Answers On A Postcard

A viva prep idea that seems apt for summertime: use postcards to make notes about key reflective questions for your research and thesis.

Get half a dozen different postcards (choose your images carefully). Use half of each one to answer a big picture question like those below:

  • How did I get interested in this topic?
  • What’s my key contribution?
  • What are my three main results?
  • What is my methodology?
  • Who is my research important to?
  • What are my three most important references?

Use the other half, where one would typically write an address, to capture a few keywords, an extra short note or perhaps an important reference or two.


There are three useful elements here. First, the answer in a small, restricted space gives a concise reflection. Second, a few points or helpful things that jump out. Finally, the image of the postcard to build memory associations.

Index cards are often used to help with revising something, but I’ve never come across postcards. What do you think? Useful or not?


“Is it OK to stalk your external examiner on Twitter?”

I chuckled when I got this question at a workshop. “Stalk” is funny, but they meant follow, which is fine… I couldn’t see why it would be an issue. I can’t imagine there would be an extra restriction on who you follow on Twitter on the lead up to the viva. Unless your external was pseudo-anonymously dropping huge hints with their tweets…

Learning a lot about an interesting bit of research this week! #phdchat #vivasoon

Always nice to see my research referenced in a thesis! #phdchat #vivasoon 😉

There is a difference between “effect” and “affect”! 🙁 #phdchat #vivasoon #page74thirdparagraph

It should be fine. I’ve not seen anything from universities which means you can’t follow your examiners. Don’t DM them, don’t @ them and perhaps don’t RT or favourite their tweets, just to be sure. For avoidance of doubt, check with your university’s regulations.

(meanwhile it’s absolutely fine to follow @VivaSurvivors!)

Picture This

Talk to graduates about their experiences in the viva and members of staff about what they do as examiners.

Then think about what it will be like to walk in.

See the room in your mind (you’ll know where it is).

Imagine the weight of what you take in your bag or hands (your thesis is there to help).

Feel a smile at the rightness of being there (you have earned this!).

See yourself answering questions and imagine your examiners being impressed (they will be!).

Expectations help build a picture of viva day.


A thought: you and your examiners are more similar than you are different.

Similar: all researchers, all interested, all capable, all talented, all there in your viva for a good reason.

Different: they have more experience than you, you have more expertise than them. They’ve read your thesis, you wrote your thesis.

All of these points help the story of confidence you can tell yourself about the viva.

Synonyms for Corrections

There are lots of words we could use.

Revisions. Amendments. Tweaks. Updates.

All nouns, the thing itself, but you’re doing something when make your corrections. Often it’s framed as a final hurdle, grumble grumble, a bit more work from the examiners and the PhD process. I think the best word to focus on is “improvements” – your examiners have spotted some ways that you can make your thesis better.

Of course, ten years ago, when I started my corrections I did not think of them as improvements. I gritted my teeth and got to work, but felt frustrated. “Why do I have to do this now? Weren’t the last three and a half years enough?”

No. They weren’t. A few more weeks was all it took and my thesis was better as a result, and that’s the point of corrections. Your examiners want to help you make your thesis the best presentation of your research that it can be.

You might not feel that way when you get your list of corrections (or revisions, improvements and so on) but I hope you will by the end.

Ten years later I feel grateful my examiners gave me the opportunity to help my thesis be better.


Don’t fill the margins, footers and headers of your thesis until they are overflowing with notes.

Too much can be a distraction, just something else to read and decipher as you’re looking for something helpful.

A little goes a long way.

A little thought helps in the preparation, and a little note on the day can help you in the viva’s discussion.

Memory Box

My daughter’s just finished nursery and starts “Big School” in September. It seems only like yesterday that she was starting, but it was nearly two years. Time flies…

We’re helping her make a memory box of her time at nursery. Pictures and projects, toys and books, the keepsakes and mementoes that she wants to have, and it’s got me thinking about what I would put in my PhD memory box. It’s ten years since I finished my PhD and I have fond memories but I know there are lots I will have forgotten now. I wish I had kept more of a diary or memory box, but I was too busy thinking “I’m done, what do I do next???”

For the end of the PhD I think it’s important to reinforce the idea that you haven’t just arrived at a destination as a passenger: you’ve worked to get there. What have you collected in your memory box along the way? What has helped? What helped you realise something new? What helped you get better? What do you just want to remember?

Time flies… Your story so far can help the story that’s coming, whether that’s your viva, your next job or whatever life has to throw at you. Find memories that help you and make them part of the story you remember.

Big Deal

Anyone who tells you the viva is no big deal is wrong. It comes at the end of years of research. It’s huge life achievement. It matters for many, many reasons.

Anyone who tells you the viva is the biggest deal ever is wrong. There’s more you will do, more you can be and more that matters more.

Also: anyone who tells you how to feel about your viva is wrong!

You get to decide how you feel and what it means to you.

The Unknowns

What you don’t know about your viva can be scary. It’s helpful to make a distinction between the three main types of unknowns:

  • There are things you can find out: the regulations for vivas at your university, what happened at your friends’ vivas, what your examiners’ recent publications are like.
  • There are things you can have expectations of: how long it might be, the sorts of questions that come up, the general outcomes and what they mean.
  • There are things you can’t know: how long your viva will be, what questions you’ll be asked or what your examiners will think of your thesis.

It’s clear with the first two kinds of unknowns that if you ask the right people the right questions you’ll find help. But there is no way of knowing how long your viva will be. There is no script available for questions. No report you can read about your examiners’ impressions.

Crucially, you have a choice about what you focus your attention on. Focus on the first two kinds of unknown. You’ll find confidence by getting answers to the questions you have, then perhaps realise that the third kind of unknown don’t matter that much.