Filling In The Blanks

There’s lots of blanks that could occur around the viva.

Key information you don’t know. Something you can’t remember. Before and during the viva, the feeling of suddenly knowing that you don’t know something can be uncomfortable, even stressful.

In both cases, before and during, the best thing you can do is ask questions.

Before the viva your question at encountering a blank might be one of the following:

  • Why don’t I know this?
  • Who could I ask for help?
  • Where could I find help?
  • What do I really need to know?

Any one of these questions might be the springboard to finding what you need to fill in the blank or gain more certainty about a situation.

In the viva, feeling blank is probably more stressful, but still the best thing to do is ask questions.

If your first response to a question or comment in the viva is “I don’t know” then ask yourself “Why?” Find out what’s in the way. Explore what’s stopping you. Ask “Why?” to prompt you to see what you need to do next.

Maybe you need to ask your examiners something. Maybe you need to pause and think more. Maybe you need to acknowledge a point before you can move past it. Maybe you need to check something in your thesis.

Encounter a blank, before or during the viva, and ask yourself “Why?”

Then find a way forward from there.

Mice & Gazelles

A lion is capable of catching mice for food, but if it spends all of the time doing so it won’t survive.

A gazelle could be harder to hunt for but will, if caught, provide everything the lion needs.

That’s a little paraphrasing of a famous business metaphor about focus, but the broader point is on the focus that we give to things. Focussing on the small, little, easy things to do might make you busy, might give you lots to do, but it might not reward your effort or move you closer to your goals. The harder tasks are more challenging, but if you succeed with them then they’ll give you what you need.

You could spend your time in preparation for the viva catching mice. Checking your thesis again and again for typos. You could obsess over sections trying to memorise things. You could look over lists of questions and try to think about what you would say.

But these mice won’t satisfy your sense of readiness for the viva.

You need to focus on the bigger, more challenging tasks: reflecting on your progress, building your confidence, rehearsing for being in the viva, reading your thesis carefully once. These gazelle-tasks take effort, they’re thoughtful, but they’ll reward your preparation.

We tend to get more of what we focus on. What will you focus on as you prepare for your viva?

The Dream of No Corrections

Dreams do come true.


But wishing and dreaming that you get no corrections for your thesis is a fantasy that’s best left alone. Some candidates find out at the end of their viva that they have no corrections to complete, but not many.

It’s nice if you have no corrections, but it’s more typical to have something still to do.

Rather than dream about having no corrections instead focus on writing the best thesis you can, preparing as well as you can and being ready to engage with your examiners.

You might not get corrections – but you probably well.

It’s probably better to dream of something else.

Good Fortune & Hard Work

In my PhD I can remember times I was lucky. Lucky to be at a particular seminar and see an unsolved problem that I knew I could solve. Lucky to suddenly make a breakthrough and get the result I needed.

Except I wasn’t. I was in the right place at the right time perhaps, but I couldn’t have spotted the first solution without all the results I’d already achieved. I couldn’t make my breakthrough, everything slipping into place, without three weeks of background reading and calculations first.

Words matter.

In all my seminars I remind PhD candidates they’re not lucky to have finished their thesis or to have got results – they’re fortunate. Fortunate is when hard work pays off. There might not have been a certain outcome, but it could only have happened thanks to someone taking the actions that they did.

None of your PhD success is luck. It’s good fortune, when your hard work has paid off.

Remember your good fortune. Remember too the hard work that has got you there.

Mistaken Identity

I’ve observed some PhD candidates think their examiners’ expectations will be set way too high.

Candidates can worry…

  • …whatever someone has produced for their thesis, the examiners will want more.
  • …if you’ve published a paper, they’ll wonder why you don’t have three.
  • …if your future plans don’t include academia they’ll put a question mark around the whole viva.

None of this is true. Examiners are trained. They’re professional. They know what they’re there to do in the viva. They’re not there to be harsh or to set impossible standards (that they couldn’t hit themselves!).

The mistaken identity in the viva process, if it’s there for you, is the identity you believe you need to be in order to pass.

The wonder-brain, the super-achiever, the one-in-a-million.

That’s not who you need to be. That’s the mistake.

Your identity, who you are, is enough.

Questions Are Opportunities

The viva is a conversation driven by the questions your examiners ask. Every question is an opportunity.

  • An opportunity to explore your work.
  • An opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding.
  • An opportunity to add to what is in your thesis.
  • An opportunity to defend your choices.
  • An opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge or ability.

Every question is an opportunity for you to do something good for yourself.

Pause, think and respond as best you can.

Easy Mode

I enjoy playing video games where I can alter the setting to “easy” and feel powerful. I can advance through the story, feel present and connected to the world of the game (as enemies don’t knock me down every two minutes) and I can really have fun.

Unlike a video game, you can’t simply alter the difficulty setting of your viva.

The nature of what you’re there to do, not knowing exactly what questions you might be asked, feeling nervous – all of these can layer to create a challenging environment.

I also enjoy playing video games where you can’t alter the difficulty. There is no easy mode, you have to persevere. You explore the systems and scenario, get a feel for the challenge. Try different tactics and find ways to play to your strengths. The game remains challenging, but also seems easier, due to the practice I’ve had.

This is more analogous to the PhD journey and the challenge of the viva. You can’t alter the difficulty, you have to raise yourself up to meet each challenge. Learn more to do more, do more to know more. Find your strengths, use them well and you make it through.

The final challenge is still a challenge, but it’s not all or nothing: you continue to show what you know and what you can do, and you succeed.

There’s no easy mode for the viva – and you don’t need one anyway.

Saturday Morning Transformations

In our house we’re all fans of Saturday morning cartoons and adventure shows. If someone or a group have magical items, secret abilities, arch-enemies or a world to save, then we are there to watch and enjoy the story!

Often, characters have to transform somehow to show their abilities off. She-Ra has a magical sword. The Power Rangers, whatever incarnation of the programme – Power Rangers Dino Charge forever! – have items that help them morph from teenagers into giant-robot-summoning-superheroes.

Also often, characters will be faced with situations where they can’t access their abilities. In one episode there’s a magic dampening field and they can’t transform. They lose their power item. Their powers are taken away.

In those stories they discover that, actually, their greatest power was inside them all along. Determination. Intelligence. Experience.

I have a quarter of a million words of reflection, advice, tips and thoughts on this blog to encourage PhD candidates. Practical steps to take, questions to reflect on, resources to use. And you have a window of opportunity to get ready for the viva after you submit.

If you take all of that away, you would still have what you really need for your viva: everything you’ve done so far for your PhD, everything you know, everything you can do and the drive to keep going.

Viva prep helps. Advice helps. Learning about expectations helps. But you already have what you need to succeed in the viva.

So why not take a little time off and rest before you dive into prep and finding out more about the viva?

If you need to relax, might I suggest you watch some Saturday morning cartoons?

The Waiting Room

It could be that, like me, having to wait for something means your thoughts turn to asking “What if…?” These questions aren’t always helpful for keeping calm or confident. Sometimes they even prompt nervousness. They could be natural to ask, but seriously unhelpful in those moments.

Before or after the viva, wherever you are, there’s a good chance that you’ll need to wait.

Waiting to start, waiting while your examiners talk afterwards. Wait to get going or wait for it to be done and the result known. Waiting might simply feel uncomfortable or it could spark anxious questions, depending on your temperament and how you feel in those situations.

If you know you feel uncomfortable in those situations, what could you do?

By now, I’m pretty confident when I deliver a presentation or seminar, but I still get nervous waiting. So I have a routine that starts things off. I have a small series of tasks to calm me and engage me while the time ticks down. I have music that I listen to which connects me with the work I’m about to do.

What could you do? Is there something you could listen to before your viva that might help? Is there a series of steps you could take to keep you calm? A process for setting up your space that would help you?

And afterwards, if you’re at home or your university, what could you do while waiting for your examiners to finish their discussions? Could you go for a short walk? Make a drink? Talk to someone?

You’ll most likely have to wait on the day of your viva. What can you do to feel comfortable in those moments?