Power Ups

What have you got that will give you that little boost of ability, of focus, of comfort and confidence before your viva?

Will it be a piece of music? A cup of coffee? A mantra or a prayer or a hug?

Checking one more paper? Reading your opening or closing chapter one more time?

A mock viva or a chat with a friend? An hour in a cafe, quietly sipping some tea and doing a crossword?

Maybe it’s none of these. Maybe you’re feeling fine for your viva.

But if you need something look for a power up.

Fourteen Faves

Quick exercise to get you reflecting on your whole PhD journey. What’s your…

  1. …favourite paper in your bibliography?
  2. …favourite discovery you made?
  3. …favourite meeting with your supervisor?
  4. …favourite conference talk you gave?
  5. …favourite question you’ve been asked?
  6. …favourite talk you attended?
  7. …favourite chapter of your thesis?
  8. …favourite sentence of your thesis?
  9. …favourite word you didn’t know when you started your PhD?
  10. …favourite thing you still don’t have an answer to?
  11. …favourite break from your PhD?
  12. …favourite place to work?
  13. …favourite time you made a breakthrough?
  14. …favourite contribution you’ve made to your field?

Your mind has collected a lot of neat stuff over the last few years. What stands out?


In Jenga, whatever your intentions, you might knock the tower down at any moment. Your actions or a misplacement by the last player might make things so unstable that the tower can only fall.

It’s tempting to think of the viva is a precarious situation, but your thesis is not a Jenga tower, and the viva is not a game.

Questions from examiners aren’t like pulling bricks out. Your answers aren’t going to make your work fall apart. Discussion can bring in some wobbles, but your work is more than a tower of bricks. You designed this structure, it didn’t just come together out of a box.

Thirty Minutes

Have you got thirty minutes to spare for your viva prep? In thirty minutes you can:

  • Read through a good chunk of a chapter;
  • Check a couple of references;
  • Make some notes about your examiners’ interests;
  • Create a list of interesting questions;
  • Add some annotation;
  • Reflect on what your research means.

There’s a lot more you could do. You can’t prepare for your viva in a hurry. Thirty minutes by itself won’t be enough…

…but thirty minutes regularly will do it.

Framing The Viva

A year or so after my PhD, when I was starting out as a freelancer, I came across a book called Gamestorming. It’s a collection of tools for use with groups of people. If you need to generate ideas, coordinate a team, break problems down or just get to know people it has lots of different suggestions. It was perfect for someone learning how to facilitate people.

One of my favourite things in the book is a model called the 7Ps Framework. I’ve used it for most of the last decade to help get my head in order when I design workshops. The 7Ps are seven words to help frame any kind of meeting.

Today, it strikes me that the 7Ps could help us get clear about the viva.

  • Purpose: you’re there to discuss your work of the last few years with your examiners.
  • People: it’s you, your examiners, maybe an independent chair, occasionally your supervisor.
  • Process: the viva is a discussion; your examiners will lead with questions; you have to think and answer and take part.
  • Product: a PhD graduate! (eventually; you’ll likely have some corrections to complete)
  • Preparation: your PhD is great preparation, but there are lots you can do to get ready.
  • Practical Concerns: take your thesis, take a pad to write on, take some water; be prepared for it to be several hours or so.
  • Pitfalls: don’t rush to answer, take your time; don’t expect to get no corrections.

There are lots of aspects to the viva. It’s easy to focus on one and forget another. A clean perspective is out there though: just take your time and look at it from a step back.

Annotation Helps

One of the best reasons to annotate your thesis is to make things stand out. For example:

  • Highlight key references and how you’ve used them;
  • Underline your typos for easier correction later;
  • Draw attention to jargon and specialist terms;
  • Draw attention to key passages of your thesis;
  • Highlight the parts you’re most proud of.

Annotation is purposeful work while you’re doing it; afterwards you have a more useful resource for your prep and the viva.

You can make your thesis clearer while you get ready for the viva. Start by asking yourself, “What would help me?”

Facing Doubts

The end of the PhD can be an anxious time. If you’re worried, or unsure, or feel like an impostor, then you’re the person who needs to take action.

You don’t have to face everything alone, but you do have to face it. Don’t forget that there are people around you that you can ask for help. If you don’t need help then figure out what you’re going to do, and get it done.

Doubting if you’re ready isn’t enough. Thinking about why you have doubts isn’t enough. You have to work your way out of the situation.


But what if my examiner says something I’ve done is rubbish?

Imagine you’re in that position. What exactly did they say? It’s unlikely that they just used the word rubbish, but that’s what your brain has just made of their statement or question or opinion. You’ve interpreted that as “rubbish”.

Don’t panic. Take a breath. Ask them why.

Sit back. Listen. Put your feelings to one side and make notes.

When you know exactly what your examiner doesn’t like you can respond. When you have all of the details you will know what you need to discuss with them.

They might have misunderstood something: that doesn’t mean that what you did is rubbish, it just means that you didn’t communicate it as well as you hoped.

They might think something is missing: that doesn’t mean that what you did is rubbish, it just means that it’s not quite as complete as you hoped.

It’s unlikely your examiners will call something in your work rubbish. It’s certain that you have not produced a perfect thesis from perfect research – which means they might have questions or comments about the imperfections. This is natural.

If they say something is rubbish or that’s what you hear, you still get to engage with them – and you should. Ask why. Listen. Think. Respond.

And keep doing it.

Your examiners are not your biggest critics; it’s likely that you have taken on that role.