The Wizards

I wasn’t a fan of The Wizard of Oz when I was a child.

At the time it had too many songs for my taste and not enough lightsabers or spaceships, but as I’ve got older I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more. Now I can see the work that must have been done at the time to make the film come together – the vision, the talent, and all at a time when movies were still working out how anything worked at all.

When Dorothy and her friends initially visit the Wizard they are in awe. He is a great floating head, the ground shakes when he speaks, fire roars up whenever he is angry. He is terrifying until it is revealed, by accident, that he is just a man. A clever individual, stood behind a curtain, controlling various machines to produce the effect of someone grand and powerful.

It’s worth remembering that for your viva, there are two Wizards present – at least, they may seem that way in your imaginings.

Either one of your examiners might seem mighty or intimidating. You could read their publications and wonder at how someone could do what they have done. Or you could feel small next to their experience and careers.

Pull back the curtain.

Your examiners are just people. Clever, talented people, but still human. Whatever their achievements they’re humans who know that something like the viva might be uncomfortable for some. They’ll be fair. They’ll treat you and your work with respect.

Of course, there’s a third Wizard in your viva – but you don’t need a curtain to hide behind. You don’t need tricks to magnify yourself.

Your talent is enough. Your knowledge is enough. You have done enough.

New Beginning

Your viva is almost the end of your PhD. What’s next?

An ending is also the start of something else. What’s your new beginning?

What do you take with you into this next chapter of your life? What new knowledge or skill set do you now have that you didn’t have before? What hopes or goals are you working towards? How are you better equipped to pursue them now that you have the experience of your PhD?

Before you start your new beginning, consider that all of that learning, development and knowledge will help you in the viva too.


The viva’s not the first time you’ve had to respond to questions about your research.

The viva’s not the first time you’ve been asked about your contribution.

The viva’s not the first time you’ve really had to think hard about something.

And it’s unlikely that your viva is the second time you’ve had to do any of these, or the third, or the fourth.

Again and again throughout your PhD, in small and big ways, you grow, you learn and you become better than you were. Again and again you demonstrate that you are a talented, capable and knowledgeable researcher.

In the viva you have to do it again. One more time, but with all of that experience behind you.

You can do it. You’ve done it before, you can do it again.

Community Support

July was a busy month for me!

I tried to promote two lovely things when they happened but realised I hadn’t shared them via the blog. Do indulge me today while I share these with you in case you’ve not seen them and in case they help.


First: The #VirtualNotViral Tweetchat!

The @PhD-VirtualNotViral community has done amazing things in the last year and a half, building a regular space to support PhD researchers around the world. The #VirtualNotViral tweetchats have covered many topics with guests contributing their insights and responding to questions. I was very flattered to be asked back on July 5th to respond to questions about the viva and share ideas to help. The archive of that discussion is available as a Twitter Moment here. We cover a lot of viva topics and if you’re interested in this blog then the Moment will be of interest to you.


Second: The PhD Life Raft Podcast!

By chance, the next day an episode of The PhD Life Raft Podcast was released by Dr Emma Brodzinski which featured me as a guest! We recorded this several months ago, and it was lovely to see it released. Emma asked brilliant questions and it was great to be part of her podcast. It brought back happy memories of the old Viva Survivors Podcast – though I’m glad I was just being interviewed because I also remember the hard work of editing that goes on behind the scenes! You can listen to the podcast episode here – do take a look at the archive, because like Pat and Anuja of @PhD-VirtualNotViral there’s a lot of great work that Emma has been doing and this kind of project needs to be shared widely.


It was a lot of fun to do both of these and it’s got me thinking…

Do I have space in my work and life to do a regular Viva Survivors tweetchat?

Do I have space in my work and life to do a regular Viva Survivors podcast again?

More broadly, do I have a little space to do a little more to support others?


And do you have a little space to do a little more for your community, wherever you are?

Filling In The Blanks

There’s lots of blanks that could occur around the viva.

Key information you don’t know. Something you can’t remember. Before and during the viva, the feeling of suddenly knowing that you don’t know something can be uncomfortable, even stressful.

In both cases, before and during, the best thing you can do is ask questions.

Before the viva your question at encountering a blank might be one of the following:

  • Why don’t I know this?
  • Who could I ask for help?
  • Where could I find help?
  • What do I really need to know?

Any one of these questions might be the springboard to finding what you need to fill in the blank or gain more certainty about a situation.

In the viva, feeling blank is probably more stressful, but still the best thing to do is ask questions.

If your first response to a question or comment in the viva is “I don’t know” then ask yourself “Why?” Find out what’s in the way. Explore what’s stopping you. Ask “Why?” to prompt you to see what you need to do next.

Maybe you need to ask your examiners something. Maybe you need to pause and think more. Maybe you need to acknowledge a point before you can move past it. Maybe you need to check something in your thesis.

Encounter a blank, before or during the viva, and ask yourself “Why?”

Then find a way forward from there.

Mice & Gazelles

A lion is capable of catching mice for food, but if it spends all of the time doing so it won’t survive.

A gazelle could be harder to hunt for but will, if caught, provide everything the lion needs.

That’s a little paraphrasing of a famous business metaphor about focus, but the broader point is on the focus that we give to things. Focussing on the small, little, easy things to do might make you busy, might give you lots to do, but it might not reward your effort or move you closer to your goals. The harder tasks are more challenging, but if you succeed with them then they’ll give you what you need.

You could spend your time in preparation for the viva catching mice. Checking your thesis again and again for typos. You could obsess over sections trying to memorise things. You could look over lists of questions and try to think about what you would say.

But these mice won’t satisfy your sense of readiness for the viva.

You need to focus on the bigger, more challenging tasks: reflecting on your progress, building your confidence, rehearsing for being in the viva, reading your thesis carefully once. These gazelle-tasks take effort, they’re thoughtful, but they’ll reward your preparation.

We tend to get more of what we focus on. What will you focus on as you prepare for your viva?

The Dream of No Corrections

Dreams do come true.


But wishing and dreaming that you get no corrections for your thesis is a fantasy that’s best left alone. Some candidates find out at the end of their viva that they have no corrections to complete, but not many.

It’s nice if you have no corrections, but it’s more typical to have something still to do.

Rather than dream about having no corrections instead focus on writing the best thesis you can, preparing as well as you can and being ready to engage with your examiners.

You might not get corrections – but you probably well.

It’s probably better to dream of something else.

Good Fortune & Hard Work

In my PhD I can remember times I was lucky. Lucky to be at a particular seminar and see an unsolved problem that I knew I could solve. Lucky to suddenly make a breakthrough and get the result I needed.

Except I wasn’t. I was in the right place at the right time perhaps, but I couldn’t have spotted the first solution without all the results I’d already achieved. I couldn’t make my breakthrough, everything slipping into place, without three weeks of background reading and calculations first.

Words matter.

In all my seminars I remind PhD candidates they’re not lucky to have finished their thesis or to have got results – they’re fortunate. Fortunate is when hard work pays off. There might not have been a certain outcome, but it could only have happened thanks to someone taking the actions that they did.

None of your PhD success is luck. It’s good fortune, when your hard work has paid off.

Remember your good fortune. Remember too the hard work that has got you there.

Mistaken Identity

I’ve observed some PhD candidates think their examiners’ expectations will be set way too high.

Candidates can worry…

  • …whatever someone has produced for their thesis, the examiners will want more.
  • …if you’ve published a paper, they’ll wonder why you don’t have three.
  • …if your future plans don’t include academia they’ll put a question mark around the whole viva.

None of this is true. Examiners are trained. They’re professional. They know what they’re there to do in the viva. They’re not there to be harsh or to set impossible standards (that they couldn’t hit themselves!).

The mistaken identity in the viva process, if it’s there for you, is the identity you believe you need to be in order to pass.

The wonder-brain, the super-achiever, the one-in-a-million.

That’s not who you need to be. That’s the mistake.

Your identity, who you are, is enough.

Questions Are Opportunities

The viva is a conversation driven by the questions your examiners ask. Every question is an opportunity.

  • An opportunity to explore your work.
  • An opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding.
  • An opportunity to add to what is in your thesis.
  • An opportunity to defend your choices.
  • An opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge or ability.

Every question is an opportunity for you to do something good for yourself.

Pause, think and respond as best you can.