Adding Up

As a mathematician I remember the thrill of the first time I encountered the ideas of group theory.

Without getting too technical, let’s consider one of the most simple ideas: imagine if it mattered which way around you added things up in a sum. Two plus three is five, but what if three plus two was something else? What would that mean? We can get really abstract with group theory. There are all sorts of weird and wonderful things you can do but that core concept is really important: in group theory it matters what order things are done.

The same is true in the real world too. If your socks are big enough you perhaps could put them over your shoes rather than the other way around. Your feet would be covered by the same two layers but definitely not in the same way. When cooking, sometimes it matters what order you add ingredients to a pan – and when!


When I write or talk about viva prep I often try to explain that viva prep can be broken down into lots of discrete tasks. These all add up to someone being ready, but of course it does matter what order these are done in. It’s not a good idea to have a mock viva before you’ve read your thesis or checked some papers. It helps to find out more of what to expect before you even start to get ready. It’s probably a good idea to look into your examiners’ publications before you ask your supervisor about them.

With some tasks it matters less, but still consider in advance how and when you do things, and in what order. Viva prep really can be divided into lots of smaller tasks. Taking your time to complete these can lead to you being ready. It all adds up – but it does matter what order you work on your viva preparation.