Two Truths

Truth Number One: If you get corrections it means your thesis isn’t perfect.

Truth Number Two: Nobody’s thesis is perfect and examiners aren’t expecting yours to be.

Typos can be fixed. Clunky paragraphs can be changed. Ideas can be added. References can be amended.

Just submit the best thesis you can, then go to the viva ready to talk about what you did and what you wrote.


I love the questions I get in workshops. It’s nice to help people with answers. Sometimes questions surprise me with how they’re phrased or the details involved. Last week I had to pause to think about how to answer a simply stated query:

What impresses examiners?

You and your thesis. Reading a significant original contribution to knowledge; getting to discuss it with the researcher who did the work.

You are impressive: the work, the talent, the commitment.

A Lack of Confidence

I often write about looking for ways to boost or find confidence. I’m not sure I’ve wondered too much about why someone might have a lack of confidence on the blog, except for mentioning surface level things like “what if my mind goes blank?”

For a long time before, during and after my PhD I would be hyper-nervous on any occasion I would have to speak in public. Eventually that went away, through a lot of practice. But at the root was a worry that people would judge me somehow, not like me or what I had to say.

Where did that come from?

In my dim and distant memory I remember being in a play as a teenager, to an audience of mostly teenagers, and no-one liking it. A really different kind of situation to the situations in my PhD and afterwards. Somehow different anxieties had tied together over the years.

It’s freeing to remember it now. I’m older, more rational, and can look on it differently: I can think about what it means, what I can do about it. I still get nervous, like anyone does, but thinking about where those worries came from has helped me to do something about them.

If you feel nervous or anxious about any aspect of the viva, then don’t look first for things to boost your confidence. Search instead for what might be at the root. What is causing you to doubt? What is holding you back? What does it mean?

What are you going to do?

Butterfly Wings

Look back over your PhD. It may seem like a straight-line journey has brought you to the finish line. But that’s only one path. There may be lots of ways you could have gone, and lots of times things might not have worked out. What would you have done then?

It can be fruitful to explore this area by using questions. Some of these kinds of questions line up neatly with general areas your examiners might want to explore; others simply lead you to reflect on what you’ve done:

  • How else could you have started your project?
  • How could you have used different methods in your research?
  • How could you have made use of more resources?
  • How would you have managed with fewer resources?
  • How would you have coped if you’d not got the results you’d needed?
  • How else could someone interpret your results?
  • How would you do things differently knowing what you know now?

These kinds of questions help to explore your contribution and how you got it. They also help to strengthen your competence as a researcher.

Butterfly wings flap and the world changes. What then? How else could you have got through your PhD?

One Year Later

It’s a year since I started the daily blog. There’s times when it feels like I’m not doing all that much, but when I pause – like today – and look back I can see how much I’ve done. In one year I’ve written over 360 posts, released several free resources, produced several blog book compilations and delivered Viva Survivor workshops to over 500 PhD candidates around the UK. All in all, I’m quite proud of how far the blog has come in one year and what I’ve done to help people get ready for their vivas.

It’s important to pause whenever you can doing a PhD or any big project really: pause and think about what you’ve accomplished. Day-by-day it’s hard to see progress, but taking a pause every now and then can really help. Look back over your PhD. It’s no accident that you’re doing it. If your viva is coming up soon you’re in the best possible place you can be to meet the challenge. Day-by-day you might have your doubts but look back over a year and think about everything you’ve accomplished. Everything you didn’t have one year ago. Everything you’ve built up and created.

Draw on that motivation and don’t stop.

PS: as the blog started a year ago today, if you use the code 1YEAR in my Payhip store you can get 50% off all of my ebooks. 50% off any of the Blog Book volumes, 50% off Fail Your Viva or The Viva: Who? What? How? and 50% off any of the bundles of books too. Just use the code 1YEAR when prompted by Payhip. Feel free to share the code, it’s active until midnight on Sunday 22nd April.

A Close Comparison

I think the TV show Inside The Actors Studio is a pretty similar format to the viva. An experienced and interested host asks questions. Their interviewee has done a lot of hard work over a long period of time. Questions can be deep; few can be answered with soundbites. There’s time to think and offer thoughts. The purpose of the discussion is to illuminate and reveal. While there are many questions that can’t be anticipated, there are some which the guest could prepare for, in the form of host James Lipton’s “Pivot Questionnaire”.

Of course, the viva in the UK is unlike Inside the Actors Studio in many, many ways: it’s not televised or before a large audience; you have more than one examiner; it’s typically about a smaller body of work and, most obviously, it’s about research and not the path of an acting career.

But given that there are so many bad, untrue, unhelpful stories and formats that people compare the viva to, isn’t time that we had one that was positive? The comparisons in the earlier paragraph are fairly accurate. In your viva your examiners are interested, you know a lot of what will be talked about even if you don’t know the questions exactly, and the format is something you can know about in advance.

The more good stories and useful comparisons we can share about the viva, the more we’ll change the collective picture for it for the better.