Little Reminders

On Thursday March 19th 2020 I was nervous. The next day I was going to deliver my first Viva Survivor webinar. Lockdown hadn’t started but you could tell it was coming. I knew I would need to move my work to Zoom, so decided to go early. Thankfully, my clients were happy to accept my proposal.

Still, the webinar had been rushed together in three days. I knew the material but had lots of worries about the tech, the pacing and so on. Would it all work? Were my slides OK? I didn’t do slides when I presented!

My daughter, who had just started home schooling, asked me what was wrong, and so I tried to explain. She listened and gave me a hug and wandered off.

The next morning, a few hours before I was to begin, I was nervous but practising my introduction when there was a knock at my office door. My daughter was stood there, with a smile and a gift:

My little friend!

“This is for you Daddy – this is you! You’re going to be fine today. He’s smiling and you can too.”

“Little Nathan,” as I’ve come to call him, has joined me on every webinar since. He makes me smile, and tends to make participants smile too, but more importantly he is a reminder of what I can do and how I want to be when working.

You can’t have Little Nathan, but you can make your own reminders. What will help you remember your talent? What could remind you of your confidence?

What could help you to smile on the day of your viva?

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

My daughter used to be obsessed with Pokémon.

We watched every episode of two series, bought books about them, played with toys, looked through cards, role-played being in the world…

(she drove this process)


Pokémon has the famous tagline, “gotta catch ’em all” – which refers to collecting all the different creatures in the world of Pokémon. It’s an attitude I see expressed all the time around PhDs and the viva. People think they have to catch every typo before they submit. Anticipate every question. Read every paper. Perform every test. Do everything for their research, their thesis and their viva.

And none of this is possible. This is fine. You’re not expected to have done everything. Perfection is not the standard.

In case you ever confuse Pokémon and PhDs, remember:

  • Pokémon: gotta catch ’em all!
  • PhD: cannot catch ’em all!

Green Screen

My computer won’t put a fancy background behind me when I Zoom. A friend has a green screen to help with their work, and I’ve been mulling over buying one for a few weeks now. I like the idea of having something really interesting behind me, or to play with video editing, changing the background for fun or to make a point.

Maybe “green screen thinking” could help with preparing for the viva too. How can you change your perspective on your work? How can you alter the background to what you’re doing?

  • Can you imagine yourself in the role of an examiner?
  • Can you change perspective to someone who has found a fault, or thinks the opposite of you?
  • What would it be like if you were new to your thesis? What would be tough?

With the metaphorical press of a button can you shift perspective? Maybe you would find something valuable for your preparation.

Myth & Truth

There are lots of myths about the viva: they’re impossible to really prepare for, they’re unfair, unknowable, harsh, a hazing, and not that fun.

There is lots that is true about the viva: the vast majority of people pass, regulations and expectations can be found out quite easily, preparation is possible, examiners don’t aim to be harsh – and a viva might not always be fun but it’s usually fine.

Myths circulate among PGR (candidate) communities. The truth is known in PhD (graduate) circles.

You have to ask the right people to find out the truth about the viva.

Factors For Prep

I mentioned yesterday that it’s ten years since I started doing work on the viva, but it’s nearly twelve years since I became an independent researcher-developer. That’s a lot of paperwork and notes, and when you sort through it you find things that you don’t need, things you might need, things you’d forgotten about and things that just might be useful…

Like a note on an old creative thinking workshop plan, not for top tips or processes, but for things that help creativity. Things that are personal to everyone, but which if you get right can really make a difference in outcomes. These four factors that help are Location, Atmosphere, Behaviour and Resources – and all of them can help viva prep too!

  • Location: where will you do your prep?
  • Atmosphere: will your prep space be silent or have a soundtrack?
  • Behaviour: how are you approaching your work?
  • Resources: what do you need to support you?

By themselves they aren’t viva prep – you still have to read your thesis, make notes, practise and so on. But how you do something can have as big an impact as what you do. How can you tailor your situation and strategy to help you prepare well?

Viva Survivor, Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, nervous, optimistic, uncertain but happy-to-help, I stood in front of a room of PGRs in Manchester and said, “Erm, hi, I’m Nathan, and today I want to help you explore getting ready for your viva…” I had no plans to do another one! Halfway through the session a colleague from the university said, “Oh, there was a big waiting list – when can you do another?”

I did a few for Manchester that year, then a few more the year after. Another university asked me to do one. Then a few more. All word of mouth. I started Viva Survivors as a podcast in 2012 so I could share stories and learn more for myself; I used the site as a platform to research and learn even more. More universities asked me to help. Then more!

In 2010 I did the session three or four times I think. In 2019 it was over fifty times!!!

The Viva Survivors blog has become a place for me to experiment, to share, to test ideas and refine how I express them. There’s been a lovely symbiosis between the blog and the Viva Survivor session. A question in a session becomes a new line of thinking for the blog; a neat idea on the blog becomes a cornerstone in the session.

On July 21st 2010 I was thinking, “Oh gosh, please let this go well, I hope this works, I hope people get what they need, phew this will help to pay for my wedding…” Today I’m thinking, “That went by fast! OK, how can I help candidates get what they need for their viva?”

(And, “Oh wow, it’s my tenth wedding anniversary in a few months!”)

If I’ve met you on the journey so far, thank you. Thank you to the nearly-5000 candidates I’ve met at a Viva Survivor session. Thank you to all the readers of the blog, to all the amazing people who shared their story on the podcast and to everyone who has helped me share this blog over the years.

Two Reflective Mini-Vivas

I’ve been playing around with my Mini-Vivas resource recently: I have ideas for other related game-like resources, and am thinking about how to adapt it for other purposes. I happened to roll some dice to get a few mini-viva sets and the following two struck me as being particularly reflective ahead of a viva…

First Set:

  • Where did your research ideas come from?
  • How did your process change as you did your PhD?
  • How did the existing literature in the field influence you?
  • What are your main conclusions?
  • What publications do you hope to produce?

Second Set:

  • Why did you want to pursue your research?
  • How did your process change as you did your PhD?
  • How does your work build on prior research?
  • What questions would you like to ask your examiners?
  • If you could start again, knowing what you know now, what would you keep the same?

While I think it’s more useful to ask a friend or colleague to prompt you with questions as practice, that’s not always possible. There are several suggestions on the mini-vivas page for how you could use questions by yourself. The sets in this post couple help you to summarise key aspects of your research and get you reflecting on the last few years of work.

A little reflection can go a long way to helping you be ready for your viva.

Hopes & Disappointments

There was a time, thankfully long ago now, when my background philosophy could probably be summed up by, “I’d better not hope for too much, then I won’t be disappointed.”

This was a time when I generally expected that I had to work hard and then hope I achieved what I was aiming for, rather than working hard and seeing confidence rising from my actions.

Hope is good, but hope is not the word you want to have hanging around your viva. Don’t only hope you will pass: know that you will. You won’t be disappointed.

Facing Fears

If you’re not just worried about your viva but afraid, to the point where it is having an impact, you need to stop and find help.

The right person could be your supervisor, a colleague, a friend or family member. You have to pass your viva on the day by yourself, but you don’t have to prepare for it alone. If you feel fear before your viva it won’t be removed by simply sweeping it to one side.

Tell someone who could help. Get them to gently help you see what the issue is. Make small steps towards resolving it. For example, being worried about answering questions won’t be overcome by jumping straight into a mock viva – a short, sharp shock is not what this doctor prescribes! But one question is a start. Maybe even writing something down rather than speaking first.

If you’re facing fear: Who could help? What steps could help? And when will you start to make them?

Explaining Absences

If you had to pause your PhD – for medical reasons, for personal reasons, for pandemic-related reasons – then you can absolutely explain that to your examiners. I think it should be enough to say, “Oh, it was disrupted for personal reasons,” and you’re done. A PhD is important, the viva is important, but the work that goes into them shouldn’t be put on such a pedestal that day-to-day human life is overshadowed by them so completely. But you can say more if you want to.

Most of the time, when someone asks me about anything to do with the viva, my first thought is to direct them to think, “Why?” But absence, whatever the reason, was probably quite personal. I don’t think your examiners need to know “Why?” – so perhaps think “How?” instead.

Think concretely and clearly about the impact that the absence had. Did it pause things? There was a gap and then you had to start again. Did you have to change your plans? Explore the differences brought about by the delay. Did you have to leave things out? List what didn’t make it into your thesis.

For absences, reflect on how it had an impact over why it happened.