Unhelpful Things…

…to say to friends who have their viva coming up:

  • “Good luck!”
  • “Don’t worry!”
  • “You’ll be fine, nearly no-one fails!”

Better things to say include:

  • “You’re talented, don’t forget!”
  • “What can I do to help?”
  • “How are you doing?”

And if you’ve had a viva and it was fine, don’t just tell your friend that they’ll be fine. Tell them why you were fine. Tell them your story, short and simple, but with enough to help them see what the viva can be like – and what helped you be ready for yours.

Rose-tinted Reflections

I have fond memories of my PhD, but also a background feeling that it could have been so much more than it was.

I could have been more pro-active; I realised quite late that I could set my own directions and goals. I could have achieved more. I spent a long time following dead ends and trying to force ideas and results to work, without stopping to see what the real underlying problems were with my research.

Maybe I could have worked better had I realised what my own underlying problems were.

Like me, you’re not perfect. Your research and thesis won’t be perfect. But focussing on the imperfections in advance of your viva probably won’t help you to get ready. Instead, acknowledge the things that could be better, make a note of anything that might need special attention and then start your prep centred on the things that you do well.

Start with your successes, your results, your talent, and use that to build on. Not everything can be amazing when you look back on your PhD, but hopefully there’s enough there to help you feel good for your viva.

The Supporting Skeleton

For a long time I’ve made the following viva prep suggestion in seminars:

Consider writing an edited bibliography. If your bibliography is a body of work that supports your thesis then an edited bibliography is the skeleton of that body, the references that give you the most support. What would they be?

Following the metaphor a little:

  • What references are like the skull, protecting the brain: what references do you really need to know?
  • What references are like the ribs? They cover your heart, the core references that support your arguments.
  • Which references are like your ear bones: small, but which can make a big difference?

Not all references are equally valuable. Not all references are present for the same reason. Useful questions can help identify helpful items from your bibliography, but unfortunately not every bone in the body can prompt one of those questions!

Still, whether you create an edited bibliography or not, do reflect and consider how different references support you and your work in different ways.

You Have To Finish Sometime

Following on from yesterday’s post, it’s easier to finish when you know what success looks like.

You can feel confident you’re ready for the viva if you define in advance what you need to do to prepare.

  • What actions or tasks do you need to do?
  • What can help show you that you are done?
  • How are you going to define “enough”?

And to avoid stress, consider the limits you could put on any day that you spend time on getting ready. What is “enough” work for a day that you do prep?

You Have To Start Somewhere

With viva prep you get to decide when, where, what and how.

(the why and who are already taken care of!)

Viva prep doesn’t need precision planning, but a little thought can help sketch out a useful idea of what you need to do to start and when you need to do it. Reflecting on the following questions around submission time should help:

  • How busy are you?
  • When do you tend to have periods of uninterrupted time?
  • What will you start your viva prep with?
  • And when do you need to begin to limit stress and pressure on yourself?

You have to start somewhere, and the good news is that you get to pick.

Prep Is For You

It’s not for your examiners. It’s not for the viva exactly.

Prep is a series of actions that help to convince you that you’re ready. Some tasks, like reading your thesis to refresh your memory, are useful for everyone. Others, like rehearsal via a mock viva, will be more helpful to some candidates than others. And some tasks, perhaps indexing your thesis with coloured tabs, will only help a few.

However you go about your prep, remember that it has to help you. Don’t start with a to do list that your friend gave you, or a programme of work you saw on a blog. Start with thinking about your needs. Think about the gaps.

Then decide on what you can do to help yourself, and how and when you need to get it done.


Today’s not just any day. It’s my birthday!

It’s not just any birthday. It’s a big birthday!

People feel all sorts of things about big birthdays.

Some are happy, some are sad. Some want to party, or be left alone. Some want to make big changes, or feel happy just going on as they were.

And perhaps some people, today, don’t quite know what to think or do about their big birthday. There’s so much going on in the world. Parties are more or less impossible, for very good reasons, and celebrating doesn’t feel as important as it might otherwise. For some people, a big birthday might leave them really wondering what to do.


Vivas are a lot like big birthdays. People respond to them in many different ways too.

There are lots of things that impact how a candidate feels about their viva. There isn’t a default feeling or set response. Happy or sad. Excited or worried. One candidate needs help from others while another desperately wants to be left alone. There are just so many emotions and needs that can be floating around a PhD candidate as they get close to their viva.

Whatever those emotions and needs are though, they will need to do something. To build on their confidence, or do more to get ready. To unpick an uncertainty, or ask a friend for support. To take it easy or work that little bit harder. Every candidate, once they’ve figured out where they are, can map out where they need to be – then do something to get that little bit closer to being ready and being in their viva.


It’s my birthday, and I don’t quite know what to do with myself, but I can at least do something nice: if you’ve been thinking about whether or not to buy any of my viva-related ebooks – all available here at Payhip – then the next few days might be a good time to pick them up. Use the code NATHANISFORTY at the checkout before next Sunday (24th January 2021) and you’ll get 40% off. Simple as that.

Now I’m going to take the rest of the day off! That’s a start 🙂

Thanks for reading.

Arbitrary Milestones

You might need to set some for your viva prep. They’re arbitrary in the sense that they’re not fixed by a strict process, but by your needs, your circumstances. For example, there isn’t a deadline for when you must have read your thesis, or you have to have a mock viva. Annotating your thesis can be really valuable, and you can do it whenever you need to. It helps not to do it on the morning of your viva, of course.

It’s useful to think about your prep ahead of time and set milestones for yourself. They’re just for you, to help your prep be as stress-free as possible and guide you into feeling ready for the challenge of your viva. Look ahead to the time around your viva and consider what milestones can help your personal journey to being ready.

Hundreds To One

The viva: hundreds and hundreds of days of work that come down to one day. One day when you have to do well.

That could sound very worrying, but remember that all that work is the price of admission for the viva. You have to invest all of that time and effort to get that far. It’s not idly or blindly spent; all of that effort helps to make you ready for that one day with your examiners.

One way to look at the viva is telling yourself, “After all this time, it all comes down to this!”

A more helpful story is to think, “After all this time, I’m ready for this!”


Things have gone wrong. We can’t change them. We can’t alter what’s happened already and we don’t know when we can find a space or time that will feel like things are supposed to feel. So for now we have to survive – we have to manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

There have been times lately, when managing has felt like a struggle. Difficult has felt almost like too much.

Not for the first time in the last year or so I’ve had to start over with myself. Pause, take a day, breathe a lot and really reflect. Then try to figure out what my next steps are. Reboot myself and get going again.

If you’ve been finishing a PhD at this time I can only imagine the angst and overwhelm that must be in the background (and foreground) as you come to your viva. Like me, you might need to reboot yourself to keep going.

Starting over doesn’t mean a blank slate or doing something wholly new. It doesn’t mean you ignore what’s happened or happening. Rebooting means taking the best of what’s come before, and channeling it for what you need now. Take the things that have worked, that could still work, and build on them.

  • So what’s at the core of your talent? How can you use that now things are different?
  • What methods have helped you make progress throughout your PhD? How can you use them now to help you prepare for and succeed in your viva?
  • What’s helped you to feel confident before? How can you use that to build your confidence now for the viva?

Rebooting isn’t always easy, and it’s rarely ever perfect, but it might be very helpful in the coming year.

Keep going.