The Right Direction

Through twists and turns, over and around obstacles, past doubts and worries you’ve been moving in the right direction for a long time.

Sometimes you’ve followed the path laid down by the advice of others. Sometimes you’ve taken wrong turns before you found a way forwards. Sometimes you’ve moved and discovered it was, thankfully, the right thing to do.

But this progress is not all luck. It’s definitely not only due to other people.

You’ve come so far, moved along in the right direction with your research, your thesis and yourself because you did the work. You invested the time. You persisted through a pandemic and disruption and more.

Whatever you feel now about your viva – excited, anxious, unsure or fine – you’re moving in the right direction. You’re on the right path: to preparation, getting ready, succeeding and beyond.

Where will you go next?

Webinar: 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva

A short extra post about an upcoming webinar!

Next Monday, April 4th 2022, I’m delivering my 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva session: it’s a 1-hour live webinar I created in 2020 during the first UK lockdown. Since then, I’ve shared it regularly with postgraduate researchers via universities, and occasionally offered it for people to attend independently.

This is my first independent webinar of 2022. I don’t know how many I’ll deliver this year, but not very many! If you’re in your final year or have already submitted your thesis and you want:

  • to learn more about the viva,
  • or to know what you can do to get ready,
  • or to build your confidence for meeting your examiners…

…well this session could be for you! 🙂

Check out the full details on Eventbrite for 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva, Monday 4th April 2022 – and get in touch if you have any questions about the session!

Asking Your Examiners

The viva is not a question and answer session or a quiz. It’s a conversation. Your examiners will lead because this is a conversation with purpose, but there’s a place for you to ask questions too.

First, you can ask to clarify things in the flow of conversation. What did they mean? Could they explain? Can they tell you more so that you can consider something?

Second, you can ask their opinion. What did they think? What would they do? How might I do more with this or follow it up?

Both types of question are fine in the viva.

The first are simply necessary: you might simply need a little more from your examiners so that you can respond as best as possible.

The second are fine but come with the smallest of cautions. The viva is not a Q&A or a quiz, and it’s also not an interview. Candidates sometimes remember the interview advice of having one or two questions prepared to ask the “interviewers”.

But the viva is not an interview. By all means, have questions prepared but only ask if you want to know and only ask if the topic is something that you want to talk about.

You can ask for an opinion or advice, but do it carefully, with a topic that you’ve considered and want to explore more.

Limits of Annotation

Annotating your thesis as part of viva prep can help create a more useful resource. Making things easier to find or easier to see can help your viva run smoothly.

There are so many options open to you: bookmarks, Post-it Notes, highlighter tabs, highlighter pens, pencil, ink, red pen, green pen, writing in the borders, the margins, the header and footer and between the lines…

And you can add short summaries, break down jargon, have sentences at the top and bottom of every page and colour code anything and everything you can think of…

But don’t.

There’s a limit of how much you can usefully add before your annotations become confusing. There’s a limit of how much you can add before it becomes a time-sink for you, rather than an effective use of your time.

So don’t do everything. Start with some limits. Explore what you might need. Make a list. Decide on how you will usefully add things.

Then do the work. Cross things off your list until you’re done.

Make a useful thesis by setting some limits on your annotation.

Right Summaries

I’ve shared a lot of thoughts on the importance of writing summaries as part of viva prep. They can be a useful way to explore an aspect of your work. They can help to focus attention and simplify complicated ideas. They can give you greater certainty that you know what you need to know.

I believe writing a summary is a valuable use of your time when getting ready for the viva, but:

  • Don’t write summaries to give yourself a script to read from.
  • Don’t write summaries to just do something while you’re getting ready for the viva.
  • Don’t write a certain kind of summary if you can’t see the point.

You’re not expected to simply read things out in the viva. Your prep should be purposeful and directed. Not every idea of a “good summary” is going to be relevant for every candidate and thesis.

The right summary for you to write is something that frees up your thinking, rather than finding the only words for sharing something. Write a summary that’s right for you.

The End of the Beginning

The viva is the beginning of the end. Passing it is, I like to think, also the end of the beginning.

However you feel about your PhD journey, particularly if it has been challenging or coincided with the pandemic, it is coming to a close. You will reach your destination and find that you’ve still a long way to go.

Your PhD was just for starters. Where will you go from here?

You don’t need to have all the answers about this at your viva. You don’t need to explain your career plans to your examiners. But maybe you do have an idea. Maybe you have something you’re striving for.

Good. Go for it. Throughout your PhD, with all the challenges you’ve faced, you’ve survived. You’ve managed to keep going in difficult circumstances. And after you’re done, you’ll find more challenges but also more ability to face them.

Your PhD will be done soon, the opening act complete. The end of the beginning. So keep going.

Final Form

A long time ago on the blog I offered some thoughts about examiners being like video game bosses:

After all of the trials and tribulations of doing research, your examiners appear through the fog, two mysterious and challenging foes! Whatever you’ve done before, the rules don’t apply to them!! They’re bigger than the other baddies, tougher, hit harder and if you’re not careful you’re doomed!!!

Which of course means you’ve made it through the game that precedes that boss battle. This stage might be trickier or tougher, but you have the skills you need because you’ve already achieved so much.


Another comparison with video game bosses to consider, for those who are familiar: the viva is the final form in the PhD boss level. No more battles after this. No sudden changes or power-ups for your examiners. Whatever they ask or do, whatever they think or say, you have maxed-out experience and skills, there’s nothing else you can learn or practise or do to get ready. You don’t need anything else.

This is the final challenge and you are ready for it.

A Bad Day

On your viva day you could be tired. You could forget something. You could be surprised. You could freeze. You could be irritated – or your examiner could be! The train could be late or you could mix up the room. You could lose your train of thought or struggle to find it at all.

Lots of uses of the word “could”.

Could is not a certainty.

It might happen, but it probably won’t.

And even if it does happen, one bad thing doesn’t have to make a bad day.

You can focus on the maybes and mishaps that could befall you or you can focus on the certainty you’ve made. You did the work. You wrote your thesis. You did your preparation.

You got ready for your viva. You can be ready for any bad things that could happen.

On Banishing Impostors

Impostor syndrome is a commonly discussed topic in academia. It’s not unusual for a postgraduate researcher to feel they’re somehow not good enough as they get closer to their viva.

I don’t know that anyone has a 100% solution to getting rid of these sorts of feelings, but I have some ideas of what you could do if they feel particularly difficult around your viva.

  • Check in with friends. Talk to trusted friends and colleagues who have already passed their viva. Ask about how they felt. While it’s not comfortable to feel like an impostor, knowing you’re not alone can be the start of helping yourself.
  • Be honest with your record. Look at your progress, the real progress you’ve made. Look at what now exists that did not before. Reflect on how and why that has come to be: you did this work.
  • Imagine what an impostor would really do. How would they act or behave? What would they know? Now compare that to yourself. Do you act or behave like a fake?

I think most thoughtful PhD candidates and academics would admit that they are not perfect. They’re always learning and always will be. Sometimes knowing you don’t know everything or can’t do everything can make you compare yourself falsely to others. Sometimes being around other talented people means that you feel smaller by comparison.

Start by being honest with yourself. Not only about how you feel – because then you can act to change that feeling – but also with the reality of the situation. You don’t feel good, but you couldn’t have got as far as you have if you hadn’t done the work and found success.