Hierarchy of Worries

I record every question I get asked in workshops. The text document runs to over 15,000 words now. Over time I see trends and themes, and they help me to think about how I evolve the workshop.

In particular I see the worries of candidates collect in three groups:

  • First, people worry that there could be something wrong with their research;
  • Second, they worry that they may have made a mistake in the write-up;
  • Third, they worry that they may not be able to answer a question from their examiners.

I get lots of questions related to all these areas, and I think they’re arranged in a hierarchy. I think people are more worried about the second kind of worries than they are the first; I think they’re more worried about the third kind the second. It makes a certain kind of sense. Research takes a long time to mature – you know everything you’ve done, everything you thought of doing, you learned from so many mistakes and successes. You know your research. Writing up took less time – however much you know about your research, there’s a chance that you’ve made a significant typo or forgotten something. You may have expressed something in a clumsy way. It’s not all that likely.

Whatever you did in your research and write-up though, you have no way of knowing exactly what your examiners will ask. There are lots of common questions, but your viva is a custom exam: you can’t predict every question or how you might respond.

Three common groups of worries, but some are more worrying than others. What do you do?

  • Worried that something is wrong with your research? Map out your methods. Check the core literature. Test your assumptions again. Try to explain it to someone who doesn’t know that much.
  • Worried that you’ve slipped up somewhere in your thesis? Get more feedback. Read it closely, line by line, no skimming. Ask a friend to proofread. Read it aloud to check that it makes sense.
  • Worried about your examiners’ questions? Practise answering questions. Have a mock viva. Use a list of common viva questions and record your answers. Get friends to ask you any and every question about your research.

Feeling worried? That’s OK. Work your way past the worries.


What if you wanted to tell a friend about your research and you only had one sheet of paper? What would you put on this cheatsheet?

Would it have lots of pictures? Bullet-points? Would your abstract feature? And would it be black and white or full colour?

What would you leave out? What must you include? Do they need to know anything else in order to understand what you’re telling them?

Your friend would probably thank you, it’d be a neat insight into what you do.

If you do this, make two copies and keep one. You do valuable prep in creating the cheatsheet and then have a resource to refresh your memory later.


I didn’t listen to Nevermind by Nirvana when it came out. I was in my teens in the 90s, but for some reason the album never connected with me. Of course, I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit but it just sounded loud and angry. I didn’t get it.

In my thesis I wrote a really detailed explanation of how I produced a particular algorithm. I walked the reader through it step by step. And it didn’t connect with my examiners. They thought it read like a story. They didn’t get it.

In both cases though, there was an opportunity to correct. In my viva I was able to explain the process, and my examiners got it. They asked me to re-write my explanation, but they understood what I was trying to get across: my thesis was better as a result.

And last month I listened to Nevermind for the first time: life is better as a result.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It?

I love Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, the web series by Jerry Seinfeld where he interviews comedians in ca- well, you probably get the idea. One of my favourite episodes is with Steve Martin. It’s funny and well worth a watch, and his book Born Standing Up is also really great. In the episode, he describes how in his early career he made a conscious decision to “fake confidence.” He wanted his audience to think he was happy and at ease with what he was doing.

Seinfeld asks how that is any different from actually being confident, because presumably the output of confidence or faking confidence is the same – people think you are!

“Fake it ’til you make it!” I see this advice a lot. Show confidence even if you don’t feel it. Don’t let them see fear. But that kind of pressure can take a toll. If the output of faking and being confident – assuming that you can successfully fake it – is the perception of confidence… wouldn’t it be better to work on being confident? If someone feels nervous or uncertain, and if that goes so far as to knock their confidence, it would be so much more rewarding to do something to build confidence back up rather than try to fake it.

When it comes to the viva, I hope that every candidate feels confident – which doesn’t mean that they won’t feel nervous, they could still have some anxieties. To my mind there are three areas in particular that any viva candidate can feel confident about:

  • They can feel confident in their work, which has taken time to develop.
  • They can feel confident about the choices they’ve made, and if they have to, can explain them.
  • They can feel confident in their talents, their competence, their abilities as a researcher – things which have necessarily developed over the course of research.

If you’re near the end of your PhD, viva just around the corner, it’s OK to feel nervous – but it’s right to be able to look at yourself and everything you’ve done to get there and feel confident in your achievements. You didn’t just stumble upon the end of your PhD.

When it comes to the viva, it’s not fake it ’til you make it: you’ve made it.


When I first got interested about the viva someone told me, “People hopefully pick an internal who they like, and hopefully pick an external that is an expert in their field.” I’m not sure that’s the best advice for picking examiners, but it’s a starting point for today.

It could certainly help to have an expert for an examiner: then you would feel confident that they would understand the implications of what you have done without needing to spell it out again.

But suppose they know it all too well? Suppose they understand it better than you? Suppose they can appreciate problems that you haven’t? Suppose, suppose, suppose…

Don’t forget: by the time you submit your thesis you are an expert. No-one else has done what you’ve done. No-one else has your lived-in experience of doing your PhD. Maybe it takes an expert to examine an expert?