Consider It Now

An examiner could gently challenge you on why you didn’t use a certain method. Or they might wonder what would happen if you did X instead of Y. What if you had tested for this instead of that, and so on.

It’s reasonable to expect that kind of a question in the viva. It’s not unreasonable to say, “I’ve not considered that before,” or perhaps, “I don’t know, I’ve not thought about that…”

…but it’s better to say, “Let me think about that now,” and then consider and give the best response that you can.

It might not be the full picture. It might not be an answer. It could be that you can’t say everything you might want to. But for any question or line of discussion that you’ve not considered before, you can consider it now.

Take the time. Show what you know, show what you can do. If an examiner has asked you a question, it’s not to trick you or trap you: they’re giving you an opportunity to demonstrate something.

Not considered it before? Consider it now, then talk.

The Essentials

Five years ago today I ran my first ever independent workshop.

I was so excited!

It was a big step: to go from being invited by universities to meet PhD candidates, now instead I was inviting them to meet me. I’ve done that a lot in the last year over Eventbrite and Zoom, but to hire a venue, to advertise, to think about everything that I would want or need if I were a participant – this was a really big stretch for me then.

It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.

One of the things I was most delighted about, aside from the great venue that I found and the four people who took a chance to come to the event, was making goody bags. I wanted to give everyone who came a bag packed with everything they would need to help them get ready for the viva – and a few things that they didn’t need, but which would maybe give them a smile.

Goodybag contents

I made a print run of the books I had written, and gave ebook codes too; I designed and published a new guide to getting ready for the viva; I supplied stationery that would help, notebooks – plus a big bar of dark chocolate and a tote bag to carry it all in.

I loved putting all of this together – most of the contents were a surprise to the participants on the day, and the looks of delight at the goody bags I gave were some of my highlights of 2016.

Which leads me to ask three questions, two for you and one for me.

  • First, if your viva was coming up: what would you need in an essential goody bag to support you? What would you want? What would be nice? What would help you just that little bit more?
  • Second, if you have a friend with a viva soon: what could you do to give them a little boost? What practical things could help them get ready? What else could you do to make them smile?
  • And for me: what can I do with my Zoom sessions to bring a little of that surprise and delight that I loved so much in my very first independent seminar?

Get Comfy

Your viva could feel a bit uncomfortable in some ways. It could be there’s parts of your research you would rather not talk about. Or you’re nervous about unexpected questions. The fear of going blank and forgetting something could make you a little anxious.

Not all of these things are within your control, either the possible event or your response, but there is plenty you can do to help make your viva a more comfortable experience.

  • Take time to get ready. What will help you feel prepared?
  • Consider the setting for your viva. If you’ll be at home, what could you do to make your space more encouraging?
  • Remind yourself: you can’t know everything but you must know a lot to have reached this stage of your PhD journey.
  • Decide on what you will wear for your viva. Something that is physically comfortable but also helps you to feel good could be ideal.

You can’t control all of your feelings about your viva, but you can do a lot to help how comfortable you feel.

Halfway To Ready

Viva prep is needed to help a candidate be ready for the viva. We could say that if you start your prep three weeks before your viva, then after ten days or so you’re halfway to being ready.

But when you think about it, you might do more work in the week immediately preceding your viva. So then being half-ready skews more to the days just before your viva, when you’re working more intently.

Or maybe it’s most useful to consider: viva prep is spread over several weeks at most, whereas the real work of the PhD takes several years.

Viva prep is a focussed period with one goal, making sure that you are ready for the viva – but by the time you start that prep, you are definitely more than halfway to your goal.

5 Posts I’ll Never Write (Probably)

I keep idea books to help manage my creative process for the blog. I’ve worked through five volumes of these small books over the last couple of years, and every time I fill one I transfer unused ideas across.

There are ideas that I’ve had now for a long time and I don’t know what to do with them:

  1. A post written in the style of Dr. Seuss – a bit of a stretch from the haiku I sometimes wrote
  2. Seven Deadly Viva Sins – I like the title but don’t know what to do with it!
  3. Creating a crossword puzzle with viva-related answers…
  4. A post without our common fifth symbol of communication – a blog post all about the viva that does not contain the letter “e”
  5. 101 Short Thoughts About The Viva – a long list of tips, advice and reflections to consider…

Some of these ideas really amuse me – I just don’t know what to do with them. Others are ideas that I keep returning to but know they still need more work. I have hope but am slowly coming to the conclusion that I might never write the great viva-related crossword puzzle!

Despite not using these ideas, good and bad, I’ve written a lot for this blog. And despite not using all of your ideas, you will have done a lot for your research and thesis. You can’t do everything. Your examiners don’t expect you to do everything.

Coming to the end of your PhD, to submission, the viva or completion – at some point it helps to sit back and consider what you have not done. And as you do so remember that you have accomplished a lot. Accept that you might not ever achieve some of your research goals, that some projects’ potential might go unrealised.

You will still have done enough. You will still have proved yourself.

Lockdown Limits

In the last few months I’ve been asked the following many times at webinars: is it acceptable to tell my examiners that “lockdown(s) slowed me down when I was doing my research” if I’ve had to change my plans or not been able to accomplish as much as I wanted?

And my response would be, “Of course!”

If over the last year or so your work has had to change direction, or if you’ve had to do less in some way, then it’s fair for you to emphasise that. We live in exceptional times – your PhD has been completed in exceptional circumstances.

It’s fair to tell your examiners about the challenges you’ve faced in your viva. Beforehand, consider how you can best communicate that. How personal do you want to be? What details do you want to share? How can you communicate the paths that you would have taken? And how do you share what steered your choice in the new directions you had to go?

Video Viva Expectations

Last March I asked for examiners and PhD graduates to share their experiences of being part of a video viva. Lots of generous people shared their stories, observations and advice. A consistent detail – from the examiner perspective – was that video vivas tended to be shorter than in-person vivas. They were a little more formal, but due to the medium they were more focussed and completed more quickly.

As 2020 continued and became 2021, I heard more recent graduates describe their pandemic viva experiences. Long vivas over Zoom and Meet, three-and-a-half hours, four hours or more! The assumed explanation was that as no-one needed to travel to participate in the viva, examiners could give more time to the discussion in the viva. There was nothing negative seen in any of this – other than the amount of time spent in a video-meeting!

Are these long video vivas outliers? Possibly. Not every candidate shares their story, and of the handful I’ve heard there would be hundreds more I have no details of. It’s reasonable to expect that there would be differences in the viva over a video chat. Length of time is one aspect I could definitely see changing compared to the previously “typical” viva.

Some expectations remain true though. Examiners will be prepared. The candidate will be too. The viva is being done for the same reasons. The candidate has done the same work as if it was in-person. The outcome is likely to be the same, even if the process has changed.

In-person or over video, expect that you will have done everything you need to be ready to pass your viva.

Everyone Makes Miskates

Corrections aren’t a sign you’ve necessarily done something wrong in your thesis. The request from your examiners is a helping hand to make your thesis as good as it could reasonably be, given that your thesis is a permanent contribution to knowledge. They want to help.

Most PhD candidates are asked to complete corrections. This doesn’t mean that most candidates are failing somehow or that most candidates don’t care.

It shows that writing is hard. Writing long, involved texts – books! – is hard.

Practice helps. Feedback helps. Investing time purposefully to get better, of course, helps. Proofreading and editing and revising all help.

And after all of that you can still miss things.

When you’re asked to complete corrections, as you most likely will be, just remember that it’s another part of the PhD process. You didn’t do anything wrong; you now have the chance to make things better.


A short post that occurred to me today, as I sit slightly stunned that this is my 1500th daily post on the blog – and I remember the many, many mistakes I’ve made over the course of nearly 250,000 words!

Preparing A 3-Minute Summary

Three minutes is not long to share something of your work, whether on stage for a competition or as part of your viva. Depending on how quickly you talk and the emphasis you give to things, you have between 300 and 400 words at most. Exploring what you would say with that much time and that many words could be a nice way to play with your viva prep.

Start your planning by reflecting with a set of Why-How-What questions:

  • Why does your work matter?
  • How did you do your research?
  • What is the result of your research?

You can focus this more by thinking about your audience: what would they need to hear to help them understand what you’ve done or to help them see the most important aspects?

If it was your examiners, for example, in your viva, you would know that they had read your thesis. You would know that they had studied it and prepared to meet with you. You don’t need to overthink your summary, you simply have to share with them again what you think matters, why it matters – what really stands out from what you’ve done?

Three minutes isn’t long, but it can be enough to highlight something valuable, to emphasise what matters or to introduce a longer period of discussion. Take your time, use it well.

Who Chooses Your Examiners?

Verbs matter. You don’t choose your examiners.

  • Your supervisors nominate potential examiners, and more often than not these nominations turn out to be your examiners.
  • Your supervisors nominate, but your faculty or graduate school have to approve the nominations.
  • The nominations are approved, but your examiners have to accept the requests and agree to examine your thesis.

Your examiners have to accept, after your institution has approved the nominations made by your supervisors.

Where do the ideas for these nominations come from? From the judgment of your supervisors. From the research in your thesis and the work you’ve done. From your suggestions – you are allowed to share your opinions on who would be good examiners with your supervisors. Consider your preferences, what criteria do you think a good examiner would have to satisfy? Then think about which academics you know of might meet those criteria and share your ideas with your supervisors.

Then you wait for the nomination, the approval, the acceptance – but you don’t choose your examiners.