Worst Case Scenario

I spend a good chunk of my work time on my way to do workshops or thinking about travel. I check train times and maps, I think about taxis, I look for hotels…

…is it any wonder my dreams skew towards weird worlds where train times change while you’re in motion? Where I move at a glacial pace through a hotel with confusing rooms, and arrive for work late and unready to do things… I really hate being late. I hate trains being cancelled. They’re my bane, my nightmare situations. And so when my brain decides to mix things up, it feeds these thoughts back to me in IMAX Dream-O-Vision.

What’s your worst case scenario for your viva? What do you worry about?

I’ve often thought that last-minute postponement would be bad, or a fire alarm going off on the day. Candidates often build themselves up to defend their thesis. If I was to find out with little warning the viva was not going ahead, I could understand how that would be frustrating.

Maybe a worst case scenario is silence in the viva. Or being worried that you’ll go blank. From the questions people regularly ask me I know these situations are in candidates’ minds.

I hate being late. It’s my worst case scenario, so I do something about it. I check distances beforehand. I bookmark map locations. I have an app on my phone to consult about trains now.

I can’t turn my dreams off, but they show up less frequently.

Worst case scenarios are, thankfully, rarely reality. What’s yours? Think about it, write down what it would be like. Now, accepting this is unlikely to happen, what can you do to act against the worst of it?

Probably more than you think.

Three Easy Wins For Viva Prep

I’m a fan of the “three easy wins” productivity idea: simply put, start your day by getting three little victories. Clear that email out of your inbox, write down that short paragraph or check your blog feed for new posts. Just do three simple things that don’t require a lot of work. These little efforts add to your overall sense of achievement for the day. They move you along in the right direction.

Viva prep can seem overwhelming to some: it can feel like a lot to do before you might be ready for the viva. If this is how you feel, let me suggest three easy wins to get you started:

  1. Put a small Post-it Note at the start of each chapter in your thesis. This makes your thesis easier to navigate.
  2. Bookmark the staff pages for your examiners. Later you can go to these directly when you want to explore their recent work.
  3. Decide on a simple system for annotating your thesis. Figure out what pens, colours, tabs and so on you will consistently use.

Three easy wins, probably ten minutes in total. A great start to viva prep. After this, just keep going. You’ll get where you need to be.

The UnAbstract

Look at the first statement of research in your thesis, your abstract. How clear is it? How would you explain it in plain, simple words? How would you remove jargon?

Would your abstract be enough to explain your ideas to a clever-but-less-knowledgeable person?

As a short viva prep exercise, consider writing a short UnAbstract. Something that doesn’t rely on specialist terms. Something that clearly states what you’ve done. It doesn’t mean you take each sentence of your abstract and simplify or de-jargon it. Use this opportunity this as a blank slate. Think about what your thesis actually does. Who is it for? Why would someone care about your research?

You’ve written thousands and thousands of words about your topic. Can you write a few more that are just plain, simple and clear about what you’ve done?

Engaging With Criticism

If your examiner tells you they don’t like something in your thesis you have options:

  • You could say sorry, and do whatever they say as a result.
  • You could stare them down, insist that you’re right, and see what happens.
  • You could argue with them and try to show you’re right.
  • You could discuss things, listen to what they have to say and put your best case forwards.
  • You could ask them, “Why do you think that?” and listen before responding.

And you could do a lot more. I’m not suggesting you could have 100% control over how you feel or what you would automatically say as a result of criticism. It can cut deep, you might not know what to do. But there are different options open to you.

How you engage with your examiners can lead to very different ways of being in the viva.

A SMART Review

From time to time I’ve shared an acronym I like on this blog. I’ve talked about SMART before: a useful tool to help with planning, it stands for Specific, Measurable, Advantages, Realistic, Time-bound – the five qualities of an effective goal. It struck me a few weeks ago that these words could also be a nice prompt for reflecting on your research at the end of the PhD:

  • Specific: how would you define what you’ve done in your research?
  • Measurable: how can you be certain of what you’ve achieved?
  • Advantages: how does your work make a contribution?
  • Realistic: how does your work compare to what you were originally planning?
  • Time-bound: how did your research change over the course of your PhD?

Five simple points to reflect on your research before the viva. Making notes on each of these points could make a nice summary of your work for viva prep.

A Foregone Conclusion?

Is passing your viva guaranteed?

No, but let’s say that it is the most likely outcome. Statistics, stories and the structure of the PhD journey say it clearly: how else could a candidate get to submission if they and the work weren’t good and ready?

Passing is the most likely outcome – many, many times more likely than failing. You should not expect to fail. If you feel really worried, dig into that. Why do you feel that way? What’s the problem? What’s getting in the way?

Now, what can you do about it?



There are many ways to think about your thesis’ contribution.

Instead of coming up with a list of things you’ve done, start with why others might find something valuable in your research. What might they value? What would help them? What do they now know as a result of what you’ve done?

There are lots of things that could be valuable in research. Don’t compare your diamonds to other people’s. Look at why your work shines. What makes it valuable? What makes it special?

(you, for one thing)

Who? You!

Doctor Who was first broadcast fifty-five years ago today. Given my past posts on superheroes, it should come as no surprise I’m a fan. One of the highlights of my time recording interviews for the Viva Survivors Podcast was interviewing Tatiana, whose love of Doctor Who helped her through her PhD.

The Doctor is a time-travelling alien who helps people. They’ve taken on the name as a signifier. It tells people something about themselves. It’s not the name they’ve always had; it’s something that marks them out because of what they’ve done and what they intend to do.

That’s a little like you, right? After your viva, you’re a doctor. You did the work, so you get to be a doctor. That title means something.

Being a doctor, like being the Doctor, sets expectations. People make assumptions about what PhDs are like, what they do and what they “should” do. I think it’s better to set your own expectations. You’re talented to have achieved what you have. Keep being talented: expect yourself to do good things, but pick the things you want to be good at.

Whenever an actor is ready to step down from playing the Doctor, the character regenerates into a new persona. Passing your viva, getting your doctorate is similar. You’re the same underneath, but there’s also something different about you now.

What will be different? And what will you do with the difference?

Red Herrings

I love reading mystery stories. One of my favourite things is trying to figure out which clues are red herrings. What are the distractions? Which things don’t matter? What gets in the way of important things? It’s not always so easy to see.

It’s not always easy to see which things around the viva are red herrings either. Which things are distractions, and which things should you give attention to?

Hypotheticals are usually not worth your focus; reading your thesis is definitely something to prioritise. You can’t anticipate every question, it’s a distraction to try to – but a mock viva is worth your time so you have some practise at being in a viva-like situation. You can’t know how long your viva will be, so it’s not worth worrying about it; but you can find out about expectations generally to give you an idea.

Remember: you get to choose what you give your attention to. Figure out what the red herrings are, and focus instead on what’s worth your time.

The Viva Is A Good Heist Movie

It really is! Like one of the George Clooney Ocean’s Eleven movies.


Let me explain:

  • You have heroes working to overcome an all-or-nothing challenge! (or at least that’s how it feels for the viva)
  • You have unexpected moments that have to be overcome as they happen! (where in the viva not every question can be anticipated)
  • You have talented protagonists with the attributes they need to succeed! (the only people taking part in the viva are highly talented candidates)

And finally you have the preparation. As much as there is satisfaction with the payoff from a heist or success in the viva, none of it would happen without the preparation. And no matter what you do to prepare for the viva, don’t forget all of the days spent doing research. They count. Those are your flashbacks. Those are the moments that add up to success.

So: the viva is a good heist movie.

Only with less casinos and criminality.