Action Overcomes Fear

I looked back over the last three years to see how I’d been inspired by Halloween previously:

I’m not going to be silly or spooky today though – this year has had enough fear and worry in it.

If your viva is coming up and you’re worried or afraid, the first step to resolving the situation is to figure out what the problem really is. Ask for help from someone, or think about how you’re going to do something about it. Then do something! And remember why you’re doing it.

Your fears come from somewhere. Beating them comes from you.

Mind Your Manners

It may seem like an odd thing to post about, but I’ve been asked about the topic many times before by PhD candidates!

“Is there anything I mustn’t say or do in the viva???”

I don’t think there’s a real danger of being impolite in the viva. You don’t need to look out for anything that wouldn’t occur to you ordinarily about watching what you say, or behaving improperly.

  • Try not to swear maybe? (unless curse words and their origins are the topic for your research!)
  • Don’t insult your examiners? (hopefully obvious!)
  • Don’t be arrogant?

There’s a little ray of worry in the last one. There is a difference between confidence in your work and arrogance at being right. There could be difficulty in balancing talking about the rightness of what you’ve done, as you see it, against questions about alternatives or being sure. That could be tricky. But it doesn’t mean that it should be avoided or obsessed over either.

Talk about alternatives before the viva, in preparation for perhaps needing to talk about it in the viva. Get more comfortable in the trickier parts of your methods and results, then you won’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing.

No Hurry, No Pause

The work of Tim Ferriss has helped me a lot over the last decade. I’ve enjoyed all of his books, but one of his must-read posts that I keep returning to is “Testing The Impossible: 17 Questions That Changed My Life” from 2016.

While the post is about business and lifestyle design, re-reading it for the 73rd time today I’m struck by how so many of the questions resonate with my view on viva preparation too:

  • If I could only work 2 hours per week on my business, what would I do? Leaving business aside, the time restriction is an excellent provocation. What do you need to do first?
  • Am I hunting antelope or field mice? This makes me think of obsessing over typos and what-ifs. You could hunt for endless little things, or focus preparation efforts on the larger “antelope” that will provide you with more!
  • What would this look like if it were easy? A simple prompt. How could your preparations be easy? What conditions would you need? Now which of those can you create?
  • No hurry, no pause. As Tim notes, not a question! But something that has stuck with me personally, and which I think applies really well to viva prep. A little planning before submission goes a really long way. A little organisation makes your preparation come together nicely, stress-free. You might be anxious about your viva still, but your preparation will not be a contributing factor.

I thoroughly recommend the article. See how it might prompt you to reflect on your preparations before the viva. Look for ways to make the process as valuable as it can be.


For anything you were stuck on during your PhD, reflect:

  • What was the problem? Why was it a problem and why was it worth solving?
  • What were you stuck on? What caused the issue? What was the stickiest point?
  • How did you get unstuck? What helped? What did you realise?
  • What was the outcome? How did this help you? And why does any of this stand out to you now?

Being stuck doesn’t feel great. Getting past it is a sign that you have learned, developed, grown. You know more, you can do more.

Positive signs for the viva.

A Viva Prep Top Ten

It has to be a top ten rather than the top ten, because there are so many useful things that one could do to get ready for the viva!

  1. Sketch a post-submission timeline.
  2. Stick a Post-it Note at the start of each thesis chapter.
  3. Read recent papers by your examiners.
  4. Check the regulations for your institution.
  5. Read. Your. Thesis.
  6. Have a mock viva.
  7. Write a few summaries.
  8. Check the details of the viva arrangements.
  9. Explore the why of your research.
  10. Find ways to remind yourself that you are good at what you do.

There’s more you could do, but this list would give someone a good overview of the practical work that helps.

What else would you add to this list? And what are you going to do next to get ready?

Interesting Decisions

Seth Godin writes recently of “the magic of trade-offs” – an idea that resonated with my own memories of doing a PhD.

  • I remember writing only a few paragraphs about an application for one of my results, because I knew my time would be better spent developing something else new.
  • I remember the pride when I worked out a neat method that saved a lot of calculation time in an algorithm – because I’d previously decided to wait and explore more before checking with my supervisor, though this was uncertain when I started my plan.
  • And I remember the trade-off (that paid off) when I decided to not apply for jobs as I was getting close to submission, to save my time and attention for getting my thesis as good as it could be.

I’m sure you must have made trade-offs in the process of doing a PhD. Another way of looking at trade-offs is that someone makes an interesting decision. There may be no right or wrong, but for now this is the choice. A consequence, doing a PhD, might be that other options are closed to you as a result of your interesting decision.

And another consequence might be that your examiners ask you to talk about or defend your interesting decisions in the viva. Not because you’re right or wrong, or because your examiners are – but because your decisions are interesting. They’re worth talking about and exploring.

In preparation for your viva, review your interesting decisions. Where did you trade-off different things? How did you make those decisions? What were your reasons?

And do you still think it was the right thing to do?

Make It Special

With the move to video vivas in the UK, I’ve not heard of any terrible stories, but I can well imagine that for some candidates the viva doesn’t feel that important. Or if it does, there’s a shadow of it not being all that special when they succeed. Finishing a video chat and sending a few emails or text messages isn’t the same as being able to meet a group of friends for dinner and celebrate.

There are things we just can’t change, not yet, not now – but celebrating success, while it might have to be different for a while, still has to happen.

Consider how you can make your viva success feel awesome. What can you ask others to do to help you? What could help make that day feel amazing? Who will you need to tell? How will you tell them? And how will you celebrate that day or soon after you’ve finished?

If you department has a tradition, maybe there’s a way you can update it for now. Some traditions might be hard to replicate over Zoom though…

You might not be pulled through the streets in a balloon-covered wagon, but you can find some way to make your viva success matter!

Head In The Sand

Ostriches, despite popular legend, don’t put their head in the sand to hide. It’s a common comparison to make for people avoiding problems though, I’ve used it here on the blog at least once before. In that post I encouraged viva candidates to not hide from concerns – figure out what’s wrong and do something rather than worry and avoid.

Ostriches actually put their head in the sand to check on their eggs and see if they’re alright. Building on this new information, still don’t be like an ostrich with your head in the sand repeatedly!

  • Concerned about expectations? Find out and write them down. Done.
  • Worried you’ll have trouble finding things in your thesis? Make a list of key points, stick bookmarks in your thesis. Done.
  • Unsure about your examiners? Spend time reading their work and write a summary for yourself. Done.

Don’t hide from your problems, but don’t keep checking on them either. Feel a concern? Act on it and resolve it, as best you can. Then move on and keep doing what you can to focus on getting ready.

Comfortable Silence

There are many reasons for silence in the viva:

  • A moment while a broadband router buffers in the background.
  • Time while a page is consulted or a note made.
  • Processing time while someone thinks through the implications of a comment.
  • Thinking time in a candidate’s mind while they prepare a response.

The latter might feel unnerving, but none of these could feel particularly comfortable. Silence invites speculation. Knowing possible reasons doesn’t dissolve fears, it simple gives you something else to wonder about.

Rehearsals help. A mock viva won’t be a way to learn your lines like a play, but can give you the confidence to be in that space. Silence is just silence. The reasons don’t matter in a way. The silence is the space between the discussion. You have to wait for it to pass, or use it to help you think.

Practise and get comfortable with the little moments of quiet that you’re sure to find in your viva.


Acceptable is a funny word. It means that things are fine, but it sort-of sounds like they’re only just alright. Like if you think about it more you might decide that actually you’ve changed your mind.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions related to the viva with the word “acceptable” in them.

How much do I need to write for an acceptable thesis?

Who would be an acceptable examiner?

What’s acceptable to say if you don’t know something?

I know the feeling that flows behind these kind of questions. Fear and concern, a little worry that perhaps something isn’t good enough but might just pass the standard.

I recommend candidates remove ideas of perfection from the PhD and the viva: there isn’t a perfect thesis, no perfect candidates, examiners aren’t perfect – none of these need to be for someone to find success in the viva.

In a similar vein, we need to get rid of acceptable from the PhD and viva lexicon. You can’t have things be perfect, but you should expect a lot more from yourself, your thesis and your viva than acceptable.

You can aim a lot higher and do a lot better than acceptable.