Two Days After

Being done is special, a real achievement. But the end of a PhD can feel quite abrupt.

So much time is spent building up. You build up your knowledge. You build up your ideas. You build up the picture of your work. You build a structure for your thesis. You build yourself up for submission, and then for the viva, and then…

…thousands and thousands of hours of work is weighed up in a few hundred minutes – if that!

The day of the viva might be happy, but it might be muted. The day after might find you still dazed. Was that it?

But I hope, at the latest, that two days after your viva, whenever it is, you could start to really feel that you’ve done something wonderful. Reach out to friends and family if it’s not sinking in. Finishing your PhD is a real achievement, even if you’re not feeling it immediately afterwards.

Probably Not

It’s the answer for many questions around the viva…

  • Will you remember everything?
  • Will you forget something important?
  • Will you go blank?
  • Will your examiners like everything?
  • Will they hate everything?
  • Will you demonstrate perfection?
  • Will you be cool, calm and collected?
  • Will your nerves get the best of you?
  • Would any of these things really make a difference on how things might go?

You don’t need to be perfect, and you don’t need to recall everything; you don’t need to fret over forgetting or going blank; you shouldn’t expect your examiners to rip your work to shreds and you can’t realistically expect that they won’t have questions or comments.

You can be ready. You can have realistic expectations. You can go prepared to meet any challenges.

Will you face another challenge like this in your life? Probably not.

But will this be the biggest thing you ever do? Probably not.

The Tightrope

Let’s imagine you get good at walking on a tightrope that’s six inches off the ground. Weeks of practice, perfect balance, good footwork. You can do it in front of people with a smile on your face, step, step, step, all the way to the other side.

You’re brilliant.

So let’s put you twenty feet in the air. Walk the tightrope now. Just step, step, step to the other side. It’s exactly the same, you have the skills, you have the practice, so just get to it!

………but of course it’s not the same. Of course there’s a great big difference. Even with all the practice, even though the practical, physical skills being used are the same, the situation makes it very different. The potential outcomes make it very different.


Like the viva. The skills being used are the same as if you were in conversation with friends. The same as if you were answering a question after a conference talk, or in a meeting with your supervisor. You need to know about your work, about your field, and have what it takes to do research in an appropriate way. And you’ve got that covered. You have plenty of experience by the viva.

But there’s a big difference because it’s important.

It’s important, important in a way that coffee with friends is not. Way more important than just another meeting with your supervisor. Important because of the consequences.

None of that importance takes away from your skill, talent and knowledge though. You have all that practice. The importance doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

You’ve walked across the high wire many times during your PhD. You can do it one more time with your examiners watching.


Don’t be. After years of research and months of writing, it could be hard for you to see someone else’s point of view.

But it’s easy to imagine your examiners will see things differently to you. Maybe they have a relevant question you’ve not considered. Maybe they don’t quite get what you mean. Maybe a section of your thesis that is perfectly clear to you is only clear because of everything else you know.

Get other perspectives before the viva. You don’t have to change your perspective on your work, but it is really useful to consider others. Get feedback from your supervisor to see if there are other approaches or considerations you’ve discarded. Get questions from friends to help explore around your topic. Write summaries of your work to draw out ideas and make your thoughts concrete.

Don’t expect your examiners to know more than you, but don’t expect that you know every possible question or idea either.

Must Read?

There’s probably hundreds of references in your bibliography. There are possibly dozens of papers written by your examiners. Many pages in your thesis. There are several books on viva preparation. There are thousands of posts and articles about the viva (almost a thousand on this site alone!).

Is everything must read? Do you have to read everything in order to get ready for the viva?

Of course not, but you have to find the balance right for you.

You need to read your thesis. You need to be familiar with your literature and what your examiners’ interests are. And it will help you feel confident knowing that your prep follows good ideas and principles. You have to see where the gaps are for you, and find good sources to bridge them.

It’s not all must read.

What Are You Missing?

A key question to ask during your viva preparation, not about your thesis but for yourself. What are you missing?

  • Do you find it difficult to remember key references?
  • Do you wish you could remember where things are in your thesis?
  • Do you need to know more about what to expect?
  • Do you know nothing about your examiners?
  • Do you feel unconfident?

All of these problems can be solved. There are posts on all of these topics on this blog, and lots of people around you will have helpful advice too. If you don’t know what you’re missing, ask a PhD graduate what they think was missing for them; tell them what you’re doing or plan to do to see if they see anything missing.

Whatever is missing can be figured out. Whatever the problem you can find a solution before your viva.

Record, Reflect and Review

You probably have a voice-recording app on your phone. Why not put it to good use to help your viva prep?

  1. Record your mock viva. Listen back and think about your responses and how you frame them. What else could you say?
  2. Have coffee with friends. Reflect on the questions and topics that come up. How do they match your expectations?
  3. Explore how you talk about your contribution. Record different ways of sharing this. How can you best communicate your research?
  4. Record a mini-viva! Have a mini-viva by yourself or with a friend asking the questions. Listen afterwards. How did you do?

Doing something helps. Reflecting afterwards helps you even more.

Changing My Thesis

I re-read my thesis now and cringe!

There are long, waffly sentences that need serious editing. The diagrams look amateur. The structure of the thesis barely supports how I frame my ideas. It could be so much better – and this doesn’t take into account what more or different research could show!

My thesis will never be perfect. Your thesis can never be perfect. There will always be things you could make better, but that doesn’t you won’t reach a point where you’re done.

Before submission you have to decide what “good enough” means, then work to achieve that standard. At your viva justify your decision. Your examiners might ask for some corrections you didn’t anticipate (or some you don’t agree with), but they’ll largely be requests to make it as good as they can reasonably imagine.

And eleven years later you might cringe!

It will never be perfect, but through submission time, the viva and afterwards you will find a good enough thesis to contain your research. Keep going until you’re finally done.

Gaps & Holes

At the start of your PhD you have gaps: the things your research seeks to address.

At the end of your PhD you have holes: the things you didn’t get to, couldn’t show or don’t know.

Both need some of your viva preparation time. Reflect on the research gap to better share it with your examiners. Explore the holes so you can talk about them confidently in the viva.

Your thesis and research are more than gaps and holes, of course, but both will matter in the viva.