Reflecting On Change

What can you do now that you couldn’t at the start of your PhD?

What skills have you developed that you didn’t have when you began?

What do you now know that you didn’t when you started your research?

What have you created, in your thesis, that didn’t exist when you started your PhD?

Before your viva, reflect on how you’ve changed and how you’ve changed things. You’ve done so much – more than enough to find success at your viva.

When Do You Know?

Getting ready for the viva can feel hard sometimes. Reading your thesis, checking old notes and papers, finding time for a mock viva, and so on. The whole point is to get to a point where you feel ready.

But when do you know? How do you know that you’re all set and ready for the viva?

As “readiness” is based around how you feel there is always space for doubting yourself. Try some of the following if you’re uncertain or worry about feeling ready:

  • Set targets for your prep. Define what you’re going to do, make a plan and tick things off as they’re completed. Seeing that progress can help how you feel.
  • Ask friends about what they did. Your story and needs may differ in some aspects, but having an example to follow can provide reassurance that you’re doing the right thing.
  • Remember times that you have felt ready for big events and compare how you feel now. If you don’t feel ready in the same way then consider what other actions you could take.

Perhaps we can’t set a time or standard for when you will be ready for the challenge of your viva – but you can set out how you might get to that feeling.

In The Spotlight

In preparation for the viva you can reflect on possible questions, talk with friends or have a mock viva – but don’t forget that you’re not the only one in the spotlight on the big day!

Your thesis is centre-stage with you. Your examiners have read it cover to cover, so you’d best do the same as well. Your examiners will be thinking about it a lot, so it helps if you do too. They’ll be considering it carefully so take some time to do likewise.

Being in the spotlight, for you or your thesis, might not always feel great – but the only way to get around that feeling is to spend more time in the spotlight. More time rehearsing, more time reading and reflecting.

My Comfortable Shoes

I didn’t feel particular nervousness about the viva, but I don’t remember feeling great about it either. To feel a tiny bit better I wore my most comfortable shoes. I continued to do this for years afterwards when I was in situations – mostly work-related – where I felt uncomfortable.

In fact, I did everything I could to make my situation comfortable. Comfortable shoes. A preparation routine. Arriving early to make sure I had plenty of time. Anything and everything I could think of to feel more comfortable and more capable.

The nature of the viva can make it very uncomfortable for some candidates. It’s to be expected: general nervousness or apprehension about what might happen can be unsettling. Feelings of nervousness about the viva aren’t bad in themselves – they’re normal responses to the environment you’ll be in – but they aren’t comfortable and they aren’t always helpful.

So, if the event could feel uncomfortable, what could you do to increase your comfort?

  • You could find out more about what to expect and possibly remove anxieties that aren’t necessary.
  • You could have a mock viva to remove discomfort at thinking about questions and responding to them.
  • You could take something with you that helps you to feel good or better.
  • You could invite your supervisor to your viva to be a friendly face – assuming that’s how you feel about them!

What could you do to increase your comfort at the viva? Once you have some options, decide what you will do to be more comfortable on viva day.

Thought Experiments

I like thought experiments, both philosophically and in fiction. It can be fun to ask what if? and then follow that thinking to see what might happen next. It’s useful in the kind of work I do too, thinking through how a session might run or how a new webinar might help someone. It can identify issues that need addressing in advance – or eliminate headaches before they happen!


Thought experiments allow us to get ahead of problems sometimes, but they can also be a distraction. A lot of what if questions about the viva are completely understandable but can also be very distracting:

  • What if my internal asks about something I didn’t do?
  • What if my external asks about something I can’t remember?
  • What if someone disagrees?
  • What if I lose my train of thought?
  • What if I feel nervous?

I have specific advice for each of these, but the general response to all of them is: “Then you would pause, think and ultimately respond to the situation in the moment in whatever way seems best.”

Because that’s all you can do.

You can prepare, you can practise and you can ask yourself what if – in the end you have to stop worrying and wondering about thought experiments.

Remember who you are, what you did, what you can do and what you bring to the viva.

Little Lists

Annotating your thesis as part of viva prep is useful: it creates a better resource to be consulted during the viva and also focusses your attention while getting ready. You have to engage again and again to add value by underlining, highlighting and making notes in the margin. There’s plenty of space to add details but it helps to be concise and clear.

A specific, short idea for today then. Write a little list at the start of each chapter; five bullet points to capture something of the pages that follow:

  • A one-sentence summary.
  • The key takeaway of the chapter.
  • A reference that really supports the work.
  • A question to remember or reflect on.
  • Something you learned while doing the research.

A micro-review of each chapter will help sharpen your thinking while you get ready for the viva and continue to support you when you meet your examiners. Invest a little time in some little lists.

Where You’re Meant To Be

For all the nerves you might feel, despite any knocks to confidence or worries about research, it’s worth remembering that if you are headed towards your viva date you are precisely where you’re meant to be.

You did the work. You learned. You grew. You got better. Your thesis is proof of that. It’s not perfect, and neither are you, but by now both of you are good enough to meet the standard.

If you don’t feel that, you’re the only one who can change that feeling. Find out more about the viva perhaps, work to boost your confidence, do the necessary work to get ready – and remember that this is where you’re meant to be.

Right here, right now, on track to succeeding in your viva.


Rehearsal for the viva is essential because it simulates some of the aspects of being there. If you’re nervous about how you will respond, what will come up or what it will feel like to be there then you can’t do better than rehearse in some way.

A mock viva is the best way to simulate the viva experience. Questions from experienced academics in a relevant field or disciplines. Time to think and be in a viva-like environment. Facing uncertainty of what the next question or opinion will be. You can practise what you will do and get a sense of how you might feel.

A mock viva, a simulation, however polished, can’t be as accurate or as good as the real viva. How will it differ from the real thing? You can’t know beforehand. You can simply be better prepared for talking to your examiners.


Postgraduate researchers find out a lot of things during the PhD through whispers.

  • “Psst! How do I do this?!”
  • “Who do I talk to about that?”
  • “What even is a viva?!”

Of course, some conversations have to be held quietly: perhaps the topic is sensitive or difficult. More often, there’s a lot that could be talked about openly in academia, but we don’t because of culture, power structures and “the way things have always been done”.

Thankfully, despite all of this, there are people who do share good, helpful advice. You’ll find quite a few curated on the Whisper Collective site – a great initiative that’s been running for a year now. Over a dozen blogs, including Viva Survivors, standing around saying, “Can I help?”

Whatever stage of the PhD you’re at, you’ll find helpful, practical advice by checking out the Whisper Collective. And when you find something helpful don’t whisper: pass it on! 🙂