Know This

At a recent workshop I was asked, what is the most important thing I should know before my viva?

Know that you are where you are supposed to be.

Know this.

You can be nervous about the viva, but you should know that you’re not only lucky when it comes to your research and success. You can be fortunate, but you can only get this far by being talented and doing the work needed.

You have to be talented to do the work!

You are where you are supposed to be…

If you know this, really know it, then the nerves won’t be all that important. You can do what you need to in order to get ready, and you will be great on the day. If you’re not quite there yet in knowing it, think about what might help, make a little plan, then get to work.

A Couple Of Thank Yous

The Viva Survivors daily blog is almost a year old! Thanks to everyone who reads, subscribes, shares it and sends me questions. Saying thank you is important: when you get the chance in your thesis acknowledgements make sure you take the time to say thank you. You did the work, but you had support and encouragement. I’ve written every word of this blog over the last year, but my ideas wouldn’t have spread far without help along the way. I want to take a few words today to thank four people who have inspired and helped me:

  • Jennifer Polk: Jen is a big force for good for academia! She has used her platform to connect people, ideas and more. Some of the most read posts on Viva Survivors are due to her taking the time to read and then share them.
  • Helen Kara: my co-author on Self-Publishing For Academics, Helen is an inspiring writer, researcher and facilitator. Her blog covers a wide range of topics and ideas and the drive she shows is an encouragement to me to keep this daily blog project going!
  • Ellie Mackin-Roberts: I’m a huge fan of Ellie’s YouTube channel, her honest and generous sharing is inspiring. Her practical videos as well are super-helpful to researchers at all career stages.
  • Inger Mewburn: The Thesis Whisperer! Inger recently celebrated eight years of her blog – I have a way to go yet! – and quite simply, if you’re looking for help on any aspect of the PhD journey, search on the Thesis Whisperer site first.

If you don’t know these wonderful people and their work then go check them out. All four of them inspire me to do more with this blog and this site. If you like the look of what they do, then also take a look at Helen, Ellie and Inger‘s Patreons – all of them have opened up avenues for others to support the good they do that helps a lot of people.

And to bring us back to vivas and the end of the PhD: really, really, say thank you to your friends and supporters in your thesis. It’s just something small to say, “you helped me.” Saying thank you doesn’t have to take long and it doesn’t have to take much.

Thanks for reading 🙂


How big a deal is your viva?

There are tens of thousands of them every year in the UK.

Maybe over a thousand in your university.

Even at a department level there could be dozens.

And your examiners may do four or five per year.

And despite all of the work that leads up to it by everyone involved, it will probably be over in a few hours, and will probably be similar to a lot of other vivas that have happened before.

Not that special.


…your research is unique. Your thesis is one-of-a-kind. You’re the only person who has gone on the research journey you’ve completed. To do it all, you have to be amazing.

Special is relative. From the perspective that matters – yours – the viva is special.

And so are you.

Two Perspectives

I often advise candidates to check out their examiners’ publications before the viva. Maybe they know their work already, maybe not, but either way they can get a sense of where their thinking is at. They can wonder about what assumptions, ideas or biases might inform their examiners’ questions.

If your viva is coming up you could also take it from the other perspective too. Look from your point of view, not your examiners. You don’t have to just think, “what could my examiner ask me?” You can also start from your research and reflect, “what connections can I see between my work and theirs?”

It’s the same area, but a different question to ask, and so different kinds of ideas bubble to the surface.

Four Ways To Prepare

You can prepare for your viva like you’re getting ready to fight: it’s a desperate struggle and you have to be ready for anything!

But how much time will that take? What does that say about how you feel about your thesis? What does that say about how you view your examiners?

You can prepare for your viva like it doesn’t really matter: most vivas end in success, and besides, your examiners have probably made up their minds anyway!

So is there nothing left to do? No value you could take away from the viva? Nothing that your examiners could surprise you with?

You can prepare for your viva like it’s just another day in the office: you know all you need to know, you’ve done all you can do and now there’s just one more day!

Which is the right ball park, but perhaps a bit fatalistic…

Or you can treat the viva as a milestone in your journey, and prepare for one more chance to show your qualities as a researcher in your field.

You can demonstrate, with a little preparation to get your thoughts in order, anything your examiners need from you in the viva.

Four ways to prepare for the viva. You get to pick which way you take. Totally your choice.

Questions and Processes

Some candidates approach preparation for questions in the viva like it’s a great big quiz.

If they try to think of every question that examiners could ask and make notes, they’ll have all the answers. But whenever they have another thought, or get another question from a colleague or supervisor, that’s something else to take account of. Another question and response to add to memory. At some point the weight of all that could crush a person.

A better process for question prep: find, make and use opportunities to get practise answering questions.

A process for the viva: pause when you get a question, think it through for a moment, then answer.

You can’t anticipate every question but you can be ready to answer any question.

Zine Time

I like zines! Small publications, often made with passion, often made because the creator has to make them once they’ve had the idea. I got interested through role-playing games zines. I made some in that area before I made The Viva Prep Handbook and The tiny book of viva prep.

A zine is a good small project: you have an idea for something that you want to exist and a series of problems to solve to make it real. Everything from content curation through to publishing is an interesting, stretching little challenge. You can learn a lot by making a zine.

For some researchers, a PhD thesis is like a really big zine – you make it because you have to, you have an itch that has to be scratched, a drive to make something that wasn’t there before (and you do nearly all of the work yourself!).

And I have a hunch that making a zine about your thesis could be a really interesting way to prepare for the viva – and share something about your research with others! Not a paper, not “just” an introduction, but a meaningful beginner’s guide maybe. I need to think about this more. There might be some future posts on this topic, but if you decide to play with the idea in the mean time, let me know.

Finally, I have a new zine project that I hope to share in the next few months, so watch this space!

The Extra Mile

During my PhD I didn’t have to extend my algorithm to consider the HOMFLY polynomial…

…but I thought it was more useful than just writing it was possible in a discussion section.

I didn’t have to produce tables of plait presentations in my thesis…

…but I knew that no-one else had done it before and thought it might be helpful to someone.

When have you gone the extra mile in your PhD? When have you done something, big or small, that maybe wasn’t essential but which helped?

Make a list of what and why. Don’t play them down. They can show others your drive to do something valuable for your field.


Obsessed with the fine detail of your thesis? Take a step back and think about where your research fits in the field.

Pondering over how your work relates to other researchers? Zero in on all of the steps that made your work what it is.

Don’t just focus on the big picture or the small stuff. Change your perspective. Zoom in and out. Build up and reinforce the connections ahead of your viva.

Fly On The Wall

A few years back I heard of universities offering first year PGRs the opportunity to sit in on vivas. They could take some of the fear out and get some real, observed expectations for their own viva. When the time came maybe they would pay it forward and offer a future first year to sit in on their viva. It’s a really nice idea…

…but I’m not sure how widespread it is as a practice. In the same way that a supervisor being present could make you nervous at being observed, I could see that this kind of experience could be stressing for a candidate, even if it could be good for future candidates. I know it might help someone, but I don’t know that I would have done it if it was my viva.

You can ask around though. Even if you can’t sit in, you can find out what it was like for others. Ask specific questions about their viva experiences and build up a picture. Also check if your institution has licensed The Good Viva Video by Angel Productions, which shows some realistic expectations.

There’s lots of information about the viva out there. You don’t have to look far. You don’t need to be a fly on the wall to learn about them. The viva experience doesn’t need to be a mystery.