The Perfect Viva

What would a perfect viva look like?

No hard questions? Being told you had passed at the start? Friendly examiners? A one hour time limit?

Just like the perfect thesis, the perfect viva doesn’t exist. You have no way of knowing in advance what your examiners think or what they have planned for the viva. Most people will have a positive viva, but it’s not totally within their control. However, you can control how prepared you are for your viva. It’s totally up to you, what you do to get ready, what you read or write or think. So don’t focus on what perfect might look like: focus on what you can actually do.


It’s a little over seven years since I started to help candidates prepare for their vivas. I thought it might be something interesting when I was asked to do a Viva Survivor workshop. I was still relatively new and exploring how I could help researchers. Over time I discovered that the viva was an intensely fascinating topic for me. I found something I was passionate about.

While I do have other projects and workshops, my main focus is finding ways to help people prepare for the viva. In the last six months or so I’ve made it my priority. I want to do more and do it better. I don’t know exactly where I’m going, I still feel that I’m in an exploring mode of thought. I don’t have a five year plan, or even a one year plan. I almost have a three month plan: more writing, more resources, more interviews and more workshops.

It doesn’t mean “more of the same” – and that’s one of the big things to realise about viva prep. It’s not just the same as “doing your PhD,” but it is doing more. Doing more with your thesis. Doing more with your skills. Doing more with what you know. Not the same, but more.

Like I said, I’m thinking about what more I can do to help people be ready for their viva. I don’t know where this work will take me, but I think it will be somewhere interesting, and I hope it helps people.

How about you? What more can you do to be prepared?

A Thought on Explaining

I keep folders of articles and posts that I’ve found interesting in the past. Every few weeks I pick a few out at random. Either I find something useful I need to remind myself of, or I decide that I’m not interested any more and discard it. It always helps give me a mental pick-me-up. I came across the following in this article on writing and it made me think about the viva:

You must constantly remind yourself that your reader is both smarter and less knowledgeable than you assume.

In the viva, you are the expert in your research. Your examiners have a lot of experience to draw on but less knowledge than you do about your thesis. They’re seeing the end result. They didn’t see it develop like you did. When answering their questions it’s useful to think about what else they need to know. From later in that same article comes another relevant line:

So, when next you sit down to write, let go of your assumptions and begin to intentionally design the experience you want your readers to have.

What experience do you want your examiners to have? What can you do to design that?

Help Is At Hand

There are lots and lots of people who can help you prepare for the viva. Your supervisor. Your friends and colleagues. Your university’s Graduate School. Anonymous Twitter-folk. People who run blogs and podcasts.

Usually, you just need an idea or two of what will help. Ask: you’ll get what you need.

But maybe you don’t know where to start. Maybe you’re not feeling sure. Maybe you’re looking for more help than you can find. If you are, of if you know someone who is, then please check out my Viva Survivor workshop which is on October 4th. I run this session in universities all over the UK, and this is possibly my only independent session in 2017.

The details are all at the Eventbrite page. It’s going to be something quite special – I’m very happy to be able to share something like this. Registration is £99, but the first ten people to book by midnight on the 14th of August can get £30 off by using the code VERYEARLYBIRD.

Thanks for reading. If you need help, ask for it. If you can give help, offer it.

True North

A good compass points true north. You can find what direction you need regardless of where you are and what’s around. If you have a clear aim or objective the same can be true in the work that you do. Problem is, we have distractions everywhere. I have a couple of projects at any time that I’m actively working on, but there are always more ideas coming in. It can be hard to put them to one side, they can be all exciting and new, shiny and interesting or just something that seems difficult but useful.

A few years ago my friend Dee-Ann Johnson ran a workshop on establishing a vision, something to help guide you, like a compass. One of the session outputs was to get people to boil their vision down to three words. This was massively helpful to me. My three words are “Family, Writing, Play” – these are the words that help steer my projects and my work. I have them pinned on the wall in front of me. I want my work to be balanced so that I can spend as much time as possible with my family; I want my work to involve and allow for writing; I want my work and life to be filled with play. Sometimes these words help me pick my projects, other times they help me think about hard choices. Occasionally they remind me why I’m doing some of the tasks I don’t particularly enjoy (often because doing them allows me to spend time on family, writing and play).

My thought for the day: find three words to help yourself. Find three words that could help you through tough times. Find three words to be your viva vision.

Little Grey Cells

Hercule Poirot would be amazing at preparing for the viva. He’s meticulous and organised. He looks deeply into matters and isn’t satisfied if an explanation only satisfies some of the details. Often he has a companion – Captain Hastings, Ariadne Oliver, Chief Inspector Japp – who can offer him support and a different perspective on the case at hand. And after he has taken in as much information as possible he rests his little grey cells until they are ready to sing to him.

Poirot would ace a viva. You can too, n’est-ce pas? Be organised; find an ally; rest your little grey cells.