The Second Question

I love delivering my Viva Survivor session, partly because it helps people, partly because I get to try new things and develop the session more every time, and partly because I’m always kept on my toes by questions from participants. Just before the summer someone asked me, “What’s the second question likely to be in the viva?”

It really made me think. What could I say as a useful answer? I can’t predict the second question, of course, no-one can, but I don’t think the person asking it thought that I could. So what might they be looking for? What might they need?

I said something like this:

It might be could you say more about your contribution? or who do you see your key influences as being? or that’s interesting, why do you say that?

It depends on the first question, the first answer, the thoughts and opinions of your examiners and a lot of other factors.

You can’t control all of these factors, and you can’t know what your first answer is until you experience your first question and then talk.

But whatever your second (or first or fifteenth) question is, remember that you’re well-placed to give a good answer.

You didn’t just appear in the viva. And it’s not just any viva: it’s your viva. You did the thinking. You did the work. You wrote the thesis.

You can answer the second (or first or fifteenth) question.

Sketching Prep Time

Are you worried about managing to prepare for the viva because you have work, family or a life?

When you submit, sketch out a calendar of the following three months. Show all of the days. Three months is the typical upper limit on the window between submission and the viva. Some universities aim for less, so check your institution’s expectations.

Now: cross out all of the days when you will simply be too busy or unavailable to do any viva prep. If you have holidays, block them out. If you work certain days or have other commitments then block out that time.

You’re left with all of the dates when you will probably have some time to spend on prep. This doesn’t mean spending eight hours per day in prep, just a small portion of each day typically (thirty minutes to an hour).

When you have a viva date your preparation window becomes crystal clear: you can see exactly what opportunities you have and make a real plan. Rather than start with a big list of things you could do, start with an outline of how much time you have. Work with the time that you’ve got, rather than wonder how you will squeeze everything in.

Nine Noes For The Viva

No way your thesis is perfect.

No expectation it should be either.

No chance you’re not an expert in your research.

No way to predict exactly what will happen in the viva.

No excuse for not having expectations either (there are lots of people who have had them before!).

No examiner has lived through doing your research.

No possibility you got to submission without doing something good.

No way you can do the work without being talented.

No chance you’re not ready when the viva comes around.

Another Bank Holiday

If you’re writing up your thesis, you can take a day off.

If your viva is soon, you can take a day off.

If your viva is done and you’re working on corrections, you can take a day off.

Rest and relaxation is required, not a nice little bonus if you get around to it.

What you’re doing is important.

So take a day off.

#takebreaksmakebreakthroughs (with thanks to Dr Kay Guccione!)

Three Challenges

Three challenges for the PhD candidate.

First Challenge: believing that you don’t need to have a photographic memory about everything connected with your research and your thesis. Your examiners don’t expect you to know every possible thing. They expect you to have done the work, done some prep and be a talented researcher in your field. You can show them this.

Second Challenge: recognising that the viva is not the hardest thing you will ever do, and not even the hardest thing you will do as part of your PhD. It’s a couple of hours, talking with experts about your work, and it matters, of course – but so does the thousands of hours of work that’s gone into producing your thesis.

Third Challenge: accepting that the viva, in most cases, is a reasonably enjoyable experience. Some vivas are tougher than others, with more difficult circumstances. It doesn’t follow that yours will be.

Notice that none of these challenges are faced in the viva exactly, but in the expectations for it. Rise to meet them and the viva itself will seem less worrying.

Thesis Commentary

Can you summarise each page in your thesis in ten words or less?

You have plenty of white space at the top of each page, so you can if you want to. It wouldn’t take long, assuming you’d read your thesis since submission, and were generally familiar with it. A minute to think and capture the flow of your research.

300+ words, maybe tables, a diagram, ideas, all compressed into a few words to help you when you return to the page again in your prep or the viva.

Taken together, all of these words would create a director’s commentary for your thesis. A DVD extra for your research. You help yourself when you write the commentary – reflecting, thinking – and help yourself later when you come back to it. A little helpful commentary for you.

There’s plenty of white space at the bottom of each page too. If the top of the page summarises the flow of your work, maybe there’s something useful you could put at the bottom as well. Highlight a key reference? An idea that’s important? What you think of it all?

You don’t have to fill the margins of every page to prepare well for the viva, but a little thought and a few words can be really helpful.

Mental Stretches

Sanderson’s Second Law Of Mathematics:

The mind is a muscle and must be exercised.”

My high school maths teacher had this written on his classroom wall, along with two other “laws of maths” he claimed as his. They’ve resonated with me a lot over the years. You only get better at something intellectual by doing it. It’s not enough to have done some work in the past, you have to keep going, stay sharp and look for new ways of thinking.

That’s the main point of viva prep. You can’t just rest on your laurels when your thesis is done. You have to stretch, keep your mind in shape. Exercise for your brain: small exercises to test your skills and knowledge.

Nowhere near as much work as you’ve done before, but enough to keep you thinking, remembering, honed and ready.

(Sanderson’s First Law Of Mathematics: “A lazy mathematician is a good one.” The Third: “Mathematicians think in pictures – so use them!“)

(Let’s stick with the Second for viva prep…!)


There’s a mindset of exploration in viva preparation.

  • Exploring what you did: not simply reading your thesis, but digging into it.
  • Exploring what it means: reflecting on what you think now.
  • Exploring recent literature: updating what you know and what might matter.
  • Exploring your examiners: what they know and do.
  • Exploring the possibilities for the viva: what might or might not happen.

If you’ve done the work for a PhD, being an explorer is probably second nature to you. You’re good at exploring; to prepare well for the viva you just need to continue using skills you already have.