Your Recipe For Success

“I want some of Daddy’s bread!”

The bread I bake is a real winner in our house.

It’s been refined over a hundred loaves and several years working at it. It’s a combination of ingredients and technique: from the ratios of flour to oil and water, how I prepare the baking sheet I use, the setting on my oven and the time I set on the timer (now 42 minutes rather than 40 to help get the crust just right).

I could give you the recipe and you would scratch your head a lot.

  • You set your oven to Gas Mark 5-and-a-half?!
  • What do you mean, leave it for “about” two hours to prove?!
  • Wait wait, a mix of 400g of “whatever bread flours” you happen to have???

There are elements of what I could share that would make sense. There are others that with a little thought you would be able to work around. And there are some which are only applicable to my kitchen, my house, my equipment.

I read books, watched YouTube videos, looked at what I had, looked at what I could get and with time, patience, practice, repetition, iteration and a smile on my face I found something that worked really well for me and my family. I could tell you all about it, but if you wanted to do something similar, you could only use what I shared as a starting point. You would have to take what I offered and build on it, although hopefully, I would save you some time in your quest to get your own recipe for success.


This train of thought is really about you, your research, your thesis, your viva prep, and about people giving advice.

Let’s assume it’s good advice! Even then, you have to make it work for you. You have to take ideas on writing, on reading, on working well, on finishing a thesis, on preparing for the viva and on being in it – all of that has to get mixed with you, your talents, your skills, your passions, your preferences. The work you’ve done, the worries you have and your situation. It takes time and work to make it truly useful for you. It might not be easy, but hopefully it won’t be as hard as starting with a blank page.

With a little time, a little practice, a little refinement – whatever stage you’re at – you can find your recipe for success. It might require tinkering, but so long as you persist, you can get it just right.

And once you have found your recipe for success – research success, thesis success, viva success – consider sharing it to help others in their work. Find a good way to tell your colleagues what’s helped you.

A loaf of bread
I’m keeping my bread a family recipe for now though! 🙂

Confidence From Your Supervisors

Feedback and praise can help build confidence. Your supervisors could be the best people to boost you before your viva. You have to pick your questions to be as helpful to you as possible.

Don’t ask them how you could be better. Don’t ask them about how your work could be improved. Don’t ask them to critique your thesis.

Ask them to describe your qualities and talents. Ask them to describe your successes. Ask them why these things matter.

Ask them questions that are more likely to build you up, rather than give you more to obsess over. There’s a time and a place for constructive criticism. I don’t think that time or place is the weeks leading up to your viva.


Most candidates get minor corrections as a result of the viva. I’ve talked with plenty of candidates who worry about what this might mean for them.

Words that correspond with minor in the thesaurus:

…inconsequential, unimportant, lesser, slight, trivial, small-fry, small-time, dinky…

Perhaps you wouldn’t categorise typos as small-fry, but it’s worth reflecting on what “minor” means to keep the scope and scale of minor corrections in perspective. Individually, each correction is a relatively small change. Combined, they could take time to work through, so be sure that you know how much time your institution gives for completing them.

Compared with the work for your PhD, the effort for your preparation and your viva, minor corrections are a dinky piece of work. For the most part, they’re trivial compared to the energy required for everything else you’ve done.

Do More

Viva prep is more.

More reading to help you remember and recall what you need.

More writing to help you bring everything together.

More thinking to help you figure out that you’re ready.

But, for all of these and everything else you do to prepare, only a little more – only a little more work, a little more effort, a little more time. You don’t need much. Not by the time you’ve submitted. Not with so much done already.


A little contrast to this post from November 2020.

On The Clock

Checking the time while you’re in the viva won’t help.

Most vivas, based on all the conversations I’ve had over the last decade, seem to be in the two- to three-hour range. That knowledge can help you to prepare a little, think about how rested you need to be and what you might need to be ready to talk for that long. But it won’t help you in the viva to look at a clock and know that an hour has passed.

There’s no correlation between viva length and outcome. Looking at the time will only make you wonder. “How am I doing?” or “Two hours already?!” or “This is going fast… Is that good?!”

Have an idea about how long the viva could be to help you prepare. Turn your mind away from time when you’re in there. Pause, take time to think and respond. Don’t rush, don’t worry.

It will probably be over sooner than you think, and only take as long as it needs to. You are going to be fine however long it is.


When you plan your viva prep, look for things that could slow your progress.

  • Creating summaries might not be rewarding unless you’ve read your thesis first.
  • Anticipating examiner questions won’t be possible until after you’ve learned about their research.
  • Building a set of expectations can only come after you’ve asked others about their viva experiences.

As you plan your prep consider what will help later work. You can choose where you direct your thoughts and efforts. Choose carefully so that you don’t have to over-invest your time. Plan clearly so that you don’t have to do more than is necessary.

Imperfect Prep

Your prep will be imperfect. Getting ready for the viva, there’s no way to account for every bit of information you might need. You can’t anticipate every question you could conceivably be asked by your examiners.

Your prep is built on layers of imperfection too. Your research won’t be perfect. Your skills will not all be at their absolute peak. There will always be ways to make your thesis better.

In all of these things, you don’t need perfection. Your prep doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to make you ready. It needs to make you good enough.

Your prep, while imperfect, can help make you ready for anything you’ll find in your viva.

Unhelpful Things…

…to say to friends who have their viva coming up:

  • “Good luck!”
  • “Don’t worry!”
  • “You’ll be fine, nearly no-one fails!”

Better things to say include:

  • “You’re talented, don’t forget!”
  • “What can I do to help?”
  • “How are you doing?”

And if you’ve had a viva and it was fine, don’t just tell your friend that they’ll be fine. Tell them why you were fine. Tell them your story, short and simple, but with enough to help them see what the viva can be like – and what helped you be ready for yours.

Rose-tinted Reflections

I have fond memories of my PhD, but also a background feeling that it could have been so much more than it was.

I could have been more pro-active; I realised quite late that I could set my own directions and goals. I could have achieved more. I spent a long time following dead ends and trying to force ideas and results to work, without stopping to see what the real underlying problems were with my research.

Maybe I could have worked better had I realised what my own underlying problems were.

Like me, you’re not perfect. Your research and thesis won’t be perfect. But focussing on the imperfections in advance of your viva probably won’t help you to get ready. Instead, acknowledge the things that could be better, make a note of anything that might need special attention and then start your prep centred on the things that you do well.

Start with your successes, your results, your talent, and use that to build on. Not everything can be amazing when you look back on your PhD, but hopefully there’s enough there to help you feel good for your viva.

The Supporting Skeleton

For a long time I’ve made the following viva prep suggestion in seminars:

Consider writing an edited bibliography. If your bibliography is a body of work that supports your thesis then an edited bibliography is the skeleton of that body, the references that give you the most support. What would they be?

Following the metaphor a little:

  • What references are like the skull, protecting the brain: what references do you really need to know?
  • What references are like the ribs? They cover your heart, the core references that support your arguments.
  • Which references are like your ear bones: small, but which can make a big difference?

Not all references are equally valuable. Not all references are present for the same reason. Useful questions can help identify helpful items from your bibliography, but unfortunately not every bone in the body can prompt one of those questions!

Still, whether you create an edited bibliography or not, do reflect and consider how different references support you and your work in different ways.