done and the talent that has helped you to do it.

Average & Amazing

PhD candidates often want to know about the “average” viva:

  • How long do they usually take?
  • What do examiners most often ask?
  • How do they usually start?
  • What’s the most common outcome?

This is to be expected and a good set of expectations is really helpful for a candidate. There are plenty of questions about the average viva, but perhaps it’s even more useful to focus on questions for the amazing viva?

  • What do you most want to share with your examiners?
  • What are you looking forward to talking about?
  • What will you do to be well-prepared?

And, most importantly, what will you do to show up with as much confidence as you can find for this amazing event?

Expectations help, but so does preparation that raises you way above the average.

What’s Going To Stop You?

Nothing. Nothing is going to stop you now your viva is in sight.

You were good when you started your PhD, and have invested work and time into getting better. You’re good enough now.

You started with ideas and questions, and even if you don’t have full answers now, you know more and know enough now for your thesis and the PhD.

You’re reading this post, so whatever happened to you throughout 2020 and up to today – whenever you’re reading this – you endured. You worked around hardship, overcame challenges and more, whether it was fair or not.

You can make it through your viva now too.

You have got this far.

You did this.

Keep going.

Have Fun!

“Have fun!” is a better encouragement for the viva than “good luck” or “don’t worry”.

What if instead of wondering if your viva would go well, you just assumed that it was going to be enjoyable? Maybe then instead of asking yourself endless worried what if questions, you could ask:

  • How will I have fun with my viva?
  • What am I looking forward to discussing?
  • How can I make myself feel amazing?

Plenty of candidates enjoy their viva. Why not you?