Read, Do

I’ve been sorting through ten years of notes and ideas I’ve collected from countless workshops, seminars and articles. I smiled a few days ago when a quote from an old friend jumped off the page at me:

No amount of book-reading by kittens on “How To Be A Cat” will help them.

My friend Adrian would often say things in workshops that would make me smile and learn at the same time. Kittens can’t learn by reading, they must do things. They have to play their way to being cats.

By contrast, reading a thesis will help PhD candidates get ready for their vivas, but I think the principle of my friend holds. Reading your thesis is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking is essential, but writing will make those thoughts clearer. Anticipating questions can be useful, but answering them is much, much better.

You can read your thesis, you need to read your thesis – but what else could you do?

No Different?

One of my favourite scenes, in one of my favourite movies, is when Yoda is trying to teach Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

Luke is learning to be a Jedi, but is not finished. He can lift rocks and small objects with his mind, but dismisses the possibility of lifting his X-Wing when it is stuck in a swamp. He argues, “Lifting rocks is one thing, this is totally different!”

Master Yoda responds in his signature style:

“No! No different! Only different in your mind….”

And he’s right. Luke isn’t using muscle to lift rocks, he’s using the Force. Why should a tiny rock be any different than a spaceship?

In the viva you have to respond to your examiners’ questions, as well as you can. How is that different from any other time someone would ask a question about your work? At a conference, in a meeting, passing someone in the corridor, you can be asked questions – unexpected or familiar – all of the time. And the best thing you would do, in response, is try to answer as well as you can.

It’s no different in the viva.

The time, the space, the people who are asking, the questions – they might be different. But what you need to do is exactly the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is important. That makes the situation different.

The outcome is important. That makes the situation different.

You could be more nervous than a friend asking you an unexpected question. That makes the situation different.

You could be nervous because of who your examiners are. That makes the situation different.

But the method is always the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is only different in your mind….


Patience is a virtue for a PhD candidate.

It takes time to explore literature.

It takes time to think and work your way to write up a thesis.

It takes time to complete a PhD.

It takes time to prepare well for the viva.

Patience gets you through difficult days, hard times and trying setbacks.

Be patient in the viva too. Don’t rush. It takes time, even a little, to respond well to questions.

Take the time.

7 Questions For Interdisciplinary Researchers

Interdisciplinary researchers produce fascinating theses. I enjoy listening to the amazing ways disciplines collide. I’m no longer surprised though when interdisciplinary researchers tell me they have concerns about their viva. An examiner might be highly capable in one field of the researcher’s thesis, but not another. What then?

I’m not sure there is a great problem here. In my experience, examiners do their homework. They learn what they need to in order to understand a thesis. They’ll work to grasp aspects not related to their field. Still, that might not be enough to satisfy the concerns of an interdisciplinary researcher. I hope the following seven questions might help some more:

  1. How does your work differ from your examiner’s particular experience?
  2. What ways can you find to relate your work to your examiner’s field?
  3. How is your work similar to your examiner’s recent publications?
  4. What are the trickiest aspects of your work to explain to a non-expert?
  5. How can you make these easier to communicate?
  6. Where do you anticipate problems in explaining your work?
  7. What can you do about those problems?

Let me be clear: examiners should make efforts to unpick and understand a thesis not in their field if they have agreed to act as examiner. But for confidence, for peace of mind and for general preparation, these questions could be useful to reflect and act on for interdisciplinary researchers preparing for the viva.

(they’re probably quite useful for all candidates preparing for the viva!)

Being SMART About Examiners

Your examiners are an important part of your viva. Spend some of your viva preparation time exploring who they are and what they do. Check their recent publications to get a sense of their research but you don’t need to know everything. Setting a SMART objective to have a clear goal for your efforts is helpful so you don’t stress about needing to do more and more.

  • Specific: What are you trying to learn? What sources will you consider?
  • Measurable: How much work are you going to do? How will you know when you’re done?
  • Advantages: What will you gain by doing this? How are you hoping to feel?
  • Realistic: How many papers are you aiming to read? What makes you think that is enough?
  • Time-bound: What is your deadline? How far in advance of your viva would it be useful to have this task completed?

Just a little planning can make a tricky task manageable. Decide in advance how much prep is enough.

Confidence Tests

Confidence takes time and experimentation. There isn’t a set process. Rather than press a button to start an engine, we have to think of it as turning dials and pulling levers on a great, glorious machine. Try something, then check gauges to see the responses.

This is true generally in terms of building or priming confidence, and works too for building confidence for the viva.

  • Read your thesis in preparation. How do you feel now?
  • Select some clothes for the viva. What might help you feel your best?
  • Learn about your examiners. How does that help you feel?
  • Find two songs that get you feeling great. Which one works best?
  • Reflect on your past successes. Which ones stand out and help most?

You can’t flip a switch to turn on your confidence. You can try lots of things to find it though. Look for the things that help you be at your best, and shine a light on your PhD to help you see the reasons you will pass the viva.

You’re Not A Failure

You’re not a failure if you don’t answer every question you asked during your PhD.

You’re not a failure if your thesis is smaller than your friend’s thesis.

You’re not a failure if you’ve not submitted papers for publication.

You’re not a failure if you find typos in your thesis after submission.

You’re not a failure if you’re asked to complete major corrections.

You’re not a failure if your confidence wobbles before the viva.

You might feel nervous, or scared, or worried about any of these.

But not every question has an answer. Theses vary in size. Plenty of candidates opt not to publish during their PhD. Most candidates have typos. Some candidates are asked to complete major corrections to make their thesis better. And feeling a lack of confidence is not uncommon before important events.

The way you feel doesn’t mean you automatically fail.


…or, I Went To The Zoo To Do Viva Survivor!

There’s a lot of nice things I get to do as part of my work. A few months ago I was asked to deliver my Viva Survivor session as part of a doctoral training programme’s away day. It’s not the first time that I’ve delivered the session outside of a university, I’ve been to a couple of other away days at hotels or conference centres.

This was the first time I’ve been to a zoo for work 🙂

I got to have a wander around, and then did the session after lunch. There was a special treat just before my session started. Going behind the scenes at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, to learn about how they care for their big cats and then feed a lion! I’ve sometimes done work as part of a larger programme, but never had to follow something quite as thrilling as feeding a lion…

It was a great day, and most of the time when I’m out working I’m fortunate enough that it feels like I’ve had a great day. This was a bit more special than usual though, a real highlight.

I hope that lots of researchers feel that their PhDs are filled with great days (even though, sadly, I know from talking to people that’s not always the reality). As your viva gets nearer I’d encourage you to reflect on what the highlights were, and why they stand out. Is it all emotional? Is it something you learned, a significant day in your research? Was it the first or only time you got to do something really special?

Over a thousand-and-more days, parts of the PhD can fade into the background. Sometimes it can feel like it’s all about the work. But when it’s done, you’re the PhD.

How did you get here? What were the highlights on the path that got you here?

Possible Future Plans

At the time I went to my viva, just over eleven years ago, I didn’t know for certain that I was finished with my research. I was 90% sure that I wasn’t going to get any kind of academic position, 90% sure that my research was done and I wouldn’t do more. And yet I had to be ready to talk to my examiners about what I could do with my research, or rather, how someone else could continue the work.

I talked about special cases that might be of interest. The utility in making a better computer program of an algorithm I’d developed. Other problems where my methods might be applicable.

But I was clear: I might not be doing this. These are just ideas.

You might be in a similar position. Or perhaps you know that when you’ve finished your PhD you’re leaving academia. You don’t have to lie, you don’t have to fib, but I think you do have to have something in mind. There are many reasons why people leave academia after the PhD. But there’s a natural line of questioning in the viva, “You did this, what could you do next?” Even if your examiners look to you with an expectation that you’ll tell them of your plans, you can reframe that sort of question with general ideas, as detailed as you think appropriate.

Possible future plans are just that: possible. Start with why something might be a good idea, say how someone might do it, what they might do. But you can be clear, if you want to, that that’s not the road for you.

Unpick, Not Nitpick

It’s a waste of your examiners’ talent and everyone’s time if they just pore through your work to find clunky sentences or spelling mistakes. They will find some probably, because very few candidates get no corrections, but that’s not what they are looking for.

Your examiners want to unpick what you did, why you did it, how you did it and what it all means.