A Local Maximum

A term from maths: sometimes a peak in a graph is not the topmost point, but just the highest one for now. A downward slope afterwards might not run down forever. The curve may rise again, higher, further and faster.

Your PhD is a local maximum. Not the biggest and best thing ever. It might be the best thing so far, and it is important, but it has to be put into perspective.

The best is yet to come.

Weak Spots

Why didn’t Achilles wear a boot?

If you know there’s a problem, wouldn’t you try to address it? If you know you have a weak spot, wouldn’t you at least try something?

For example, I knew my background knowledge on one of my thesis chapters was a bit shaky. I just hoped my examiners would focus on the results instead. I could explain how I’d tackled it. I could explain the results. I just crossed my fingers they wouldn’t ask me to explain what a certain kind of manifold looked like and why it was relevant.

Hoping it won’t come up is not a solution: actions help.

If you have a gap in your knowledge, take action. If you have trouble remembering a reference or an idea, take action. If you want to boost your confidence, take action.

Weak spots in your thesis or research probably aren’t as devastating as Achilles’ heel, but if you’re aware of something that could be a problem it’s up to you to do something about it.

Don’t just worry and hope it won’t come up. Do something.

Read The Manual

Talking to friends about their viva experiences is useful. Picking up on bits and pieces of what goes on in vivas while you do your PhD is inevitable.

Generally, candidates have a fair picture of what they need to do procedure-wise; the regulations might not need to be spelled out for you, but if you have any questions, concerns or “what if….” worries:

Read the manual!

Your university has one, and it will have a lot of the answers about situations and circumstances that come up around the viva.

Find it. Read it.

Check Their Publications

You will know who your examiners are before the viva, but it’s possible you won’t know much about them. Not everyone has examiners they’ve cited or met before; you can’t strike up a conversation over coffee or email to get to know them, but you can check out their publications. Look at the last couple of years and see what they’ve done.

  • What’s the general area they’re interested in?
  • Are there topics that they return to again and again?
  • Is there a direction they are taking their research?
  • How do their ideas connect with your own?
  • What do you think their most important ideas or results are?
  • What do you need to know about their work that you don’t?

Explore what your examiners have published. See what it might mean to you and your work.

See how that can help you with your viva preparations.


I really like the following lines of a poem by Rudyard Kipling:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Whenever I’m trying to analyse a problem and get stuck, I think about these six starters and search for questions that will help.

They are valuable when unpicking the contribution you’ve made in your research. As your viva approaches, consider taking the following six questions as a starting point for reflecting on what you’ve done.

  • What was the result of your research?
  • Why was it worth doing?
  • When did you arrive at your main ideas?
  • How did your approach change during your PhD?
  • Where did you learn the most during your PhD?
  • Who do you think would be interested in your work?

There are many other questions you could use to reflect on your work. Start with these, see what thoughts and ideas they lead you to.