People sometimes think of The Hobbit as just the prologue to The Lord Of The Rings.

The story of The Hobbit is barely a footnote in the first Lord Of The Rings movie. They take a few seconds to say “Bilbo found a magic ring” – but there’s so much more to it than that! Dwarves and trolls and fantastic expeditions, elves and a dragon and incredible heroism…

The Hobbit is an epic adventure. It’s not only so Bilbo can find the One Ring.

…we now cut from Nathan’s Book & Movie Review Corner, back to the Viva Survivors blog…

I think candidates sometimes forget that the time spent doing the PhD is not just the prologue. And your thesis is for more than passing the viva. It isn’t just there to please your examiners and pass an exam. It stands as a separate, lasting contribution. It means something.

The ways you change, the things you learn, the things you can do by the end – it’s epic, not just the prologue.

I love The Hobbit, but The Lord Of The Rings is the grander story. Your life after the PhD probably will be too.

A Lot To Celebrate

Celebration is a human fundamental. We’re wired to mark the important things, and finishing a PhD is a big one. There are lots of points where you can stop and say, “Woohoo!” and it’s useful to mark your progress.

Celebrate your first draft being done, then celebrate when you submit.

Do something to celebrate getting your viva date, because you’re one step closer to the finish line.

When you pass have as many celebrations as you like, one for each group you belong to – family, friends, colleagues, and so on – and then celebrate again when your corrections are complete.

There is a lot to celebrate. Celebrations don’t have to be big, but finishing your PhD is a big deal. Don’t play it down. Don’t focus solely on it being done and move on to the next thing.

Why does getting your PhD mean something to you? Celebrate it.

What Could I Do?

I’m fond of short questions. After a chance conversation in a workshop last month I’ve been reflecting a lot on “What could I do?”

“What could I do?” is, I think, at the heart of the research process. It’s the problem-solving question. “What could I do?” starts the journey, long or short, to the next step.

Need more feedback than you’re currently getting? What could I do?

Unsure if you’ll hit your submission deadline? What could I do?

Not feeling quite prepared? What could I do?

Examiner just challenged you with a comment? What could I do?

Around the end of the PhD, in preparation for the viva and in the viva itself, What could I do? is one of the strongest questions you could bring to bear on any challenge.

PhD done and looking for your next challenge? What could I do?

(What couldn’t you do?)


There’s a lot of light cast around during the PhD process.

You shine a light on a topic you found, and create more when you write your thesis.

You brighten up your thesis when you prepare for the viva.

Your examiners bring your work into full sun, although hopefully it won’t feel like a harsh glare.

And fingers crossed you won’t have to burn the midnight oil to add a little more light with your corrections.

Every step of the way you illuminate something because you’re making it easier for someone else to see the value of what you’ve found.

Keep on shining.

Finding Feedback That Helps

After submission and before the viva, feedback is still one of the most useful things you can go looking for as part of your prep.

Make a list of who could really give you useful feedback: your supervisor, your office-mate, a person you met at a conference…

Make a list of topics: the way you answer questions, how clear your thesis is, whether your assumptions about your examiners are useful…

Make a list of questions: is this useful? how could this be better? why does this work well?…

Then go ask.

Go get the support you need.

First & Last

There’s a rule of thumb for the viva some examiners have mentioned to me:

“The first question will be easy; the last question might not be.”

There’s no trick to the first part of the statement. Examiners want the viva to go as well as it can. The first question is likely to be something you’ve thought about or could realistically expect (like how you got interested in your topic). The intention is to help get past the awkwardness and nerves of being there and get down to business.

There’s no trick to the second part either. You might get tricky questions in the viva. You might face criticisms of your work. You might find the discussion leads to a tough debate. Given the nature of what you’ve done and what the viva is for, it’s reasonable to expect the odd difficult question, particularly near the end.

It’s unreasonable to think that every question will be hard though. Expect the viva will start well. Expect your examiners will ask tough but fair questions of a talented person.

(that’s you)

Power Ups

What have you got that will give you that little boost of ability, of focus, of comfort and confidence before your viva?

Will it be a piece of music? A cup of coffee? A mantra or a prayer or a hug?

Checking one more paper? Reading your opening or closing chapter one more time?

A mock viva or a chat with a friend? An hour in a cafe, quietly sipping some tea and doing a crossword?

Maybe it’s none of these. Maybe you’re feeling fine for your viva.

But if you need something look for a power up.

Fourteen Faves

Quick exercise to get you reflecting on your whole PhD journey. What’s your…

  1. …favourite paper in your bibliography?
  2. …favourite discovery you made?
  3. …favourite meeting with your supervisor?
  4. …favourite conference talk you gave?
  5. …favourite question you’ve been asked?
  6. …favourite talk you attended?
  7. …favourite chapter of your thesis?
  8. …favourite sentence of your thesis?
  9. …favourite word you didn’t know when you started your PhD?
  10. …favourite thing you still don’t have an answer to?
  11. …favourite break from your PhD?
  12. …favourite place to work?
  13. …favourite time you made a breakthrough?
  14. …favourite contribution you’ve made to your field?

Your mind has collected a lot of neat stuff over the last few years. What stands out?