If ever you’re tempted, by a hard day or a tough moment in your PhD to say one of the following, remember to add the word “yet”:

  • I haven’t got it to work…
  • I haven’t figured it out…
  • I’ve not submitted my thesis…
  • I’m not ready for my viva…

“Yet” is a reminder – you can do this, you want to do this, there’s time to do this – and even a promise, I will do this.

You might not be there yet, you might not be ready yet, but you will be.

There’s time. Keep going.


(inspired by countless posts and podcasts by the always-inspiring Seth Godin)

Questions, Not A Quiz

Your examiners aren’t there to fire questions at you and expect an answer in ten seconds or less.

They don’t have a big list of true or false statements for you to correctly identify.

And they won’t be grilling you on every single reference you listed.

The viva is a discussion. Your examiners have prepared questions to guide the process. Some are to steer the conversation, others are to check details in your thesis; some are sparked by their personal interests, and some questions might be to satisfy ideas of what is “correct” in your discipline.

But they’re not rapid-fire, all-or-nothing, earning points or against the clock.

The viva has questions but it’s not a quiz.

You’re a candidate, not a contestant.

Bringing It All Together

Viva preparation is not the hardest part of the PhD journey by a long way, but it requires a little thought for it not to be overwhelming.

What do you need to do? Where do you see the gaps for yourself? If you have trouble remembering things, then re-read them and make useful notes. Consider what you could add in annotations to help your thesis more useful. Think about when to rehearse with a mock viva or a good chat with friends. Make a list of what you really need to do, rather than work in an ad hoc way.

When do you start? Consider your responsibilities, consider when you could fit in thirty minutes to an hour a day. It’s better to view prep as a daily practice in most cases, a gentle lead up to feeling you are prepared, rather than a last minute cram to get “everything” done.

It could feel like there’s lots to do to be prepared for the viva. In comparison to the time and effort of the rest of your PhD there’s really very little. If you have a busy life already then it’s worth planning in advance how you will make space for it.

But remember: you can do it.

No Time Like Now

Today, whether your viva is tomorrow or a year from now, is a perfect opportunity to build your confidence.

Today, whether you feel nervous, uncertain or excited about your viva, is a great time to reflect and see how far you’ve come and steer yourself towards feeling better about your PhD and your progress.

It’s never too late to do something to help your PhD and viva – and while you don’t need to actively prepare for the viva until after submission, it’s also never too early to reflect on your talent and build your confidence.

The Overview

It’s reasonable to expect your examiners to ask you to summarise what you’ve done. It’s a fairly common opening question. Given that a thesis could run to many tens of thousands of words it’s probable your examiners would want you to be concise in exploring or explaining what you did.

Being asked to give an overview, either of your thesis, your research or your results, shouldn’t be too taxing for you. Over the course of your PhD you will have spoken about your work many times and given “the short version”. You will have written about your research in lots of ways. There’s lots of practice and material in your mind to draw on when you get to the viva.

A little more rehearsal won’t hurt you though!

In the weeks leading up to your viva consider what you would typically say if asked to summarise your work. Perhaps write it out or record yourself and reflect: Does this really capture it all? If there was one thing to add, what would it be? Find a good opportunity to run it past your supervisor or a trusted friend and get their opinion.

If asked to give an overview or summary in the viva, there’s no way you can tell your examiners everything that might be possibly relevant. A little rehearsal before the viva can help you be sure that you’re giving them enough.

And Then You’re Done

Finishing my PhD was a strange time. I remember a weird few weeks of tidying my desk, taking folders home on the train, clearing stuff into recycling, and then a gap of months of trying to figure out, “What now?”

How do you want things to change for you?

  • Will your PhD journey have a gradual conclusion, tidying up loose ends, leaving things in their right place while you prepare to start a new expedition?
  • Will it simply finish one day, a red line drawn across your calendar to mark the end of one era and the start of another?
  • Will it just change? Will you realise one day that you’ve moved on and you didn’t see it happen?

Finish your thesis, prepare for your viva, but spare a little thought for that Future-You, who will one day find that they’re done with their PhD.

What can you do to help prepare them for that situation?

Diamonds and Pressure

“You need pressure to make diamonds.”

It’s a cheesy sentiment, but it’s true that sometimes we need the pressure of a situation to have a breakthrough, grow, build talent or find something amazing.

The viva isn’t one of those situations though. Your success there shouldn’t be via pressure on the day. If you talk to plenty of graduates about their experiences, pressure isn’t something they describe.

Diamonds need pressure, but they need time too. If we want to think about diamonds, the PhD and metaphors, then really it’s you who is the diamond in the story.

Things That Aren’t Big Deals

This is a non-exhaustive list of things that candidates, in my experience, consistently throw lots of energy and attention at – despite none of these things really being problems.

  • Answering every question you set out to with your research.
  • Not publishing during your PhD.
  • Not citing your examiners in your thesis.
  • Citing your examiners in your thesis.
  • Finding spelling mistakes in your thesis after submission.
  • Pausing to think in the viva.
  • Being asked to complete corrections afterwards.

It’s not wrong to feel concerned about something, but better to check if it really is a problem. The list above is non-exhaustive, but it could be exhausting for you to deal with. It’s much more useful to find things that are really worth your attention before the viva. Invest time in getting ready. Invest attention in your confidence. Invest your time in finding out more about the viva.


You might not have to travel for your viva, but it’s still good to consider how you’ll arrive.

What will the journey be like, possibly from one room to another? What could you do to help you transition from a space in your home to the space for your viva?

What will you wear? Hopefully something comfortable, but could you also wear something that helps your confidence?

What will you take with you to the viva? What do you need when you’re there?

A little thought on arriving, even if it’s in your home, can be a great boost for how your viva starts and how you’ll feel throughout.

A Series of Successes

Thesis submission isn’t a final domino being knocked over. The process of doing a PhD is rarely so tidy or organised. You get to submission through success; it could be a messy sequence of events over several years, yet in the end you achieve enough. A series of successes leads you to where you need to be.

The PhD process can sometimes be really messy, so take care in your viva preparation to reflect on your successes more than the mess. Remember the results that got you where you are, rather than the barriers that got in your way. You will have learned through mistakes and failures too, but it’s reflecting on the success you’ve found that will help you get ready.

Remind yourself of how you got to the achievements you have now.