The Map Is Not The Territory

Regulations can give you the general shape of the viva, the broad understanding of the process. Stories shape big expectations, and the stories of your friends and colleagues can help you see the norms, the common practices in your department.

But this is the map of viva landscape: it could have lots detail, but it’s only a representation. All of the regulations, expectations and norms that you understand – and it’s worth taking the time to find them out – won’t be able to tell you exactly what is going to happen in your viva.

You’ll only appreciate the territory, your viva, when you’re there, when it’s in front of you. There you’ll see the unique features, the slight changes, the parts that stand out to you that others didn’t mark or notice.

The map is not the territory, but the map is still useful. You can help update it after your viva. Once your viva is done, the corrections are in and you’re getting ready to move on to life after the PhD, find ways to share your own experiences to help someone else get a sense of what is ahead of them.

(another post inspired by The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish!)

Scratch Your Itch

If I’m ever asked to give general advice for PhD candidates I suggest that they find some way to scratch their itch:

Find a nice little side project to your main research, something that might use your skills, talents or knowledge in a slightly different way. Find something that makes you smile to work on it. Find something perhaps even unconnected to your research but which helps you to make something or do something that helps others. If all it does is help you balance out your normal work time, then it’s time well spent.

There’s a place for itch-scratching in viva prep too. Make notes on the favourite parts of your thesis. Find interesting papers to read and challenge yourself with. Have coffee with friends to talk about the last few years or perhaps have a mini-viva. Even incentivise your prep with some kind of fun reward.

All of these sorts of things have a place in helping you get ready.

What could you do? What have you been putting off? What could you use to both scratch an itch – A new project? Answering a question to keep you thinking? Presenting your work? – and help you get ready?

Time To Think

You had lots of time to think during your PhD. You had plenty during your prep. You have enough in the viva.

Your examiners want you to consider, ponder, debate, reflect, examine, muse, propose – to think! – and then respond.

This doesn’t mean long silences, longer vivas or almost-impossible questions. Just enough time to think about something important.

Take time in your viva. It’s there for you to use.

Needing A Mock

You don’t need a mock viva. You need practice for the viva, a rehearsal space to think and respond like you might do in the viva. You don’t need a mock viva, it’s just one of the ways that you could rehearse.

You don’t need a mock viva, it’s just supposed to be like a real viva, with substitute examiners who will be well-placed to ask you relevant, helpful questions to give you a sense of kind of discussion that arises in the viva. You don’t need a mock viva, there are lots of ways to get help, but given that it’s supposed to be like the viva it could be a really useful opportunity if you have the chance.

You don’t need a mock viva, you need to be ready: a mock is a means to an end, not the end itself. There are other things you could do that would help.

But if you have the chance, a mock viva could be exactly what you need. A small, self-contained piece of preparation. A boost to confidence, to awareness, to expectations. A chance to rehearse and build. A chance to get ready.

You don’t need it. But it might help a lot if you have it.

What Do You Believe?

Do you believe that vivas are scary, mysterious or to be feared?

Why? What has you concerned? What could you do to soften those concerns?

Do you believe your examiners are going to be harsh?

Why? What is it about them or about your thesis that makes you feel that? Do you have to accept that feeling, or could you do something about it?

Do you believe your viva is all determined by factors beyond your control?

Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to reflect on why you’ve got to the viva stage of your PhD at all?

What do you believe about your viva and your PhD? What is helping you? What isn’t? It’s possible to reflect and change beliefs. Not always simply, not by pressing a button, flipping a switch or turning a dial towards something different. But consistent actions could help turn the dial a little, bit by bit, towards a more useful attitude.

Do you believe that you’ve got as far as you have by doing the work, becoming talented, becoming good enough?

If so, carry on. Keep going.

Your Best

I’m preparing the blog for the end of the year and the start of 2021. My tradition is to do a few “best of” posts between Christmas and New Year, picking out prep ideas, reflections, short posts and the like – the things that stand out in over 350 days of writing. If any posts from this year have really resonated let me know! It might be interesting to do a day sharing reader choices.

But while I get thinking about the best posts of the year, consider that for the viva you need to bring the best of you – which hopefully won’t be too difficult because you must have been bringing that to your PhD for a long time.

Your best for your viva means being ready, being thorough, being willing to engage and think, doing something to build your confidence (if you need to) and recognising that you must be talented enough by now.

You’ve been doing your best for a long time. Clearly it’s worked.

Casting Your Examiners

Finding your ideal examiners is, I think, like seeing someone who is perfect in a play. Someone with exactly the right qualities for the part.

You might have a highly specific list of requirements for your examiners. You might know exactly who you want them to be:

  • An expert?
  • Someone you’ve referenced?
  • Someone new to academia?
  • Someone experienced?
  • A famous name?
  • A professor?
  • Someone who could write you a reference in the future?

You could want some of these features or none, and you could be really certain on who you want…

…and not got them.

Your dream team might not be available. Or one of your examiners might pass. And your supervisor could have a different idea to you.

For most candidates there will be the option to suggest names or ideas, but your supervisor makes the decision. They will be the one to nominate, and after that potential examiners get to decide.

Yes, it’s useful to share ideas and propose names, but given that the choice is far out of your hands, it’s not worth investing all your energy into casting the perfect people to join you in the one-act semi-improvised play that is your viva.

After your examiners are chosen you can learn more about them if needed. Explore who they are and find useful ways to direct your preparation; but before submission, before selection, the most you can do is share a few ideas, have a conversation, then step back and focus on other things (like your thesis).

Most candidates won’t find their dream examiners. The viva will still work out fine.

The show must go on.

Do Less

Viva prep is less.

Less reading than when you were researching.

Less writing than when you were writing up.

Less thinking than when you were figuring things out.

The viva is a fraction of the time you’ll spend on getting ready, and viva prep is a vanishingly small period compared to the months you’ll put into your PhD. Perspective matters. You need to get ready for the viva, but the real work that helps you pass has already been done.

Move Past Mistakes

Typos catch the eye. Muddled words bring distraction. Mistakes do matter, but for the most part only because they’ll be one more thing on the list of corrections.

When you see them during your prep – because it is when rather than if for the majority of candidates – make a note in a useful way for you, then move past them. Focus on what matters more. Focus on the stuff that your examiners will really want to talk about: your contribution, your choices, your knowledge and what makes you a capable researcher.

Contribution matters more than corrections.

Being Thankful

Every night before we put our daughter to bed, we share what we’re thankful for as a family. We’re thankful that we’ve had three meals that day, that something funny happened, that we’re part of a nice school community, that we read a good story, that we have a family… Big or small, serious and silly, we share what has helped that day be good (or what has been good in a hard day).

We’ve done this for three or four years I think, and it helps. It helps us not take things for granted.

It’s helped a lot this year.

I think it would have been a valuable thing to be aware of as I was finishing my PhD. It was easy to put a lot of pressure on myself, to doubt that things would go well in the viva (so many doubts!!), but I had a lot to be thankful for:

  • I could have been thankful that my supervisor was patient and supportive.
  • I could have been thankful that I had a community around me that cared.
  • I could have been thankful that I knew my examiners a little, so had some idea of how they would behave.
  • I could have been thankful that my thesis went in on time.
  • I could have been thankful that I had ample time to prepare.
  • I could have been thankful that I had results I was certain of.

But for the most part I read my thesis, made notes and wondered what my examiners would say. All of the above was true, but I didn’t recognise it. Simply reflecting on “What are you thankful for?” could have helped me appreciate some of it. I probably would have still been nervous, but perhaps with a little more perspective on how I’d got to the viva, and what that might mean. I think it would have helped me.

I offer it as a thought: when it comes to your PhD, your thesis, your viva – what are you thankful for?


Massive thanks to Dr Pooky Knightsmith, who was my guest on the podcast a long time ago! I spotted her daily practice of being thankful some years back on Twitter, and this inspired our family bedtime routine.