Saving For A Rainy Day

That’s one way you could look at your PhD and the viva: throughout all of the reading, research and writing you’re storing up exactly what you need for when you sit down with your examiners. Whatever they bring your way, whatever “rain” comes from them, you’ve saved up enough to get through.

On the one hand, there’s some truth to this. Over the course of your PhD you will have saved up enough to be able to pass through the challenge of your viva.

On the other hand…

Whoever said that a rainy day had to be hard, or that a challenge couldn’t be enjoyable?

Why can’t it be true that you spend three or more years building yourself to be who you need to be for the viva – and then arrive to find it a good experience in it’s own right?

Must-Have Annotations!

Everyone is talking about them for Summer 2021! Your thesis is the must-have accessory for your viva wardrobe, and can be accessorised itself, in so many wonderful ways:

  • Strategic Post-it Notes to show the brilliant beginnings of chapters or index the important points you have to show-off!
  • Highlights are in this season: references, typos, key passages. Whatever matters most to you needs to stand out!
  • Marginalia matters too, and whatever you add to the borders of your thesis pages really helps to emphasise your own style – and your research!

Yes, this post is aiming to be both playful and serious. Memorable I hope, and an encouragement to think about how you can make your thesis more helpful for the viva too.

And, maybe, more fabulous!

Lazy Viva Prep

My favourite teacher in high school, Mr S., used to have a set of “laws” on his wall. First among them was a lazy mathematician is a good one. He would repeat and explain it a lot, because he didn’t mean we shouldn’t do any work!

His point was that a good mathematician knew lots of methods so they would know how to solve a problem with the least effort. A lazy mathematician would find only the answer they were looking for, and not waste time on other details. A lazy mathematician would think first and recognise what they needed to do before starting to solve an equation or draw a graph. Consequently, a lazy mathematician might seem to start slow, but would probably finish quickly.

For similar reasons I think that viva prep needs to be “lazy” too.

When getting ready for your viva, don’t do what you don’t need to do. Stop and consider the outcome you’re working towards before you get going. Reflect on your skillset and knowledge before committing to a hectic schedule of reading, writing and thinking. What tasks and practices do you really need to do?

You need to be ready for your viva, not ready for anything.

Rest Days

Today could be a rest day for you, even if your viva is soon.

Ready for the viva means you have to refresh your memory, rehearse for the situation of talking with your examiners and remind yourself that you did the work that’s got you this far.

Ready also means you need to be rested. Today could be a time to rest. And if not today, take two minutes to find a time when you will rest soon.

Ready Means…

…you did the work.

Not just the prep but all the work before that too.

You did the research. You wrote your thesis. You earned and achieved your way to submission.

You took time between submission and the viva to read more, check more and do more to be sure you were talented.

Ready means you’re probably still nervous but confident anyway; polished but not perfect.

Ready means you’ll go to your viva and pass.

Any PhD candidate can be ready for their viva, and that means you can be too!

When it’s time, go get ready.


You can’t be perfect: you can be good. You can know enough and do enough to be good enough for your PhD. You can show enough in your thesis and in your viva to convince your examiners that you’re good.

By submission you must be good. I think for many candidates there is a belief gap  – they don’t believe that they have become good enough. Some are not sure that they ever will be good enough.

You can’t simply wish to feel differently. Instead, reflect on what you’ve done to get this far. Analyse and list all of your achievements, big and small, that have lead you to submission and to viva preparation. Reflect on your talents and really see that you’ve done enough.

Know what you are good at – and know that you are good.

Responses to Classic Questions

“How do I get ready to answer classic questions in the viva?”

I’ve been asked this many times over the last decade – I’ve met over 5000 candidates in seminars and webinars, so there’s a lot of questions I’ve been asked more than once!

First, we have to dismiss the idea of “classic” or “common” questions. There are topics that frequently come up, like summarising research or being able to talk about methods or conclusions. Questions vary a lot though, and that’s before we account for every thesis being unique. You can’t prepare a response for every question that could be asked. There’s too many!

It’s far better to think of preparation for questions as being ready to participate in the viva. So what can you do to get ready?

  • Find opportunities to talk about your work.
  • Be ready to explain why you did it, how you did it, what happened as a result.
  • Be willing to explore what you know, what you did and what you can do as a researcher.

You don’t need rehearsed answers to “classic questions” – you need the confidence to respond to whatever your examiners ask. Finding opportunities to talk with others and share what you’ve done can be enough to build that confidence.

No Fooling

No trick questions. No gotcha statements.

Your examiners aren’t in the viva to fool you or trap you, to belittle you or break you.

Your examiners are there to examine you. It’s in the name! They ask questions to start conversations; they have conversations to build evidence. They need the evidence to justify their conclusions and the outcome.

Trick questions wouldn’t help them get what they need. There’s no space for fooling you.

It Might Be Weird

After years of work it could feel odd to be talking about your research in your viva.

Perhaps if you’ve had a break between submission and the viva, things might feel a bit rusty when you think or talk about your work.

Or if your viva has to be over video it could feel awkward if there are delays, nervous moments waiting silently to get a response.

It might be weird to have unexpected questions, or be weird in advance trying to figure out what questions you might be asked by your examiners.

There’s plenty of space for weird around the viva, but remember: weird doesn’t mean bad. Even if your viva is a little unexpected, a little strange or a bit weird, it will still most likely be absolutely fine.