Learning From Mistakes

Nevermind typos in my final thesis, I made far bigger mistakes throughout my PhD research…

  • I spent days trying to solve a typesetting issue, before realising I was making a simple code error.
  • I tried for weeks to organise a set of numbers before realising that I was really overcomplicating the situation.
  • And I worked for months trying to solve a series of calculations before admitting that the problem was way too complex for my PhD.

In all of these I struggled, I was frustrated and at times I was bitterly disappointed – but I learned.

I learned how to be a better coder. I learned to see problems in new ways. I learned to stop and say no.

Where did you make mistakes during your PhD? What did you learn? And how has that made you a better, more talented researcher?


The probability of failure in the viva is not 0. We know this because despite the many thousands of candidates who pass their viva every year, a handful of people don’t. A couple of universities have told me the odds are less than one in a thousand.

So, statistically, the probability is non-zero.

It could happen, but why should it happen to you? For any candidate thinking, “It could be me!” let me ask, “Why?! Why would it be you?”

The chances of succeeding are far, far, far greater than the probability of failing.

Your success isn’t “chance” of course. Your success in the viva is another victory, the latest, the greatest since you started on the path to being a PhD.

Publications, Posters and Presentations

“Do publications mean my examiners are more likely to pass me?”

Yes, but not for the reasons that I think are behind the question.

Candidates asking this are really wondering, “Will my examiners add those papers into the balance of material that help decide whether or how I pass the viva?” The answer is no, the viva is thesis examination; you and the thesis are being examined, not publications, posters and presentations. It’s on the merit of the thesis that the viva is decided.


…the publications, posters and presentations all help. They help sharpen your thinking every time you do one. They help bring your ideas and arguments together. If you reflect on the experience you have from them, you’ll see that you’re a really good candidate when you come to meet your examiners.

Your examiners don’t pass you on the basis of prior publications; you pass because of all of your PhD experiences.

Nerves Aren’t Nice…

…but they’re not a sign that something is wrong. Nerves are a signal you’re feeling stressed or excited or anxious about something. The physical and mental discomfort doesn’t mean you definitely have a problem.

There’s a strong correlation between recognising something as important and feeling nervous about it. If you experience nervousness around viva time, I think it’s because you recognise the viva is important.

I felt a bit nervous as my viva got close, not too bad thankfully. My coping strategy was to think about how I could make myself less nervous. I asked myself, “What could I do to feel better?” With hindsight, I wonder if a more useful question in situations might have been, “What can I do to do this important thing as well as I possibly can?”

You only have a finite amount of energy and attention to spend, and if you use it up trying to beat nerves you could miss the opportunity to focus on preparation.

My hunch is that investing time on prep – on doing the important thing well – will make you ready and less nervous.

What’s Your Story?

If you have your thesis done and your viva coming up, it’s because you did the work and you developed yourself. Simple to say, but these things don’t just simple happen. What were the big moments along the way?

Everyone’s story is different. From my PhD, I remember…

  • …being six months into my PhD, sitting on a train, not even on my way to work, and suddenly the problem I had been considering snapped into focus. It was a small result at the time, but a meaningful one. It grew into a result that underpinned three chapters of my thesis.
  • …visiting Marseille for a two-week conference and summer school. It helped me present and share my research with others and was also a big boost to my confidence. It forced me to step out of my confidence zone.
  • …going to researcher development workshops, and then being invited to help on them. It helped me with presenting and thinking skills, it made me think about my talents more broadly, and it planted a seed that there was something interesting I might like to explore in the area of researcher development…

…which is how I ended up where I am!

Think back over the last few years. What are the big moments that have shaped and defined you? How did you get to where you are now? What stands out in your memory and why?

Your Questions

Your thesis has answers and ideas, but what were the questions that lead to them? And where did those questions come from?

You’ll spend plenty of time in preparation for the viva reflecting on the whats and the hows of your research. Don’t forget to explore the whys too.

Questions don’t just appear out of thin air. Where did yours come from?

Three Cheers!

As far as I know a round of applause isn’t that common immediately after a viva. Maybe if you have a group of friends and colleagues on hand, perhaps with a bottle of something sparkling, there’ll be a call to applaud you. Probably circumstances won’t make it happen for you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it.

We clap our hands when we’re happy. We clap our hands at the end of something good. We clap our hands to show others that we agree. We do it to show respect.

There are lots of reasons for you to get a round of applause. I hope you do!

Reasons You Could Enjoy Your Viva

You could enjoy your viva. A lot of people do, and many do even if they’re nervous.

You could enjoy your viva because…

  • …it’s your work and you know it better than anyone.
  • …you wrote your thesis and you know what it took to make it.
  • …you’re meeting two experienced academics, not two people who know nothing.
  • …the viva is the last big thing you have to get done for your PhD.
  • …you get to demonstrate how talented you are.
  • …your PhD is almost finished and soon you can start something new.

It’s not wrong to have your reasons for being nervous, but also look for reasons why you could enjoy your viva.

Using “Plan, Do, Reflect, Review”

I’ve got a lot of help from remembering the Plan, Do, Reflect, Review cycle for projects and work over the last decade or so. I like to think of it simply as:

Make a plan, do the work, reflect on what happened and review what you learned from it all.

While you might use this process a lot during the PhD, it’s kind of lopsided when you apply it as a lens to the whole PhD experience. Making a plan and doing a work is most of the time, the reflection comes in towards the end as you finish writing up and start preparing for the viva. Then the review is the viva itself.

I’ve often written about the need to make a plan (even a small one!) for viva prep time, and you can’t prepare for the viva without doing some work, but it would be really wrong to leave out the other two points of reflect and review.

It’s not just what did you do? and what did you learn? Use that review to think about how you can be confident for the viva. What experiences have got you this far? How have the last few years developed your knowledge and talent?

And how will they help you to succeed in the viva?

Start Again

What would you do if you could start your PhD again?

Would you follow the same process, explore the same topics? Would you want to take on something different?

Would you look for other ideas, dodge methods that didn’t work or papers that weren’t helpful?

How would you steer someone starting a PhD in your discipline?

Take twenty minutes to reflect on these questions. Make some notes to get the thoughts out. They’re not exhaustive by any means, but the answers can help you think before the viva about what you’ve learned about being a researcher through your PhD.