The viva is often framed as the top of the mountain after an epic climb. It’s taken a long time, a lot of work, but finally you reach the summit of your PhD. Some people take the story even further, “it’s all downhill from here, hahaha…”

I think it’s more accurate to see your thesis submission as the summit. The viva comes a little later. The viva is talking about the climb, how you did it, what worked, what didn’t and maybe how it compares to other climbs.

While you’re up at the summit though, pause, look around. What’s on the other side of your PhD-mountain? Where are you going to go next?

Flip It

Instead of wondering if your thesis is good, first ask yourself what you look for in a good thesis. What do people generally want?

Instead of worrying about what questions your examiners might ask, start by thinking about what questions would be in your mind when you first pick up a thesis. How would you start to unpick a large book of new research?

Instead of hoping you’ll be ready for your viva, ask what you would need to feel ready. What would you need to have or be to feel confident on viva day?

Whenever you encounter a doubt, flip it around. What can you do about it? Got an idea? Go do it.


Doing a PhD and writing a thesis is like finding your way to the centre of a maze. You might have some ideas about how to get there when you start, but it will still take work to make it through. You can go down wrong paths, get lost, but with time and effort you’ll get there.

Preparing for the viva is finding your way back out of the maze. It takes less time, but you have to check your way as you go. Just because you made it in, it doesn’t mean you know the shortest way back. You can still get lost. But you have a lot of experience to draw on now.

Describing the maze is the viva. How it looks. How you got there. Why you decided to walk it in the first place.

Walking back out of the maze will help you make sense of how you got in. Checking back over the twists and turns will make explaining the route to someone else a much easier task.

Lightbulb Moments

What were your lightbulb moments during your PhD? When did you find yourself getting something, suddenly, maybe inexplicably, like someone just flicked a switch? What was happening? What had you tried already? How did you make that connection?

Last year, I wrote about a real lightbulb moment during my PhD. It’s no exaggeration to say that this idea, when applied, helped me to write three chapters of my thesis. It was a tiny result that allowed many others. It came to me like magic.

But it wasn’t.

It was work.

It came after weeks of exploration. Lots of failed attempts. Dozens of diagrams, calculations and notes that went around and around. And then the answer came, after work has made it possible to see the connection.

Sometimes results or ideas in research seem to come out of nowhere. Conclusions jump out from a sea of ideas and data. They’re a product of work, not luck.

Look back over your PhD before the viva. Find your lightbulb moments, then deconstruct them. How did you get to that moment when the light came on?

Necessary, Broccoli

Necessary and broccoli are my two word nemeses: two words that I can’t reliably spell correctly. It bugs me. It frustrates me. It’s not every day that I have to write about vegetables, but necessary is… essential. Spellcheck can sort me out when typing, but I’m often writing longhand on a flipchart in front of twenty people. I don’t want to mess up.

Lately I’ve just been thinking “one C, two Cs” to help me remember. It’s not perfect. For the most part I’ve got my frustration under control. Necessary and broccoli are two little blips that I can deal with. While I can’t always remember how to spell those words, there’s a lot more that I can do – a lot more I can do really well.

I remember preparing for my viva. My mind drifted to all of the little things (and some big) that my examiners might focus on. I can remember the frustration on my part, “Why didn’t I do X? Why don’t I know Y? When will I ever understand Z?”

After spending so long working on something and wanting it to be good, it’s easy to focus on things that you could do better. It’s hard not to wonder what examiners will make of flaws, blips and rough edges in your research or your practice. Maybe there are ways to make X, Y or Z better, but if those are the things you focus on you’ll just lead your mind to doubt.

So what can you do? Focus on your strengths first.

Start a list of things that are great in your research. Results, writing, presentation, style, your ideas, your insights, your passion, your supervisor, that one meeting that one time where you made a great observation, whatever you can find.

Don’t dismiss weakness, but don’t let that be the guide. Every time you come to do some viva prep, take out the list, quickly read it, then see if you can add one or two more things.

You’ve done a lot of great work to get you to the viva.



When postgraduate researchers imagine the viva they often dial it up to 11…

The viva is not just tough, it’s very tough. The questions aren’t just tricky, they’re very tricky. It’s not just long, it’s very long, and so on…

It’s more than challenging, it’s a nightmare! Examiners aren’t critical, they’re harsh! I ask someone, “Are you nervous?” and they reply “I’m terrified!


If this is where your head is at, it’s possible to turn the dial back. For a start, just how talented are you as a researcher?


You did the work to get this far. That means something.