Rest And Think

When do you do your best thinking? How do you relax? How do you organise your thoughts?

I think with a bit of reflection everyone can better their process. If you reflect on the above questions, you can start to think about how you improve. For example, for me:

  • I do my best thinking when I’m walking along the seafront – so maybe I should do more of this…
  • I relax well at the moment playing video games – and that’s nice but a bit lonely, so maybe I need to play more board games…
  • I use a couple of notebooks, but they run out too quick – so maybe I need to re-examine my system…

You don’t have to get better at something just for the sake of it, but if you want to improve you have to start from somewhere. After all, there’s a lot of thought needed in the production of a thesis, in the preparation for the viva and on the day itself. And for PhDs that question about relaxing is most important. Time off is never time wasted. Remember to take a day off, even if you’re preparing for the viva.


My daughter is nearly four. While she seems to be changing all the time, there are some constants. Since a very early age we’ve read her a bedtime story every day. My wife and I love reading and telling stories and we want our daughter to be the same. Of course, we want her to simply enjoy stories at bedtime, but we hope it will make a connection for her life too. Books are great, stories are important.

Throughout your PhD you’ve built some strong connections with your research. Take a step back and think: what are they? Where do you feel personally involved with the research and the outcomes? If your viva is coming up, what new connections can you try to build between now and then? Look for new things in your thesis that are great, look for the parts of your research that are important.

Alter Ego

I’ve been thinking about superheroes and the viva again (see previously). Some heroes have their powers all the time, regardless of whether they’re in uniform. Some have tools or equipment that make them better, but Captain America is still awesome without his shield. Tony Stark might be smart but he’s not Iron Man without a suit. And Bruce Banner might be very clever, but he’s not the Hulk unless he changes. Different kinds of heroes.

This makes me think of viva preparation. Some people feel more or less happy about the viva when they submit their thesis, because they have their knowledge at their fingertips. Some people feel alright, but know that they’ll feel better if they make some notes or do something to prepare. And some people need something to help them transform: they have to prepare or they won’t feel ready.

All of these needs are fine. If your viva is coming up, you just need to reflect for yourself: what do you need so you’ll be at your best?

Then go be a hero.

Who’s In The Room?

It’s your viva day. There’s you, your internal examiner, your external examiner. At some institutions there’s an independent chair too, someone making sure that the viva is fair. Many universities also allow a candidate’s supervisor to be present.

Did you hear that?! That was the sharp intake of breath of a thousand PhDs around the land.

My supervisor could be at my viva?! Noooooooo!!!

If your supervisor came to your viva they would be there only as an observer. If they came to your viva they couldn’t ask any questions or comment on your responses. If they came it would only be because you allowed it.

But if they came they would be able to make notes on your behalf. You’re free to make any notes you like, but that could be tricky. Your supervisor, if you wanted and if they were willing, could keep a record of interesting questions or observations. This information could be pretty useful after the viva. But it’s all up to you. If the thought of your supervisor coming adds pressure, then just say no.

Opening Line

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

A good opening line captures a reader. Authors can take a long time to figure them out, so they get just the right way to start a story.

PhD candidates can take some time too and figure out how to start their viva. It’s likely that they’ll be asked a question to give some kind of overview of research, or to talk about the highlights of their results. If you’re in that position, viva coming up, think about how you would start. How would you summarise what you’ve done? How would you break down your results? How would you hook your examiners?

Maybe not it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

No Guarantee

I knew what troubled me before the viva. I couldn’t explain the background of a particular chapter in my thesis. I understood the results perfectly. I didn’t understand the set-up. I tried to avoid thinking about it.

Methodology, results, conclusions, longevity of research – there are lots of areas that set people on edge, lots of directions tricky questions can come from. I don’t have a silver bullet to solve this problem. The only thing I can think of is practice: find opportunities to practise answering tricky questions. It’s not a plan with a guarantee. It doesn’t mean that you’ll answer questions perfectly. You will answer them better and I think you’ll have less anxiety.

What kinds of questions do you feel you might struggle with in the viva? What can you do to answer them well?

As I said, I knew what troubled me before the viva and I tried to avoid thinking about it. That’s not a winning strategy.

Examiner Profiles

You can ask your supervisors for guidance. You can talk to colleagues about your ideas. You can even ask your non-PhD friends for help. You can’t ask your examiners anything before the viva, but you can do some work to get insight and feel confident about answering their questions.

Follow this seven step process for each of your examiners to get a sense of where they might be coming from:

  1. What papers have they recently published?
  2. Are there any themes, topics or ideas that they are consistently exploring?
  3. How does their research connect with your thesis?
  4. What are their declared research interests (on their staff page)?
  5. How do their research interests overlap with yours?
  6. What do you know about their reputation?
  7. How could their opinions help you?

Work your way through these questions for each of your examiners, either researching to find out information (like their papers or interests) or reflecting to see what it means for you. The last question is important particularly if you’re working towards an academic career. Your examiners will be part of a small group of people who have read all of your work. Their opinion could give you a helpful steer or fantastic idea.

You can’t ask them for help before the viva, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some help from them anyway.

SWOTting Up

SWOT is a neat thinking tool: rather than just throw ideas around to try to unpick a problem or situation it uses words to direct attention. As an acronym it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. For example, if you had an idea for writing a book and wanted to analyse it you might think about the following:

  • Strengths: what resources do you have? What knowledge can you pass on?
  • Weaknesses: what will you struggle with in the writing? What is difficult to share?
  • Opportunities: can you use the same material for something else? What doors might it open?
  • Threats: why might this not work? Is there a potential downside by doing it?

I love tools based around framing words and SWOT is a really flexible tool. It works well for reviewing a PhD thesis during viva preparation too:

  • Strengths: what are the highlights of the thesis? What might others find valuable?
  • Weaknesses: what parts are difficult to explain? What are the limitations of what you’ve done?
  • Opportunities: how might you extend your work? What can you do now?
  • Threats: how might someone criticise what you’ve done? Are there any potential problems?

What else can you do to look at your thesis a little bit differently?


My daughter will be four in the autumn. For some time now, “Why?” has been the most-uttered expression in and out of our house. Why is the sky blue, why did you say that, why are we having pasta for dinner, why can’t I go in the garden if it’s raining, why why why… It can make you a little crazy some time, but it’s how kids make sense of things.

For similar reasons, “why?” is also one of the most useful questions you can ask yourself before and during the viva. Come across something you don’t understand? Why? Is a sentence a bit vague in your thesis? Why? Question from your examiner not making sense? Why?

Even if your examiner disagrees with you, the best thing you can do to start discussing the topic with them is ask: why?