It’s summer! There’s no days off for Viva Survivors, there’ll continue to be a new post every day, same as always, but I will be taking more time off for August so if anyone drops me an email or tweets at me there could be a gap before I get back to you.

I’m using some of my down time to think about more resources that I want to share on the site. I have some ideas that I would love to share but I think they’d be done best through the medium of video rather than text, so we’ll have to see how these develop 🙂

I’ve taken my print books off sale for now, as I don’t want to go to the Post Office throughout August, but to compensate for that there’s a 40% code off all of my ebooks until the end of August. Simply go to, select whichever ebooks you want and then use code SUMMER2018 before you pay. That’s it, 40% off 🙂

There’s a new post every day throughout August. Take a day off here and there, even if your viva is coming up soon. Take time to reflect, refresh and revive.

Enjoy your summer!

Assume It’s Going Well

A couple of months ago I got an interesting question at a workshop:

“How can you tell when the viva is going badly versus when you just think it’s going bad?”

This is a good question. Sometimes when we perceive things as being a problem, or tricky, or going bad, it’s just down to our perception. If you were worried that something might go wrong in the viva you might prime yourself to look for any data that would back that idea up. The tone of a question, the inclination of an examiner’s head, the slightest pause – anything could help to confirm your worries.

I’ve reflected on the question for a while, and the best thing I can say in response is “assume it’s going to go well, and assume while you’re in the viva that it is going well.” Unless your examiners pause things to say, “There’s a big problem” or “This is not what we expect” – both of which are really, really unlikely – then you can continue to assume it’s going well.

There’s perhaps a deeper question that needs addressing for the person at my workshop, which I didn’t have time to follow-up then:

“Why would you think your viva wasn’t going to go well?”

If you’re assuming there could be a problem then do something about it. Prepare more. Talk to your supervisor. Find out more about expectations. Learn more about your examiners.

Change your assumption.



The portal opens between here and the antimatter universe!

Look here! We’ve found it. A small and unremarkable planet orbiting a cold yellow sun. Don’t be deceived. Many things are different in this strange and weird place, but some things are almost the same.

But not quite.

Let’s call this planet Oppositeworld.

The vivas in Oppositeworld are odd events. Candidates still do research for three or more years, but in the end have nothing firm to show for it. The viva takes place with a couple of examiners, but the candidate drives the process with questions. They want to know what examiners think, see what they’ve understood in the thesis.

Examiners regularly fail candidates for not asking enough questions, for not asking the right questions, for not asking perfect questions. The rules are arbitrary, almost without definition. You could surmise that this might make things very stressful, but since most people fail, they expect that they probably will too and so don’t feel too bad when that expectation is matched by their experience.

Preparation is discouraged. Taking a copy of your thesis is forbidden. Your examiners are mean and hyper-critical, your supervisors give you the cold shoulder and no-one can help in any way. The road to the viva in Oppositeworld is dark and dangerous and those who pass are held in even lower regard than those who don’t. Hushed tones accompany them for the rest of their days, “There’s that Dr… What did they do?”


The portal collapses and Oppositeworld is shrouded behind the quantum mists once more. Notice how strangely familiar it was. Even when things were different they were not so different as to be incomprehensible.

While you may not wish to visit Oppositeworld, remember that they might not wish to visit here too. They might not really understand us nor would they care to have a “proper” viva in our universe.

After all, why would they want to go towards a viva which most people pass but still find stressful and anxious in preparation? Why, we can imagine them asking, would they worry when so many people in that situation pass?

Why indeed.


I advise candidates to annotate their thesis, but the word really in my mind is augment:

To make something greater by adding to it…

You’re not just adding some notes or bookmarks, some Post-its or highlighted sections; your thesis will be better for you doing it.

I use the word annotate in workshops, because that’s what people expect. Let’s be clear though: if you add Post-its to show the start of chapters, underline typos, add notes in a consistent way, highlight references, insert clarifications, decrypt technical language, update a thought and anything else like this – you’re augmenting. Your thesis is greater than it was, a richer resource for you.

Step one, ask yourself: what would make your thesis even greater for you?

First Time PhD

In ten years of working with researchers I’ve met one person doing their second PhD. PhDs are fairly rare in the population; a person with two is like finding Bigfoot riding a unicorn!

For most candidates though, PhDs feel quite common. You’re around people all the time who either have them or want them. Often it can be easy to feel like maybe you’re not as good as others (hello impostor syndrome!). While you’re on track you’re not quite there yet. You see people who have succeeded and it’s easy to feel like you might not ever get there.

Well: give yourself a break!

It’s the first time you’ve done a PhD!

Whatever else you’ve done, whatever your achievements, interests or professional standing, this is a big deal. It’s important and it’s difficult – doubly difficult because usually you’re learning how to do research while doing it. Your process evolves while you do.

Appreciate that this is your first time. You don’t have to have all the answers. No-one expects the impossible.

If you feel like the PhD is beyond you, or the viva is out of reach, take a step back. Every day is an opportunity to get a little better, a little closer to “done,” but this is still your first time doing a PhD.


In the viva, as with the rest of your PhD and life in general, there are things you can control and things you can’t.

You can control what goes into your final thesis, but you can’t control what your examiners think of it.

You can control how much you know about your research and your field, but you can’t control what questions come up.

You can control what you do to feel confident, but you can’t get rid of nervousness completely.

You control the actions you take. Focus on what you can do to be prepared, not on things which are beyond your control.

White Knuckle

I really don’t like rollercoasters. I’ve been on two, hated them both, and don’t intend to go on any more. They’re just not for me, but if you’ve never been on one you should give one a go if you can.

Rollercoasters can be scary, but you have total control about how and when you go on. No-one is ever surprised to find themselves on a rollercoaster. And having done one, you don’t have to do another. You might hate it, just like me, or you might love it. It’ll spin you around either way, and then it’s over. In some ways, the anticipation – the thought of simply being on a rollercoaster – might be more stressful than the ride itself.

The viva can feel like a rollercoaster for some candidates.

Tension grows as you prepare, going higher and higher until the day and then zoooooom! It’s all over almost as soon as you’ve started, you don’t remember every part and you leave slightly stunned. “Wh-? Did that just happen?!”

And for some people the anticipation of the viva might end up being more stressful than the viva itself.

Maximum Effort

Or rather, Maximum Effort! if you’re a fan of the Deadpool movies. It’s not quite a catchphrase, just a fun thing that the anti-hero says before a couple of cool moments in the films. I was away for work last month when I saw the second movie, and the phrase stood out to me.

As I was walking back from the cinema I pondered: “What would Maximum Effort! look like for viva preparation?”

Would it be…

  • …checking every paper your examiners had ever published, learning them by heart?
  • …having a mock viva, a mock-mock-viva plus weekly status update and chapter breakdown meetings with your supervisor?
  • …preparing answers to every question you could think of?
  • …putting Post-it Notes everywhere in your thesis?
  • …reading your thesis until you can see it with your eyes closed?
  • …optimising everything you can think of to fine-tune your confidence?

Erm, yeah, probably.

But do you need to do all of that?

No. Not at all. Check out your examiners’ work, have a mock if it will help and practise answering unexpected questions. Annotate your thesis in a useful way, read and check it so you have a good mental picture and do what you can to be your best on the day.

You don’t need to make a Maximum Effort! for the viva when you’ve come as far as you have already.

Needles & Haystacks

We all know looking for a needle in a haystack is a fool’s errand.

I understand why PhD candidates are interested in being well prepared for questions in the viva. Too often though the desire is expressed as wanting to prepare perfect answers, or anticipate all the questions that might come up. But this is looking for a needle in a haystack. There are thousands of questions you could conceive of that are relevant, interesting and possible for your viva…

…and you won’t be asked most of them.

You can’t think of every possible question. There’s not enough time.

You can’t prepare answers to all of the questions you can think of. There’s not enough time.

You can’t prepare perfect answers, full stop!

What you can do: find opportunities to practise answering unexpected questions. Have a mock viva. Chat to friends over coffee. Give a seminar. Email colleagues and ask them for their questions.

Stop looking around in haystacks for every question. Start finding opportunities where the questions come to you.

Counting For The Viva

One experienced candidate waiting to be done,

Two prepared examiners hoping this is fun.

Three years (or more) leading to this day,

Four key threads of prep can help along the way.


Five seconds pause can help get a thought together;

Six hours is unlikely (but never say never)!

Seven might be lucky, but you don’t need to be,

Eight lines is enough, now repeat: “It’s up to me.”