“What did you do today Nathan?” I tried to show the complexity of the algorithm that I’ve been developing for the last three months. “…Bolognese for tea, OK?”

“How’s it going Nathan? What you been up to, finished that thing yet?” My PhD? Got another nine months, I think I’m on track but it all depends on proving the next result and then getting it all written up. “…Seen anyone else from school?”

My family and friends were very supportive when I was doing my PhD, but they didn’t really get it. Why should they, it had taken me a long time to get it. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, of course they did, but they didn’t understand what I did for the most part.

On the run up to the viva though, it might be useful if your friends and family can get a little understanding of what you’re about to do. Tell them what the viva is all about: it’s the exam at the end of the PhD. Tell them about your examiners and what they’ll be doing. Tell them what you’ll need to do to prepare – and what you might need from them.

It could be a bit of space to yourself, quiet in the evening to read. It could be time, so they’ll need to do the dishes while you mark up your thesis. It could even be telling your boss that you’ll need to arrange a little time off so that you can go to the viva.

Your friends and family are proud of you. Even if they don’t quite understand what you’ve been doing for all this time, they understand that it’s important to you. Help them to understand the end of the PhD and they’ll help you get there.

A Disclaimer Of Sorts

I can’t say people never get tough questions in the viva.

I can’t say candidates never face examiners who are overly harsh.

I can’t say YOU won’t have a bad viva.

Because people do. Even though most people have a perfectly fine experience in the viva – tiring, draining, tricky but overall fine if not enjoyable – some people don’t. So what can you do?

Keep doing good work now. You can’t know in advance what your viva will be like exactly. Good or bad, right now you can put yourself on the path to be the best you in the viva. Someone who knows their stuff, someone who knows how to be a good researcher in their field, someone primed for confidence and able to answer questions about their research.

Bad viva? Not in your control. Good candidate? That’s all up to you.

Worth 1000 Words

What do most books have that most theses don’t? Cover pictures! Novels and non-fiction use cover images to help tell their story, sell themselves to readers and convey some information. Theses tend to just have a title. Hmm…

Quick exercise for today: what would be on the cover of your thesis? What would it have to feature in order to communicate something of your work?

Long exercise for today: mocking up a cover might be a useful (and fun!) tangent to explore while finishing your thesis or preparing for your viva 🙂

Dreamer, Realist, Critic

I’m a big fan of creative thinking tools. The Disney Method is one I like a lot. It forces you to break creative thinking into stages by adopting three personas:

  • Dreamer: think of as many ideas as possible; encourage brainstorming; remove constraints and see where thoughts take you.
  • Realist: think about what would work practically; explore within resources and deadlines; see what can be achieved.
  • Critic: think about what won’t work in your ideas; test them to destruction; find problems to solve.

At the end of this kind of process, ideas are stronger and more clearly defined. You can see whether or not they will actually be useful.

Maybe something like this could be a useful framing when it comes to look back over one’s research too:

  • Dreamer: what did you want to do when you started? What were your big goals? How high were you aiming?
  • Realist: what did you actually do during your PhD? How did you tame your objectives? In what ways did you have to adjust the scale of your ambitions?
  • Critic: where are the problems with what you’ve done? What could people object to? What would you do differently, and why?

You might not get these exact questions in the viva, but they might not be a million miles away either. Tools like this can be useful to unpick and explore. They can boost your confidence at going over your research in the viva.

Bonus questions: Which are you most like in your day-to-day, a Dreamer, a Realist or a Critic? How well does that work for you?

Coffee Break

Viva coming up? Offer to take your friends out for coffee. Buy their attention for the price of an americano, or if summer arrives a frappuccino.

There’s a lot you can do in forty minutes over a coffee.

If your friend has some understanding of your research then give them a good summary of what you’ve done; ask them for questions, what do they need to know? What wasn’t clear?

Are they a good friend? Give them a chapter or two to read ahead of time, and over a latte dive straight into questions. What do they want to know? What are their thoughts?

Really good friend? Give them your thesis draft a few weeks before and brace yourself for questions. You may need to buy them a muffin.

You can get some valuable help from friends over coffee. Chances to practise questions, opportunities to think some more about your work. Really valuable. Your friends get something valuable too: they get the chance to see someone who is close to the finish line. They can read your thesis and see a possible format for theirs. They can be inspired by you.

And they get coffee!


In a workshop a few weeks ago someone asked, “How can you keep the viva short?”

I took a long pause before answering. My answer: “Not much.”

You can answer questions well – providing the information or analysis requested, explaining things and so on – but that doesn’t mean that you will shorten the viva. I’ve heard stories from people who had short afternoon vivas and knew their external had a pre-booked train to catch. It’s all anecdotal though.

I missed a more important question in that session. I could have asked the person, “Why do you want to keep the viva short?” I wonder now what was at the root of their question. Vivas take as long as they take. They vary in length for a host of reasons.

There’s no need to rush: you can take the time you need to answer questions well. Many people tell me they feel their vivas took no time at all: my four hour viva went by in an eyeblink. It’s all anecdotal though!

My advice? Focus on being prepared, don’t worry about how long it will take. You can’t influence the length of the viva, but you can steer how well you will perform.


We have a “go bag” packed in our house. In case of emergency it has water, a torch, change of clothes and so on all packed and ready.

What if you woke up late on viva day? What if you needed to get to your viva quickly?? What would be in your viva go bag???

Three things: your thesis, annotated to your heart’s content; pen and paper, so that you can make notes; water, because talking about research is thirsty work.

Those are the essentials; you can pack more if you need. What’s in your viva day kit?


Maybe we need a little more fun in viva prep. After all, just because something is fun, doesn’t mean that it’s not serving a serious purpose. One approach to viva prep is to try to explore your research or thesis in a new way. Here are seven whimsical questions that might help with that goal:

  • Can you write fifty words to describe your research without using the letter E?
  • Can you explain your thesis using fun metaphors?
  • Is it possible to describe how you would do your research with twice as many resources?
  • What you would cut from your research if you had only three-quarters of the time you had?
  • How would you have done your research if you were Batman?
  • Can you summarise your thesis in a haiku?
  • How would you draw your research with stick figures to explain it?

This is another workout exercise: it’s unlikely that your examiners will ask any of these in the viva. But if you use them in prep you stretch your thinking. You look at things in a new light. You find new ideas. And you might raise a smile too. What could be bad about that?

SMART Viva Prep

I’m a big fan of SMART, the acronym of criteria for effective goal-setting. There are various definitions; my personal flavour of SMART is Specific, Measurable, Advantages, Realistic, Time-bound. I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve banged my head against a wall with a project, then realised it was because I wasn’t really defining what I was trying to do. SMART always brings me back on track.

Want to set a good plan in motion for your viva prep? Use SMART and the following questions to help frame your prep plans:

  • Specific: what exactly are you going to do? “Read my thesis” isn’t specific; read Chapters 2 and 3 is specific.
  • Measurable: how will you know when you’re done? It’s easy to keep going and going. What tells you to stop?
  • Advantages: why are you doing this? (hopefully easy in the context of viva prep!)
  • Realistic: is it do-able given your time and resources? It’s important not to try to squeeze too much in to a limited schedule.
  • Time-bound: how much time are you aiming to give to a task? And what will you do afterwards?

Being SMART will remove some of the challenges. You’ll still have to do the work, but you’re used to that by now. Plan your success.


When is the best time to start viva prep? I don’t know, at least not for you.

I don’t know how long your thesis is, whether or not you have a partner or kids, whether or not you have a job, whether or not you’re applying for jobs. I don’t know how much you’ve thought about your prep already, how often you have presented at conferences, how comfortable you feel about answering questions about your research.

So I don’t know when you need to start preparing.

However, I do have some thoughts that might help you:

  • Take at least two weeks off after submission before you read your thesis again. You can then approach it with a fresh perspective.
  • Give yourself at least two weeks to prepare. You will feel better if you can take your time a little and spread out the work.
  • Block out a rough period in your diary when you think you will be preparing for the viva. It helps to visualise a project.
  • Think about what you want to do and estimate how long it might take. Then add 20%.
  • Look at the time period you blocked out and the tasks you want to do. Explore how you will break that up.
  • Ensure you make some time to practise answering questions alongside all the writing and thinking prep.

And: don’t stress about preparation. Think a little about what you need, take steps toward getting it done.