Start Small

Day one of viva preparation doesn’t have to be re-reading your thesis and exploring your examiners’ work and writing summaries and practising questions and sticking in Post-its AND reading 101 blog posts about how to do everything!

Day one can just be ten minutes thinking about what you need to do before the viva.

There are big tasks on the journey to the viva, but you can start small. It doesn’t have to be everything all at once.

Give yourself time to think, time to prep, time to get things done.

Small steps will get you there.

The Slush Pile

I have folders of ideas that haven’t quite made it into reality. Everything from blog posts and simple games to books and workshop concepts.

Now and then I review them. Sometimes something will click and I’ll see a way to make that thing real; sometimes I’ll see that the idea is not relevant any more, or feel that it has been surpassed by something else.

And often I’ll just have a feeling the idea needs more time or a later collision with another idea, so back in the folder it will go.

Before the viva your focus needs to be the work you’ve done: what you’ve completed, why it’s good and how you did it. But keep an hour for checking your slush pile, the ideas that didn’t quite come together. Not something you now need to add to your thesis, just something to turn around in your mind again. Look for the ways they connect with your achievements and see what you could do with them in the future.

Your next big idea could already be waiting for you.


In the viva your examiners have freedom to ask about everything in your thesis. They can also ask about anything that isn’t in there.

You have to have boundaries for your research. You can’t do everything, but you’ll probably think about a lot more than you finally include in your thesis. Your answer can simply be, “That was out of the scope of my research,” but that might not be answer enough for your examiners.

So explore the why with them. Why didn’t you do it? Don’t take the question as a criticism; questions explore. Give your examiners your reasons – lack of time, lack of interest, lack of resources, lack of information, deliberate choice to focus on something else… Whatever it is, but be real. Don’t bluff. Be honest.

There might be interesting, exciting things that you’ve not done, but you must have done something good to be in the viva.

♥ Your Thesis

I think you can love your viva, but probably only after the fact. Before it you can be excited, but you’ll still be wondering, “What if…?” about something. You can look forward to it, and it will probably go well, but you can’t love your viva until you’re all done.

Roses are red/Violets are blue/You’ve got this far/You’ve got this too!

You can only love the viva after the fact, but you can love your thesis and your research before you finish your PhD. Maybe you don’t feel that way now.

Find your reasons. Look for them. Don’t just read your work and try to memorise things. Look for reasons to be proud. Look for reasons to be happy. Look for reasons to shout from the rooftops that your thesis is amazing and you love it!

Get to the point where you ♥ your thesis and I think you’ll ♥ your viva too.


Ask For Opinions

Ask your supervisors what they think about your examiners, your work and vivas in general.

Ask friends who have had their viva what they think you should do to prepare, what their viva was like and how they felt about it.

Ask friends who haven’t had their viva about your work, your field, and generally anything you think will help.

You can always ask for opinions, but remember you get to choose what to act on.


Can you be overprepared for the viva? I’m not sure what that would look like.

Can you waste time on activities that don’t really contribute much to your viva preparedness? Sure.

Can you focus so much on prep that you start to stress yourself out? Definitely.

Perhaps the best question to start exploring this topic is “How will you know you’re prepared?”

Set some criteria. Figure out tasks that will help meet them. Do the work.

Be prepared.

Behind The Curtain

In The Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy’s friends all thought they were missing something.

The Scarecrow didn’t have a brain, the Tin Man lacked a heart and the Lion had no courage. Dorothy takes them to see the Wizard, thinking that a great and powerful man like him will be able to give them the qualities they lack. Ultimately though, he shows them there is nothing he can give that they didn’t already have. All he gives them are symbols that recognise what was there.

Those qualities were there because they had the opportunity to show them through their adventures. They had to do something to demonstrate their intelligence, their love, their bravery, but after years of doubt they couldn’t see they had those qualities. They had to have the symbol and someone to point it out to them.

There are two Wizards in your viva. They can’t magically give you a PhD. Their questions give you the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do, something that you’ve been doing for a long time.

The curtain is pulled back and the truth is there. There’s no magic, but that’s no problem. You already have everything you need.

Things I Don’t Know

There are lots of things I don’t know about the viva.

I don’t know if there’s any great differences between the vivas of part-time and full-time PhDs.

I don’t know how well vivas over Skype work compared to vivas in person.

I don’t know what percentage of people submit a thesis-by-publication.

I don’t know all of the regulations for all of the universities in the UK. (but I’m working on it!)

And I don’t know what percentage of candidates fail their viva, because universities are very reluctant to share that sort of data.

I have theories or ideas about all of these; hunches based on incomplete information, or ideas about how to get more stats. I’d like to explore these topics and many others, I just need to find the time to do it.

But the information is out there.

On smaller scales, your personal scale, the information is out there. There are regulations for your institution. You have a supervisor who can help shape your expectations. There are graduates you can talk to about viva experiences.

Figure out what you don’t know about the viva, then get to work finding out more.

(and I’ll do the same!)

The Quantum Viva

I meet a lot of PhD candidates who walk around with a strange indeterminate state attached to their future viva. They think of their viva as pass/fail, not two possible outcomes but a strange quantum state. Until they come out of the other side and know the result, this puts them in a strange too, prone to stress and anxiety.

The outcome of the viva might feel uncertain as it gets closer. You have to have the viva to confirm what your examiners think of your work and of you – but if you’ve got this far, why would the outcome be in doubt? What problems still exist that make the outcome pass/fail? Why do you have doubts?

Explore what’s keeping you in that state. Try to build a good new story for your viva. It’s almost certainly a pass: not because of tradition or statistics or some theory, but because you can’t get this far without doing something good and without being good yourself.

Put pass/fail to one side, and think about what you need to do to change your state.

Whatever Comes Next

Remember at the end of your PhD – after the viva is done, after the corrections are finished, when you can breathe – take a moment to pause.

Whatever you do afterwards – whether you’re returning to a role you’ve had before, continuing with research in some form, going on to some new challenge – take time to unpack what you’ve got from your PhD.

Whatever comes next, you can meet that challenge in a new way.

Whatever comes next, you have talent that you didn’t have before.

Whatever comes next, you can draw on your experience, your grit and your commitment to getting something big done.

Your PhD is a big deal. Now go do the next big deal.