Little Grey Cells

Hercule Poirot would be amazing at preparing for the viva. He’s meticulous and organised. He looks deeply into matters and isn’t satisfied if an explanation only satisfies some of the details. Often he has a companion – Captain Hastings, Ariadne Oliver, Chief Inspector Japp – who can offer him support and a different perspective on the case at hand. And after he has taken in as much information as possible he rests his little grey cells until they are ready to sing to him.

Poirot would ace a viva. You can too, n’est-ce pas? Be organised; find an ally; rest your little grey cells.

Going Further

I like creative thinking tools. (see previously!) I’m also intrigued by people who write up their thesis but have clear ideas for what they would do next. I didn’t have that at all. The most I could see was perhaps learning C++ to code a few algorithms, but apart from that I didn’t know what I could do next to take my research further.

Fortunately, I have a creative thinking tool for that: SCAMPER, an acronym of ways to innovate. Each letter is a different prompt for re-examining an idea or solution. There are lots of ways it can be used, but I think for the purposes of thinking how to develop research it is useful just to take each prompt at face value. If you’re thinking around your research area as part of your viva prep, the following could help.

  • Substitute: what could you change in your current research to get something valuable?
  • Combine: how could you blend your research with something else to find something innovative?
  • Adapt: is it possible to adapt a process or method you’ve already used successfully for something else?
  • Magnify: can you find something valuable by emphasising aspects of your prior research?
  • Put to other use: can you apply what you’ve done in another context?
  • Eliminate: how could you get an interesting result by removing aspects of your existing research or process?
  • Rearrange: how can you take what you’ve already done and remix to find something great?

Your examiners might not ask about future directions that your research could go in. An exercise like this can help lead you to interesting ideas, and it won’t hurt you to have more of them, will it?

Twelve Months

I was at Edge Hill last month to do a workshop. A participant asked me what they could do to prepare with about a year to go until their viva. They were interested at the various stages, i.e., what could one do twelve months before, at nine months, and so on. They were really keen to be ready for the viva!

On the one hand, I don’t think anyone needs to do much of anything for viva prep at that stage; the focus needs to be on finishing research and getting the thesis in on time. On the other hand, this kind of question resonates with me a lot; there are lots of things researchers can do from the start of the PhD which will help them when it comes time to submit and defend (and which could also make the research process and life after the PhD better too!).

For the final year in particular, here are some ideas:

  • Have a conversation with your supervisor about possible examiner choices.
  • Scope out what you have written and what needs to be written, and then make a plan.
  • Write every day, even if it is not something directly for your thesis.
  • Make opportunities to talk about your work.
  • When your examiners are set, compile a list of their recent papers.
  • Find friends and colleagues who are happy to help you prepare once you’ve submitted.

I have a lot more I could say about this – and I have a couple of projects/resources developing in this area – but this list is a start. If your viva is over a year away you don’t need to do anything now, but you could invest time along the way making opportunities that will pay off in the viva.

Simple and Easy

I worry that simple is equated with easy too often.

Too often I see people mistake the output for the process. It can take years of sifting through data, asking the right (and wrong) questions, or trying lots of things to arrive at an answer. And sometimes, after all of that, the final answer could be expressed in very few words.

Just because something can be explained simply doesn’t mean it has taken no effort to get to that explanation. If your ideas or research seem simple to explain now, don’t worry, your examiners will understand how you got to that point.

And if you find something easy at the end of your PhD, it can still be incredibly complicated – it could be too hard for other people – but not for you. Not at the end of your PhD.

Remember: simple and easy are not synonyms for each other; nor are they synonyms for worthless.

Say Yes

Nearly everyone I’ve ever met has a book that changed their life. For me, that book is Yes Man by Danny Wallace. It’s non-fiction and tells what happened when Danny decided to say yes to every opportunity that came his way for six months. All sorts of fun things happen, but more than anything else the takeaway message is that sometimes you just don’t know what good things will happen when you say yes to something. You can’t always see the end from the outset of the opportunity, or the doors that could open by doing something.

I read the book after my PhD and it really inspired me. I was starting a business and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life post-PhD; Yes Man got me to thinking that maybe I was a little too stuck in my comfort zone. Maybe I needed to say yes a bit more.

If your viva is in the near (or distant) future, I think it could be helpful to think of it as many opportunities to say yes:

  • Say yes to prep – so you’ll be open to what you find!
  • Say yes to a mock viva – you’ll know you can answer tricky questions!
  • Say yes to being confident – because it’s not all up to crossing your fingers!

Say yes to the viva, and you’ll go to it feeling happier, more ready and eager to show what you can do.

(and say yes to Yes Man, because it really is a good book!)

Thoughtful and Targeted

When it’s time to prepare for your viva, show that you’ve thought about what you need from your supervisors. If you want a mock viva, ask as far in advance as possible. If there are particular areas you would like feedback on, figure out questions that will help focus your supervisors. If you want to know what it’s like to be an examiner or get a different perspective then tell them.

You know by now that your supervisors can offer a lot of help due to their knowledge and experience. So be thoughtful and targeted with your requests – thoughtful so that they get as much notice as possible of your needs, targeted so that you stand the best chance of having those needs met.

Your supervisors’ time is valuable. Treat it that way.

A Manifesto for Questions

Treat every question as interesting, important, a chance to learn and an opportunity to demonstrate your talents.

  • If you treat a question as interesting, you’ll do a courtesy to the person who asked it.
  • If you treat a question as important, you’ll think it over and not rush to answer.
  • If you treat a question as a chance to learn, you’ll be open to new ideas while you think.
  • If you treat a question as an opportunity to demonstrate your talents, you’ll prime yourself to answer well.

Good for most days, great for the viva day.


“Scrawl” is a great word to describe how I used to annotate papers during my PhD. I hated reading papers. I much preferred doing maths: balancing equations, defining functions, exploring little curiosities that popped into my head. It never occurred to me until after my PhD that reading papers was doing maths. It always seemed overly difficult.

I would scrawl over papers with whatever was to hand. Red pen in reach? Use that to underline. Get bored. Next day, a pencil is nearest. Start making notes in the margin, switch to pen to emphasis even if it is harder to read. Get bored. Next week, a highlighter, make things stand out, and so on.

I’d look over things months later when I needed a particular result and it was a mess. “How did this happen?” I would ask myself and it was only towards the end that I realised, “Oh, it was me. I made this so hard!”

It’s a great idea to annotate your thesis. You need a clear system in place for what you’re doing. Use red pen to underline typos, but only use it for that purpose. Make pencil notes in the margins, but only put notes in the margins and only use pencil for notes. Use highlighter to draw attention to only the things you really need to stand out, and so on.

Or come up with your own system, but learn from my mistakes, please!


On Day 1 of your PhD you have promise.

On Day 10 you might be worrying what you’ve let yourself in for, but you’re better than you were on Day 1.

On Day 100 you might be struggling, but there’s a path ahead even if you can’t see it.

On Day 1000 you’re doing so much more than you could at Day 100! Your thesis is taking shape, though there’s probably still a fair bit to do.

Well then: how good are you and your thesis going to be by the end? Pretty darn good.