Unstuck Thoughts

I’ve been using questions and prompts to unstick my thinking a lot lately, like the question I mentioned in the recent Easy Viva Prep? post. I have a lot of projects and ideas I’m developing, and all have challenges or problems with non-obvious solutions. It’s hard to see something new sometimes, when you’re so used to looking at it in a certain way.

The same goes for a long research project, like a PhD. Here are seven prompts to help you explore your research ahead of the viva. Use these to start some positive unpicking through free-writing or reflection:

  1. The most simple way to explain my field to a lay-person is to say…
  2. The most influential paper I’ve read during my PhD is…
  3. The most difficult conclusion I reached in my research is…
  4. The best thing about my thesis is…
  5. The hardest thing I did during my PhD was…
  6. The best feedback I got was when…
  7. The best way to explain my contribution is…

Dig deeper with any of these prompts by asking yourself “Why?” after you answer. See what thoughts you can shake loose.


Do we need to talk again about the negative things that people say, think and feel about the viva? Particularly on Friday 13th?

Let’s just say this: if you ask around, if you listen to what people tell you – about their experiences, about what the regulations say, about the expectations that everyone involved really has – you’ll find the viva isn’t something to be feared. It’s not “dun dun dun!”

More like “done-done-DONE!”


I wonder if the key common attribute for researchers is persistence. Not smarts or know-how, not project management skills or effective presentations. Persistence. If you don’t keep going when things are tough, if you don’t keep going when you reach a gap and need to learn (or jump!) then you’re stuck.

I’ve not met a researcher or graduate in the last decade who hasn’t had a problem of one sort or another during their PhD. Some of them severe. Yet they persisted. Kept going until the answer was found. Kept going until they saw a way forward. Kept going until they knew more or could do more.

The viva is the final bit of persistence. Continue to know you’ve done good work. Continue to remember you must be talented. Continue to believe you have all the skills and talents you need to meet the challenges of the viva.

Don’t stop now.

Why You Don’t Know

You’re not getting the context.

You’ve not considered the question before.

You mis-heard the examiner.

You don’t know a key piece of information.

You’ve gone blank.

You got distracted by a sudden thought or idea.

You’re just not making a connection.

It’s only been two seconds since the question was asked and your brain hasn’t leapt to a response yet.

Going blank or not knowing what to say in the viva is among the top fears of PhD candidates. None of the above are reasons for failure. None of the above are insurmountable, although if they occur in combination they can seem very scary. Nearly all of them are situations that can be improved by asking questions – either of yourself or your examiners. That extra breath, that extra pause, that extra idea, whatever it is, can be useful to shake some ideas loose.

Not knowing something is not the end of the viva. Pause, think, ask questions and work yourself away from “I don’t know…”

More Why-How-What

About six months ago I shared Why-How-What as a simple framework for talking about your research. There is a value in using interesting opportunities to think more and talk more about your work. It boosts your confidence for when the moment comes that you have to talk about your research: you will find the words. I’ve had a few more ideas about how Why-How-What can help frame stories about what you’ve done and how you’ve done it:

  • Why did you start a PhD? How did you feel at the start? What did you think you would do?
  • Why was it worth exploring the area you did? How did you initially approach your research? What did you hope you would find?
  • Why were you up to the challenge of doing a PhD? How have you developed along the way? What can you now do that you couldn’t before?
  • Why had your topic not been covered in this way already? How did you spot that you could do something about it? What are some ways that it can be explored more in the future?

There are many, many more setups like this that could help get your thoughts in order. There are thousands of questions that could come up in the viva. You can’t prepare for them all, but you can take opportunities to think more and talk more about your work. It will help. You’ll find yourself in a better place when your viva day comes around.

Two Questions About Your Examiners

There may be other academics who could do just as good a job as your examiners, but they won’t come with the same background, experience and knowledge as yours. When they ask questions about your work and how it relates to the wider field, they’ll do so through the prism of their own research. You can’t anticipate every question like this they might ask, but you can ask yourself two questions to help you prepare better.

  • First: how much do you know about them and their work? Think about which papers you’ve read of theirs, and areas they’re interested in (if you don’t know much about either then check their staff pages).
  • Second: how much do you think you need to know in order to boost your confidence? Think about how many papers you have time to read, what else you have to do and so on.

Answering these two questions can help shape how you look into your examiners’ work. You don’t need to know everything – you can’t know everything – but you can do enough once you set some parameters. You can be ready for the interesting questions your examiners have ready for you.