Love Letter For Your Thesis

Viva coming up? For one day, pause your usual preparation. Don’t analyse the contribution in each chapter. Don’t frantically search for typos. Don’t read through and worry what your examiners will say about this chapter or that choice.

Just take a page and write down what you love about your thesis.

What do you really love about it? What ideas do you adore? How does it make you happy? (it’s OK if “it’s done!” is the answer!)

What are you grateful for in your thesis? What inspires you? What can’t you wait to show others?

Find all the good stuff, and use that to motivate you for the rest of your prep and the viva.

The Happy Viva

What do you need the viva to be like for you to be happy?

Does it need to be short?

Do you need to know all of the answers?

Do you need your examiners to tell you what they think right away?

Do you need it to be at a certain time of day?

Do you need to set yourself up well on the day?

Do you need a particular kind of atmosphere in the room?

You can do something about some of these things, and nothing about others.

A better question might be: what can you do to be happy in your viva?

Answer the question, get some ideas, start some meaningful actions.

Easy Viva Prep?

I’m a big fan of Tim Ferriss: he’s written interesting, thought-provoking books and interviewed hundreds of people at the top of their fields in his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. My wife got me his latest book, Tribe Of Mentors, for a present. It’s a collection of over a hundred short Q&As with people who are the best of the best; a means to find out what inspires them, how they do their best work and so on.

The genesis of the book was Tim feeling stuck, not sure what direction to take his life in. He has a list of questions that he’s found useful to get himself unstuck including “what would this look like if it were easy?” After a little free writing from this provocation his brain latched on to the idea of a “tribe of mentors” to help guide him, and thus the idea for Tribe Of Mentors was born.

The book is great, but the question is greater. I’m using it now to help me unpick future projects – some of which are related to this site and resources – but I think it could also be useful more generally when helping people get ready for the viva.

What would it look like if viva prep were easy? I don’t have firm answers yet, but I do have some ideas that are leading to useful questions for me:

  • Maybe it would be organised. What might that look like?
  • Maybe it would be structured. What form would it take?
  • Maybe it would be principled, based on key ideas. (I have some thoughts on this already!)
  • Maybe it would involve other people. Who, and how?

These are just ideas. I’m looking at it from a big, utilitarian view, trying to think how I can help as many people as possible. You can think much more focussed. Think: “What would it look like if viva prep were easy for me?”

Targeting The Viva

Nervousness about the viva sometimes comes from feeling unprepared or unsure about the quality of research, but often it comes from just not knowing enough about the viva itself. This is understandable: you need to see a target to aim for it. Without something tangible to aim for you can’t easily reach success.

The viva is made out to be a big unknown, but in reality there are lots of place to find out more information:

  • Your institution’s guidelines;
  • Your supervisor(s);
  • Recent graduates from your department;
  • People from your wider network;
  • Even random blog-people and Twitter-folk!

There’s no reason for the viva to be a mystery. Think about what you do and don’t know about it, then find ways to fill in the blanks. Learn about expectations, norms and what to do.

Then you can hit the target.

Six Thousand Hours…

…is my ballpark, back-of-the-napkin calculation for how much time someone might spend working on a PhD.

Compare that to two to three hours in the viva.

Three orders of magnitude difference and then some.

If you’re nervous about the viva: you’ve taken no shortcuts to get here. In and among those thousands of hours are lots of reasons why you’re up to the challenge ahead.

Easter Eggs

Not the chocolate kind, the DVD extras. The secrets. The small, special things that only certain people will look for or notice.

My thesis had a few Easter Eggs. As a mathematician, it was about proving much stronger results than I needed for my theorems. As a metaphor, I needed to boil an egg, but what I did was write a cookbook called Everything Eggs: An Infinite Recipe Book With Yolks.

On a few occasions in my thesis I was able to include little things that were much more impressive once you looked closer. Little things, nice, but not necessary, but a contribution in their own way.

What are the things you’re proud of in your work even if others might not find them or know to look? Where are they hidden? Why did you do them? What do they mean?

Your thesis and research Easter Eggs could help or delight lots of people if they find them. Don’t forget them when you review your progress. They add something special to your research journey.

Know This

At a recent workshop I was asked, what is the most important thing I should know before my viva?

Know that you are where you are supposed to be.

Know this.

You can be nervous about the viva, but you should know that you’re not only lucky when it comes to your research and success. You can be fortunate, but you can only get this far by being talented and doing the work needed.

You have to be talented to do the work!

You are where you are supposed to be…

If you know this, really know it, then the nerves won’t be all that important. You can do what you need to in order to get ready, and you will be great on the day. If you’re not quite there yet in knowing it, think about what might help, make a little plan, then get to work.

A Couple Of Thank Yous

The Viva Survivors daily blog is almost a year old! Thanks to everyone who reads, subscribes, shares it and sends me questions. Saying thank you is important: when you get the chance in your thesis acknowledgements make sure you take the time to say thank you. You did the work, but you had support and encouragement. I’ve written every word of this blog over the last year, but my ideas wouldn’t have spread far without help along the way. I want to take a few words today to thank four people who have inspired and helped me:

  • Jennifer Polk: Jen is a big force for good for academia! She has used her platform to connect people, ideas and more. Some of the most read posts on Viva Survivors are due to her taking the time to read and then share them.
  • Helen Kara: my co-author on Self-Publishing For Academics, Helen is an inspiring writer, researcher and facilitator. Her blog covers a wide range of topics and ideas and the drive she shows is an encouragement to me to keep this daily blog project going!
  • Ellie Mackin-Roberts: I’m a huge fan of Ellie’s YouTube channel, her honest and generous sharing is inspiring. Her practical videos as well are super-helpful to researchers at all career stages.
  • Inger Mewburn: The Thesis Whisperer! Inger recently celebrated eight years of her blog – I have a way to go yet! – and quite simply, if you’re looking for help on any aspect of the PhD journey, search on the Thesis Whisperer site first.

If you don’t know these wonderful people and their work then go check them out. All four of them inspire me to do more with this blog and this site. If you like the look of what they do, then also take a look at Helen, Ellie and Inger‘s Patreons – all of them have opened up avenues for others to support the good they do that helps a lot of people.

And to bring us back to vivas and the end of the PhD: really, really, say thank you to your friends and supporters in your thesis. It’s just something small to say, “you helped me.” Saying thank you doesn’t have to take long and it doesn’t have to take much.

Thanks for reading 🙂


How big a deal is your viva?

There are tens of thousands of them every year in the UK.

Maybe over a thousand in your university.

Even at a department level there could be dozens.

And your examiners may do four or five per year.

And despite all of the work that leads up to it by everyone involved, it will probably be over in a few hours, and will probably be similar to a lot of other vivas that have happened before.

Not that special.


…your research is unique. Your thesis is one-of-a-kind. You’re the only person who has gone on the research journey you’ve completed. To do it all, you have to be amazing.

Special is relative. From the perspective that matters – yours – the viva is special.

And so are you.

Two Perspectives

I often advise candidates to check out their examiners’ publications before the viva. Maybe they know their work already, maybe not, but either way they can get a sense of where their thinking is at. They can wonder about what assumptions, ideas or biases might inform their examiners’ questions.

If your viva is coming up you could also take it from the other perspective too. Look from your point of view, not your examiners. You don’t have to just think, “what could my examiner ask me?” You can also start from your research and reflect, “what connections can I see between my work and theirs?”

It’s the same area, but a different question to ask, and so different kinds of ideas bubble to the surface.