Valuable, Interesting, Vague, Ask

Around 2013 I invented a series of prompts to help a candidate reflect on their thesis.

Through not-so-subtle phrasing I got these keywords to spell out VIVA. The tool is used to explore the contents of a thesis chapter. All of these reflections combined then create a useful summary of the thesis.

The four prompts (and associated questions) are:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone else find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about your work?
  • Vague (or unclear): what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask (your examiners): what questions would you like to ask in the viva given the opportunity?

I shared VIVA for years in seminars. Switching to webinars I couldn’t find the right way to share this tool in a session. I’ve felt sad about this for a year now. There are other tools, but this one really speaks to me. I’ve done some reflecting on why this is the case:

  • Valuable: as a set of prompts I think it intuitively allows a candidate to find the key ideas that are going to be useful to them, both in the prep and in the viva.
  • Interesting: for me, it was always fun to present and not mention the acronym at the start, only drawing attention to it at the end. Acronyms are fun!
  • Vague: or “unclear” – I had to add this word because vague was a little too vague at times, not as known a word as I thought.
  • Ask: I like that the tool invites and prompts questions. It is a little open-ended and allows a candidate to dig deeper and engage with the thesis and research – just like a candidate would have to do in the viva.

I would encourage every candidate to spend a little time in advance of their viva using VIVA to reflect on and analyse their thesis.

Every chapter of your thesis has something valuable in it. Everything you’ve done springs from something you found interesting. Find what’s vague so you can make it clearer in your thoughts for the viva. Consider what you might ask your examiners – and thus how you’ll play your part in the viva.

And find more thoughts on VIVA at this link!

The Sum Of The Parts

The phrase “significant, original contribution” is probably the best combination of words that we have to describe the something that a PhD candidate needs in their thesis to demonstrate that they are a good researcher and that they have done good work.

It’s also a worrying concept to grapple with for many candidates.

A “significant, original contribution” sounds like a singular result. It sounds like one fantastical theory, a number, a paragraph that shares knowledge with incredible impact.

Many candidates imagine something like this and worry because they don’t have one contribution, they have lots of little things. They have a collection of papers. They have a collection of projects (that was my thesis). They have many small results presented in one thesis, but perhaps no unifying conclusion.

Of course, as the title for this post suggests, these all add up to make a contribution.

The chapters, sections, results, papers, ideas, developments, conclusions – all together these make the contribution. “Significant” is a worrying word to candidates in my experience, because they try to imagine the number that goes with that. How many pages? How many papers? How big a bibliography? How much of the thing that I do?

This sum doesn’t have a number for an answer. Taking all the parts together, you have to judge for yourself: is this enough?

Ask your friends and colleagues: is this enough? Ask your supervisors: is this enough?

Is this enough?

And why?

Once you feel sure for yourself then you can move past a “significant, original contribution”. The sum of everything you present, everything you’ve done, all shows a real contribution to knowledge – and it shows a capable person who has created that contribution.

Tech Woes

In over eighteen months of delivering sessions from home I’ve had many minor tech problems.

My connection has failed. I’ve been caught out by lag and not realised people were trying to catch my attention. I’ve displayed slides and they’ve not been seen. I’ve had mics act up, cameras turn off and so many other little things – like forgetting to use an option or remembering I needed something to hand.

Over time I’ve found ways around these problems so that they don’t have an impact.

Using different software and practising with it has helped. Upgrading my connection and wifi router has really helped. Having a checklist before I go live has been a lifesaver. Rehearsal has helped me move past frustration and woe to being able to do what I need to do.

Most of these solutions apply to video vivas too. There’s no great secret or hidden knowledge: if you have a video viva coming up, check everything.

Practise with friends. Get used to the delay of saying something and seeing the other person respond. It’s not quite real time and you need to practice to feel happy in that space. Be sure your tech is working well. Know where all the buttons and options are.

Tech woes don’t have to get in the way of having a great viva. A little time invested in advance can make a huge difference.

Flick and Find

Your thesis is a useful resource in the viva, and can be made even more useful by clever annotation.

  • Add Post-it Notes or tabs to make the beginnings of chapters easy to find.
  • Add bookmarks to help you reach important parts more easily.
  • Use highlighters of different colours to make different sorts of valuable information easier to see as you flick through.
  • Explore and decide on ways to make things stand out.

You may need to flick through your thesis to find something during your viva. Making that process easier in advance can reduce the possibility for stress on the day. It could also help you reflect on your thesis during your prep.

What else will you do to make your thesis an even more useful resource for the viva?

Practical Defending

Defending your thesis at your viva does not mean shielding it from harm or arguing aggressively.

(attack is not the best form of defence)

To defend your thesis well you need to know your thesis and research well. You need to know your field. You need to be a good, capable researcher. You need to know a little about your examiners. You need to have rehearsed for the viva with some kind of practice at responding to questions.

And all of these things are neither unreasonable to expect of you or too burdensome to satisfy during your PhD and prep time. You don’t need any aspect to be perfect.

To defend your thesis you need to do the work, be a good researcher and show up ready.

Defending your research doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

Average, Normal, Typical

We can’t really talk about the average viva. We could calculate mean lengths, modal questions asked and so on, but it wouldn’t amount to much.

There’s far too much variety in research for us to make claims about a normal viva either. There are norms within disciplines and departments that arise from specific practices, but they have to be explored by candidates in their communities.

The typical viva is knowable though.

It’s typical to have two examiners, one internal and one external. It’s typical for a viva to be between two and three hours in length. It’s typical to expect everyone present to be prepared. The most common outcome for the viva is minor corrections.

Average makes the viva sound predictable (and dull). Normal implies there is a “right” process for all vivas. Typical reminds us that there are common expectations. Neither normal or average, they just are.


The viva is a challenge. The majority of candidates pass.

Candidates are talented because of the time and work spent on their PhDs. Candidates need to take time after submission to prepare for the viva.

Most candidates are nervous. Most candidates feel confident.


Challenging but passing. Talented but taking the time to get ready. Nervous and confident.

We have to accept these strange dualities; often, with these seemingly contradictory states and feelings about the viva, it’s the case that both are true.


As you prepare for your viva, consider your thesis as the record of your research.

You followed a method or were guided by a particular reference. Why? What did that give you? What if you had followed another method? What if you used a difference reference?

Reframing could help you to see other possibilities – not better, but maybe not worse. Something different.

Reframing could help you add more evidence for your thinking: now you are even more certain you made the right choice.

This kind of reframing can open your mind to questions from your examiners. They might ask you to consider other perspectives. They will probably ask questions to gain a better  understanding of your perspective. The more practice you have before the viva, the more comfortable this could be when you meet your examiners.

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