The Best Of The Best Of Viva Survivors 2021

Between Christmas and New Year I shared some of my favourite writing from 2021. In case you missed those posts here are links to each with a piece that particularly stands out to me.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Viva Prep – lots of practical posts but the one that jumps out as always-relevant is Kind Prep. You need to be kind to yourself as you get ready, whatever practical tasks you have to complete.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Long Posts – after many interactions with PhD candidates in webinars over the pandemic, Space To Feel was a post I had to write.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Short Posts – one of the most helpful framings I’ve found in describing questions in the viva is treating them as Opportunities To Engage. No tricks, no traps, each question is an opportunity.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Confidence – I set myself a little challenge in writing The Basics. Confidence comes from many places. A key source could simply be understanding what the viva is all about and realising that, given the situation, you can do well.

2021 was not an easy year and 2022 has not started very well.

I’m always hopeful, but we still live in interesting times. Who knows what the rest of the year will bring?

From me, there will be another year of Viva Survivors posts! Subscribe if you’d like to get them sent to your inbox every day 🙂

Great Expectations

Last year I waited for the latest Spider-Man movie for a long time.

I wondered if I would even get to see it at the cinema because of the pandemic. Then I wondered if all of the rumours were true or not – no spoilers in this blog post, don’t worry! Then I built it up in my mind, expecting that it would be good.

The first trailer was amazing! The second trailer was spectacular!! And then after all of that build-up the movie was great!!!

And also over in the space of a few hours. My great expectations were matched and in some cases smashed, but it wasn’t long before reality intruded, work and normal life beckoned…


It’s not wrong to have great expectations about your viva. It’s not wrong to think of it as a big deal. It is, of course, hugely important.

And it will also be over in the space of a few hours. Remember that whatever you expect it will happen and be done on just one day.

Your viva is important – and then you have to go and do something else with the talent, skill and knowledge you’ve developed over the course of your PhD.

Ask For A Break

You can ask for a break in the viva.

You can let your examiners know that you need one for a medical or health-related reason.

You can ask for one because your viva is becoming long.

You can ask for one if you’re on campus or over video.

You can ask for one if you’ve had one already.

You can ask for one before the end of the first hour.

If you need one, at any time, ask for a break in your viva.

What Do You Do With Typos?

After submission you need to read your thesis to prepare for the viva.

Inevitably you’ll find a word that is in some way wrong. It’s not spelled correctly, it’s the wrong word, you meant something different or perhaps it is a string of words that don’t communicate what you need.

What do you do?

If the typo is simple then you have two choices: underline it in the text or make a clear list. After the viva, when you have to complete corrections, you have an easy-to-follow guide of what to do. You don’t need to correct them now. Marking it in your thesis or having a list is enough for the viva.

If the typo is more complicated then it’s probably best to make a note in the margin of what would be better for your thesis or – if needed – write a longer explanation on a Post-it Note and stick that in. Then you can explain things better – if needed – in the viva and complete the correction more easily afterwards.

Either way, a typo is just a slip that got past you when writing up. It’s part of the process. You get to make it better.

Make Plans

Make a plan for submission. Set milestones to help keep you on track. Check the details for the official things you need to do. Maybe ask a friend to go with you if you have to submit paper copies and make an event of the occasion.

Make a plan for your prep. It doesn’t take a lot to get ready; if you’re already busy it helps to map out what you will do and when you will do it. Ask for help in advance so you can arrange specific times. Start soon enough so you don’t have to rush to finish.

Make a plan for the viva. Think about how you would like it to go, how you would like to present yourself, what you will need for the day. Plan your outfit and supplies. Plan your space if your viva is over video. Decide on how you will try to engage with questions. Check the details but remember that you can’t control everything: you can plan to do your best.

Make a plan for the short break at the end of the viva. Find something to do in that brief period of waiting to occupy yourself.

Finally, make a plan to celebrate your success!

Look Forward

The viva is nearly-but-not-quite the end of the PhD journey.

It really won’t take much to get ready for it.

You’ll get to have a conversation with two interested academics about your research.

Once your viva is finished and your corrections are complete you can start the next phase of your life or career as Doctor Somebody.


What other reasons can you find to help you look forward to your viva?

How Can I Know?

If you have doubts that you’ve done enough, that your thesis is good enough or that you are good enough then take a little time to reflect on what you’ve done.

  • How many days did you do the work?
  • How many papers did you read?
  • How many things did you try?
  • How many times did you present your work in some way?
  • How many times did something not work – but you tried again?
  • How many days did you sit down and write something for your thesis?
  • How many times did you have a breakthrough?

For questions like these you won’t always have an exact number. You can know the scale of your past efforts and determination.

You can know that you’ve come this far because you did the work. You can know that whatever mistakes you’ve made along the way that you have done enough. You can know that whatever doubts you have that you are good.

Useful Questions

The two most useful questions for a PhD candidate to reflect on, particularly after submission, are:

“When is my viva?” and “How do I feel?”

The first is often a useful prompt to realise that there is still time. There’s always time to do something to get ready. If you have ten minutes to go you can still breathe, try to relax, check your notes and remind yourself that you’re almost done. If you have ten days then you have lots of time to prepare and build your confidence. If you have just submitted your thesis you have time to take a break. If you’ve not submitted yet then you know your time is best invested in getting your thesis finished.

The second question has a partner: “So what can I do?” If you feel relaxed, what can you do to build on that? If you feel nervous, what can you do to calm yourself? If you feel unprepared then what can you do to get ready? If you feel afraid who could you talk to so you can get help? If you feel confident, how can you maintain that for the viva? It’s good to reflect on how you feel; it’s better to take the time after that to think about what you need to do next.

“When is my viva?” and “How do I feel?” are good questions to reflect on for a candidate.

“When is your viva?” and “How do you feel?” are fair questions to ask a friend after they’ve submitted their thesis, provided you have time to really listen and then ask one more question:

“Do you need help?”

You Need To Get Ready

The practical tasks involved in viva prep are not hard, but shifting focus to do the work can be tough.

Why? Perhaps because you’ve done it all before. You did this work! Haven’t you done enough already? You did the research, you wrote the thesis, you checked it and now you have to read it again and do more work for the viva. Really?!

Or maybe your response is lead by nervousness. Maybe you have lots of questions in the way. What exactly will be involved in the viva? What do examiners do? How do they behave? If viva prep is another step closer then putting it off means you might not have to inspect your own nervousness yet, at least for a little while.

Or you could be busy. Steering your attention to prep when you have a job, or you’re looking for one, or when you have responsibilities is just a hard ask. You know it needs doing, but finding the time or feeling energised enough when you need to prepare can be tough.

Whatever it is, whatever is proving a barrier, you need to find a way around it. Whatever the problem is you still need to prepare. You need to get ready for your viva.

  • You’ve done the research – but you need to get ready for your viva.
  • You could be nervous – but you need to get ready for your viva.
  • And of course you’re busy – but you need to get ready for your viva.

It’s not as simple as saying just get ready. Whatever is in the way of you shifting your focus to preparation is real. You have to find a way forward though. Everyone is different, so every solution is going to be unique.

Generally you have to make a plan that works for you, that is driven by what time you have, how you feel and what gaps you see in your preparation. Recognise the barrier and figure out a way around it.

And then you have to do to the work.

You need to get ready for your viva.

Annotated For You

Adding to your thesis is a helpful part of viva prep. Including bookmarks, underlining words or sections, writing notes in the margin or placing sticky tabs to mark things out – there’s 101 things you could do!

Thankfully you don’t need to do all of them. By spending a little time thinking clearly you can figure out what will make your thesis more useful for you.

What details will help you if they stand out? What do you want to be able to see more clearly? How could you do that?

Annotating your thesis is for you. You have to reflect and decide what added details will help you the most. Annotations are not for your examiners; they’re added to help you to perform at your best in the viva.

Again, these three questions can help you figure out what you need to do:

  • What details will help you if they stand out?
  • What do you want to be able to see more clearly?
  • How could you do that?

Once you’ve reflected, make a list and do the work.