Six More Whys

I wrote a short post a few months ago with six why questions to help reflect on your research. Here are six more to continue the process.

  1. Why had no-one already done what you’ve done for your PhD?
  2. Why is your work original?
  3. Why is your work necessary?
  4. Why would someone else care about your research?
  5. Why is your thesis now finished?
  6. Why will you be celebrating after the viva?

Make some notes and let your answers rest for a couple of days. Come back and reflect some more.

Make opportunities to explore your research now your PhD is almost done.


Graduated. (yay!!!)

Final submission. (yay!!)

Corrections approved. (yay!)

Doing corrections. (well…)

Given corrections. (probably)

Viva over. (viva passed!)

In the viva. (in flow, I hope)

Ten minutes before the viva. (………)

Day of the viva. (last minute nerves)

Day before the viva. (getting centred)

Weeks before the viva. (preparation)

Submission. (phew!)

Weeks before the submission. (finishing up)

And so on.

We can start at the end of the PhD and work backwards. You can start from today and plot forwards. We can get as detailed as we like, but have to acknowledge that we can’t know how everything will play out. Think and plan. Get a sense of the direction you’re going in.


My internal examiner had a quirky sense of humour. At the end of the viva I was asked to wait in my office while the two examiners had a discussion without me. I got some water, paced a little then sat at my desk.

knock knock

“Nathan,” said my internal ominously, “It is time for your sentence.”

Without missing a beat he started off down the corridor without me.

As I followed him I was 99% sure that his pronouncement was a stab at humour. I was sure I had passed, because I felt sure no-one would say it is time for your sentence if they were about to tell someone they had failed.

Remember: your examiners are there to come to a decision, but it’s wrong to think of it as judgement, or passing sentence. They’re making an award. They’re recognising what you’ve done and helping you see what you need to correct for the final submission. It’s not a trial, it’s an exam.

The picture of the viva you carry in your head will affect how you feel about it.

Per Scientiam Ad Meliora

My school’s motto. Those four Latin words have been rattling around my head for twenty-five years. We were told it meant “through knowledge to better things”. I’ve loved it since the headmaster explained it on the first day.

Three thoughts:

  1. It’s a pretty good motto for a PhD. Whatever your experience during the PhD, good or bad, after the viva you’re headed to better.
  2. What’s your knowledge? You’ve done a lot. What have you introduced to the world that wasn’t there before?
  3. What could “better” be? Your thesis has to be good by the end. What are you going to do to top it after the viva?

However far you’ve come, you can go further.


I’m happy to be doing this daily blog, to have the podcast archive to share, a starting selection of original free resources and also some paid ebooks to offer. But I’m not the only person who tries to help people prepare for the viva. Look around you. Your university might have some great resources that it can offer; they could have a series of videos to help, posts and articles about viva experiences or resources that they’ve bought in – great things like Viva Cards or The Good Viva Video.

If you see something useful, share it. If you need something, ask people. If something doesn’t exist, make it.

I’m going to keep writing, making and helping.

Find The Vague

When you come to viva preparation time you will read and re-read your thesis. And you will find typos. That’s to be expected: spellcheck won’t catch everything, and neither will you. It’s not so bad though: make a note of them when you find them and you can correct later.

Instead of going on a typo hunt though, I’d recommend purposefully looking for vague sections of your thesis. Read your thesis carefully, line by line, and see what doesn’t quite make sense. What could be clearer? What might someone struggle with? Spend some time now making notes on that.

Your examiners can probably read past a typo, but they’ll notice something vague and be more likely to dig into it with you in the viva. If you find the vague ahead of time you’ll be more prepared in case it comes up, but you’ll also be better at explaining things in the future.

A Few Words on Corrections

By submission your research has to be good. You don’t get to that point by luck or by doing only bad work. But is your thesis perfect? Is it impervious to criticism? Probably not. Your examiners might have some notes for you, or even suggestions for changes.

How would you feel about that?

Are you going to be happy if they tell you, “You should change this…”?

Will you feel alright if someone thinks you’ve made a mistake?

Remember, your examiners suggest corrections to make your thesis better. It’s not about you. It’s about the work.


Step One For Viva Prep: start.

Do I start now? Am I doing the right thing?” Just begin. Wondering if you need to do something now or later? Do it now. There are lots of things that you can do which will help; find out what they are and do something to help yourself.

…all of that said…

Step Zero For Viva Prep: make a little plan.

It doesn’t have to be the most detailed thing ever. Figure out how much time you’ve got left. Think about what might help. Allocate tasks to certain days.

Then see Step One.

Opening Moves

It’s unsurprising for me to recommend being prepared for the day of the viva. Often I talk about tips or tools for engaging with research, or ways to look differently at your research. Today I just want to suggest thinking about the day itself. Planning for the day can eliminate decisions you have to make, which can in turn conserve your attention for things that really matter (such as answering questions in the viva).

So what will you do to start the day? When will you get up and what will you eat? Get your clothes ready the night before. Are you doing any more reading, or will you be finding things to occupy your mind? Make a choice in advance. Pack your bag the night before. Decide how you’re going to get to the viva room. Save all of your thinking for the viva itself.

(inspired by a little reading on decision fatigue; have noticed anecdotally that I and colleagues work better when we have eliminated choices in advance)