What’s In Your Toolbox?

When you reach the viva you have more than facts and theories. You have tools for thinking, seeing and doing. They’re shaped by experience, forged through work, refined by everything you’ve done.

Ahead of your viva, reflect on the tools you’ve made for yourself: what tools are you taking with you into the viva? How do you think of what you’ve developed? And can any of these tools be improved on through your viva preparation?

Check The Outcomes

What might the outcomes for your viva be?

Maybe: No corrections, minor corrections, major corrections, fail?

Or: pass without amendments, minor amendments, resubmission, re-viva, no award?

It’s never simply “pass or fail”.

Different institutions have different formal terminology. They can also have different formal consequences for outcomes, like the amount of time given to complete corrections. Be sure of the possible outcomes at your institution.

You can reasonably expect to get minor corrections, because most people do. Be sure of what that means so you can plan that period after your viva.

You can also reasonably expect to find your university’s thesis examination regulations at my Regulations link page, because most people do – and I’m working on tracking down links to the missing institutions!

Background Checks

What do you need to know about your examiners? What will help you to feel happy about them being the ones asking questions in your viva?

Google is your friend. You can check out your examiners’ staff pages and their publication histories. You can see what they’ve presented at conferences and uncover their interests. You might even find out a little about them as a person, particularly if they’re active on social media.

This can all help give a boost to your confidence for how they’ll treat you on the day of your viva. You want to be examined by clever, reasonable people and a little research can help convince you of that.

Remember that Google works both ways. Think about what someone would find out about you if they looked. If your external wanted to know more about the researcher behind this great thesis they’ve been reading, what would they find?


Compare your experience and knowledge to your examiners and you might feel pretty small. They’ve had longer to see more, learn more, do more and know more. A candidate could easily worry as a result.

But more is not the same as better. Yes, your examiners know more in general, but you know more specifically. They could have a better view of the big picture, but you have a clearer perspective of your research.

Remember: your examiners have read your thesis, but you made it.

The Big Red Button

Let’s say you could take a big red button to the viva: a kind of game-show like buzzer, and whenever you wanted to you could press “pause” on everything. Would you use it, if you had one? Why might you press pause? What circumstances would have to come up?

  • A quick press of the button could give you a few seconds to remember something that’s slipped your mind.
  • You could use a moment to prepare a devastating response to a critical question from your examiners.
  • Or take as long as you like to compose yourself if your mind goes completely blank.

You don’t have a big red button. But you can still imagine situations where you might want one. So what will you do instead?

Think: what can you do now to prepare for things that might stress you out? What can you do in the viva to help be your best self?

What’s New?

You have to make original contributions in your thesis. It’s good to reflect on this before your viva. There are lots of questions that can help stimulate ideas and connections:

  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • What is different in your work from other work in this area?
  • How did your work build on earlier research?
  • What have you learned?
  • What are the outputs of your research?
  • What new questions do we now know to ask?

If one question doesn’t spark an answer, see if another will. What’s new?

Start Small

Day one of viva preparation doesn’t have to be re-reading your thesis and exploring your examiners’ work and writing summaries and practising questions and sticking in Post-its AND reading 101 blog posts about how to do everything!

Day one can just be ten minutes thinking about what you need to do before the viva.

There are big tasks on the journey to the viva, but you can start small. It doesn’t have to be everything all at once.

Give yourself time to think, time to prep, time to get things done.

Small steps will get you there.

The Slush Pile

I have folders of ideas that haven’t quite made it into reality. Everything from blog posts and simple games to books and workshop concepts.

Now and then I review them. Sometimes something will click and I’ll see a way to make that thing real; sometimes I’ll see that the idea is not relevant any more, or feel that it has been surpassed by something else.

And often I’ll just have a feeling the idea needs more time or a later collision with another idea, so back in the folder it will go.

Before the viva your focus needs to be the work you’ve done: what you’ve completed, why it’s good and how you did it. But keep an hour for checking your slush pile, the ideas that didn’t quite come together. Not something you now need to add to your thesis, just something to turn around in your mind again. Look for the ways they connect with your achievements and see what you could do with them in the future.

Your next big idea could already be waiting for you.


In the viva your examiners have freedom to ask about everything in your thesis. They can also ask about anything that isn’t in there.

You have to have boundaries for your research. You can’t do everything, but you’ll probably think about a lot more than you finally include in your thesis. Your answer can simply be, “That was out of the scope of my research,” but that might not be answer enough for your examiners.

So explore the why with them. Why didn’t you do it? Don’t take the question as a criticism; questions explore. Give your examiners your reasons – lack of time, lack of interest, lack of resources, lack of information, deliberate choice to focus on something else… Whatever it is, but be real. Don’t bluff. Be honest.

There might be interesting, exciting things that you’ve not done, but you must have done something good to be in the viva.

♥ Your Thesis

I think you can love your viva, but probably only after the fact. Before it you can be excited, but you’ll still be wondering, “What if…?” about something. You can look forward to it, and it will probably go well, but you can’t love your viva until you’re all done.

Roses are red/Violets are blue/You’ve got this far/You’ve got this too!

You can only love the viva after the fact, but you can love your thesis and your research before you finish your PhD. Maybe you don’t feel that way now.

Find your reasons. Look for them. Don’t just read your work and try to memorise things. Look for reasons to be proud. Look for reasons to be happy. Look for reasons to shout from the rooftops that your thesis is amazing and you love it!

Get to the point where you ♥ your thesis and I think you’ll ♥ your viva too.