Two Thesis Book Clubs

Two ideas that popped into my mind at a Viva Survivor workshop last week:

  1. If you and some colleagues are currently writing: go exploring in your department’s thesis collection. See what people have submitted in the last few years. Meet once a month to discuss what you’ve found. Perhaps you could all read a thesis per month or take it in turns. You might find something interesting but your goal should be to look at style, formatting, layout and argument construction. As a group, create a list of helpful thoughts for your own work. How can you best layout your thesis? How can you setup a good structure? and so on. Use this to make writing up better.
  2. If you’ve submitted and are preparing for the viva: invite some colleagues into a very special book club. Only one book involved: yours. If you have time, get them to read and think about a chapter per week, then invite them to ask you questions. If there isn’t time for a regular meeting, you could arrange a one-off event. Your friends get a copy of your thesis in advance to read, you give a short overview of your research at the start and then take questions.

As option two is geared solely around your thesis you might have to pay for some refreshments – but that’s a small investment compared to the benefits of valuable questions from your colleagues!

The Finale

I’m a fan of genre TV shows. I have been for years, so many, many long stories. I heard someone describe Lost as a ninety-hour movie and that seems pretty apt to me. Partly it’s the characters, the settings, the ideas but more than anything it’s the sheer scale of the stories being told. Heroes become villains, bad guys become unexpected allies, a late dramatic reveal upturns everything we know…

…and then there is the finale.

Things come to an end. A resolution is needed, but we need fan service too. Both characters and audiences need to be satisfied. All threads have to be tied up neatly.

With that much expectation is it any wonder that so many finales fall short?

The viva is the finale of the PhD (corrections are the credits rolling). So much has happened to get to that point, and so much is expected, wanted, needed from that event – is it any wonder that candidates sometimes feel it’s a bit of an anticlimax? That they were thinking it would be longer, or tougher, or that there would be something more about it?

If yours feels like that, don’t worry. You’ve not missed something. Your expectations were so grand that maybe they could never match the reality.

You’ve done it now. Reflect on the journey that got you here, look ahead and keep going.

The Viva Train

The viva is, in some ways, a bit like a train journey…

You have your ticket (thesis), you know your destination (graduation) but it’s right that the conductors (examiners) check you’re supposed to be there.

There’s clear norms about what’s involved. It takes time. It’s rare for something to go seriously wrong. If sometimes it might take a little longer than expected it can be coped with. Even if it was cancelled, there would be another at some point.

Thankfully, unlike a lot of trains, the viva is not too crowded and you have space to stretch out a little and think.

You should probably still keep your feet off the seat.



At the start of my workshops I always share that my viva was four hours long. I’d be asked at some point anyway, and once it’s out there we can talk about expectations. My viva was longer than most, but not the longest I’ve heard of. It was challenging, but not bad. It was tiring, but that was mostly due to insomnia the night before.

By sharing my story I can talk more generally about the stories I’ve heard and what realistic expectations are for the viva.

But mentioning the length of my viva raises a worrying series of questions for some people: “What if I have a four-hour viva? What if I lose my focus? What if it’s all too much and I can’t concentrate? What then?”

Well, what if you’re fine? What if nothing bad happens?

What if you invest time and energy and stress now on things that might never happen, when you could invest them in something better?

You can’t be certain in advance of the viva of how long it will be, of what award you will get, of what your examiners will think or what questions will come up. You can have reasonable expectations about all of them maybe, but you can’t have certainty about them.

You can be certain of what you know and what you can do. You did the work. You’re talented. You can be prepared for the discussion that comes up in your viva.

Don’t focus on “what ifs” and maybes. Focus on your certainties.

Viral Viva Stories

this one time, a person had a two-day viva

your examiners play good cop/bad cop with their questions

they’re just out to get you

you can’t really prepare

Urban legends about the viva have spread well. Little idea-viruses swarming through the postgraduate population. Most candidates, however positive they are, have heard stories of a friend-of-a-friend that sound awful. Even if the vast majority of vivas work out fine, the myths and legends persist, leaving doubts and worries in their wake.

Ask around, not for what people have heard but for what happened to them. Ask PhD graduates what they did to prepare, and what happened on the day. Build a picture of what vivas generally look like and you’ll see what you need to do for yours.

When you’re done, share your story. Release your own idea-virus into the wild.

Dreaded Questions

What do you not want to talk about in the viva? What topics or questions do you dread?

Hoping they won’t come up won’t help. You have to engage with them somehow in your prep, otherwise you’re walking towards the viva with a big worry strapped to your back.

Consider the opposite: what do you want to talk about in the viva? What are you hoping your examiners will ask?

Reflect a little on the topics you want to talk about. What makes them that way? Work to make the topics you dread more like that. How can you improve your understanding of something? Can you get a friend or your supervisor to ask you questions? Can you write something that will help you unpick an idea?

It’s not enough to know what you hope won’t come up in the viva. You have to then figure out what you’re going to do as a result.

Two Truths

Truth Number One: If you get corrections it means your thesis isn’t perfect.

Truth Number Two: Nobody’s thesis is perfect and examiners aren’t expecting yours to be.

Typos can be fixed. Clunky paragraphs can be changed. Ideas can be added. References can be amended.

Just submit the best thesis you can, then go to the viva ready to talk about what you did and what you wrote.


I love the questions I get in workshops. It’s nice to help people with answers. Sometimes questions surprise me with how they’re phrased or the details involved. Last week I had to pause to think about how to answer a simply stated query:

What impresses examiners?

You and your thesis. Reading a significant original contribution to knowledge; getting to discuss it with the researcher who did the work.

You are impressive: the work, the talent, the commitment.