Small Projects

This post on small projects has been in my mind for several years. It’s worth a read! I like the idea that it can be both more productive and more effective to work on creating small things rather than undertaking massive endeavours. For example, I see Viva Survivors as a series of small projects under one umbrella, rather than one big behemoth.

I’ve been casting my mind around for a while on other small projects for the site, and at the time of writing have the following in my to-do queue:

  • Add tags and keywords to every post from the daily blog.
  • Curate a few lists of posts on similar themes.
  • Produce pages for each of the books that I have available (rather than only a single hub page).
  • Produce a new season of the podcast, approx 8 episodes that become available at the same time, like an album!
  • Create a few more Pocketmod tiny books, and several more minicast episodes.

Small projects are manageable. Even if you don’t have time to work on something immediately, you can see most of the parts and see where the challenges are. It’s the opposite of most research projects, where often you can’t appreciate everything until you’re already in it.

Viva prep can be a series of small projects, and none of them have to be over-taxing to complete. Reading your thesis and marking it up in a useful way is a small project. Creating summaries to draw out your thoughts is a couple of small projects. A mock viva or presentation to give you opportunity to think and talk is a small project. It all helps.

For your thesis, you had to think big. Maybe for your viva prep it’s useful to think small.

Terms & Conditions Apply

A pass in the viva is not typically no strings attached. Most candidates have to complete some kind of corrections. These can mean different requirements at different institutions.

You can’t know what corrections you might get in advance, but you can find out what conditions they’ll have to be done under. How long is given to complete them? Who do you have to get approval from? When corrections are complete, how long do you have in order to get your final, complete thesis submitted? How long from then until you’ll have graduated?

Find out now.

Not Favours

It could be that you need a little help from others to get ready for the viva. Help with thinking and talking; questions about process and experience; maybe even proofreading or practical on-the-day logistics.

You have to defend your work solo, but there really are lots of ways others can help you prepare. Get clear in your mind about what you need, ask and explain why (if you need to), and be prepared to compromise.

It could also be the case that you see a friend who needs help. A candidate who needs someone to talk to; a colleague who needs someone to listen; a friend who has a problem that they can’t see past.

It’s OK to ask for help when you need it; it’s good to offer help when you can.

A Few More Words

There’s a lot of empty margins in a thesis. A lot of space free in headers and footers. And in the centre of most pages a LOT of words.

A thesis is a summary of at least three years of research. An embedding of thoughts into words. It’s taken time to get it all just so.

When you’re reading it all back, remember that a few more words can make a difference:

  • The right word in a margin can draw your attention to something important.
  • A few words in pencil can decode a piece of jargon or a tricky acronym.
  • Ten new words at the top of a page can summarise the other 300 you’ve written.

Annotation helps. Don’t be afraid to add a few more words.


A thesis has to have something new. It’s not just a collection of words. Ideas, facts, interpretation – whatever you could summarise it as, there’s something new in there. Something that wasn’t there before your PhD. Maybe something that could never have been done until now. Maybe something that could never have been done until YOU came along.

Don’t undersell the contribution you’ve made. It only exists in your thesis because of your efforts. As you prepare for the viva, take time to unpick the novelty of your work.

The Knock On The Door Of Room 524

After my viva I waited in my office for seventeen minutes for the result.

  1. Thirsty. Drink some water.
  2. Hungry. Chocolate! …mmm…
  3. Dazed. Wh-…?!
  4. Puzzled. How has it been four hours?
  5. Tired. Why did I have insomnia last night?
  6. Anxious. What did they think?
  7. Self-critical. Why did I not spend more time on…?
  8. Curious. It’s two in the afternoon, where is everyone?
  9. Confident. I did well, it’s a pass!
  10. Confident………? …….it is a pass, right?
  11. Lonely. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to.
  12. Perplexed. Seriously, how was that four hours?
  13. Exhausted. Three hours of sleep, four hours in the viva…
  14. Confident. (…I think…)
  15. Hungry. …but I should wait until after they call me back.
  16. Shattered. Do I have to celebrate today?
  17. Poised. How much longer until they come and get-KNOCK KNOCK

Those seventeen minutes felt longer than the four hours. And then it was over.


What could you do if an examiner was harsh?

Nevermind that they’re supposed to be fair, professional and so on. What if they weren’t? It’s easy to say don’t worry, they’re not supposed to be, but what could you do if you felt they weren’t fair?

  • …I don’t believe you!
  • …I don’t agree!
  • …What about my work?
  • …But don’t you think that such-and-such has a more important idea than this?

What could you do?

Listen. Breathe. Take a step back. Think. Ask yourself why. Ask them why. Remember that the viva is not a Q&A. Remember who the expert in the room is. If they’re harsh, push their tone to one side and respond to their ideas or questions.

It’s extremely unlikely that an examiner would be harsh, but it’s possible that they may have an opinion – fair, balanced and appropriate – that still catches you off guard. A question that throws you. Pausing, listening just to the question and not the tone, setting your feelings aside for a second – all of this can still help.

Not Sure

There are so many things PhD candidates could be unsure of…

I’m not sure what the rules are for examiners, who can and can’t be one.

I’m not sure how long I could get to do my corrections.

I’m not sure what to do to feel ready.

I’m not sure how to get rid of my doubts.

I’m not sure if my supervisor will run a mock viva.

These uncertainties drift around. It’s not unexpected that you could be unsure of something related to the viva.

The solution, thankfully, is straight-forward. Find out. Ask. Get sure.