One Size Does Not Fit All

There’s no single way for someone to get ready for the viva. I wish I could say there was a specific sequence of tasks that would help every candidate get ready. If only it were as simple as saying, “Sit down at 3pm every day and do 45 minutes of…”

Every candidate’s life and circumstances present opportunities. In your situation, find the pockets of time and quiet; use them to get ready. Look at what you’ve done and how you feel, and figure out for yourself how much you have to give now to be prepared.

To get ready a candidate needs to read their thesis. When it’s your time you have to find the best occasions to do the work: an afternoon off or an hour per day for a week? A chapter per night or when you’re on the train? You have to decide.

Every candidate will benefit from annotating their thesis. For your research and your thesis you have to understand what’s there and decide what might help you before you add notes, bookmarks and highlights. There are hundreds of things you might do to annotate your thesis: you have to decide on the handful of things that will help you.

All candidates need to rehearse for their viva. You’ll know whether what’s best for you is a mock viva or lots of conversations with friends. If you have a mock viva you’ll figure out what the best time is for you and what you need to get from that experience.

There is no single way for every candidate to get ready for their viva. There’s a set of tasks and activities that generally help with preparation; take these onboard and then figure out for your situation the right times, places and specifics you need to help you be ready.

Good Luck Isn’t

It’s nice when someone says, “Good luck!” before your viva. It helps to know that others are thinking of you and wish you the best.

At the same time it’s important to remind yourself that your success doesn’t need luck. The viva isn’t random; passing isn’t subject to simple good luck.

Through your PhD you will have been fortunate – you have worked hard and that has worked out – but you’ve not been lucky. Your success is built on foundations of time, skill, knowledge, effort and persistence.

“Good luck!” is nice and not to be discouraged – but don’t believe for a moment that your success on viva day is lucky in any way.

Your Greatest Challenge

Think back over the course of your PhD journey to date. What stands out to you as the greatest challenge you overcame? Reflect and explore what you remember.

  • Why was the situation a challenge for you?
  • How did you work to overcome it?
  • What was the result of your success?

Your examiners need to know about your research and your journey – as told by you in your thesis and your viva – so that they can confirm you have done enough.

You need to really know how you have got this far – by reflecting on the challenges you have overcome – so that you can convince yourself you are good enough.

Business As Usual

The viva isn’t the same as any regular day in your PhD, but it’s not so different either. Not really.

Do you need to be prepared? Yes.

Do you need to know what to expect from the viva? Yes.

But you also need to be a capable researcher. You need to be knowledgeable about your field and your research. You need to be ready to bring your best to the day’s work.

Isn’t that business as usual for you?

You need to prepare for the viva, but you also need all of the things about you that you would ordinarily have every day of your PhD. Preparation takes a little time and a little work; being ready takes a lot more of things you already have.

Pause, Don’t Stop

Pause in the viva to think about what you’ve heard.

Pause to gather yourself if you lose your train of thoughts.

Pause to check something in your thesis.

Pause to make a note.

Pause to take a sip of water.

Pause to break a question down because it’s really big and needs to be considered.

Pause, but don’t stop. Don’t stop because you are almost there. Don’t stop because whatever nerves you feel – whatever you feel – you have almost finished.

Pause whenever you need to in the viva. Ask for a break, a longer pause. Don’t stop.

Conclusions Aren’t The End

Thesis conclusions invite questions in the viva. Whatever the nature of concluding remarks, they can always lead to requests that go further or dig deeper.

  • “What next?” or “What now?”
  • “Are you sure?”
  • “What else could you…?”
  • “How else could one…?”
  • “How do you know…?”
  • “But what about…?”

If thesis conclusions were truly the end then vivas would probably be much shorter. There would simply be a lot less to discuss probably!

Instead, conclusions are a resting point. A pause. A clear mark that a destination has been reached, while also showing that there’s more to know or more to do.

The Little Things

What little things could you do regularly to help yourself on the lead up to submission and the viva?

  • Keep a little notebook to hand to capture thoughts about your research.
  • Collect small stationery items to annotate your thesis.
  • Set a short time aside to reflect on a day’s progress or a week’s successes. (and record them somehow!)
  • Mark spaces in your diary when you can stop and rest.
  • List small tasks that you can complete in spare moments.

There are big things involved in viva prep that take lots of time and focus – but remember that every action you choose to take, little or big, can help you to be ready for your viva.

Giving A Presentation

I love little quirks of language. We often use the verb give in connection with a presentation. It makes me think of gifts and presents – a present-ation!

Sometimes PhD candidates are asked to prepare a presentation to start the viva. If we consider the presentation as a gift you’re giving, then perhaps it makes sense to think of it like other gifts we might give.

  • Be sure it’s wanted. Your examiners will probably have some expectations of length and content. Either ask them or ask your supervisors for what is required.
  • Spend an appropriate amount. You invest time rather than money in this gift: a little preparation and practice will help. You don’t need to spend a lot to have something right for the occasion.
  • Upcycle previous gifts! A presentation for the start of your viva will not be the first time you have presented work from your thesis. Look at past talks and notes. Draw from them to make something to share with your examiners.

Gifts give something to the giver and the receiver. The person or people receiving have something they didn’t have before – in this case, examiners have information and a sense of who the giver, the candidate, is and what they have done.

As the giver, you give yourself permission to be proud of what you’ve done; you give yourself a good starting point for the viva; you give yourself a useful element of preparation and a confidence boost.


Today is the longest day of the year in the UK.

More hours of daylight. The shortest night. A special date in the calendar.

And just one more day.

Your viva could be the longest exam you’ve had. More concentration than any occasion in recent memory. An important date in your diary.

And like midsummer it’s just one more day.

Important – and then tomorrow rolls around.