Years ago I worked in a discount store every Saturday. I showed up at 9am, went home at 6pm, and got paid £20 for my troubles. At 16 it seemed like a good deal! Those Saturdays dragged though, because between 11 and 5 we had to “watch the shop”. The owner wanted all of us to be a physical presence, a deterrent against thieves. We stood on our aisles, waited and watched for six hours.

I watched the clock. I made games of it. Another minute gone. Another ten. I broke hours down into quarters. I worked out my pay per hour. Then per minute. Watching the time didn’t make the standing around easier, quicker, better or less boring! If anything, it just frustrated me. The clock just ticked on as always. Clockwatching never helped.

A decade passed and I was in my viva, and I found myself watching the clock again. I stole a glance when we finished talking about my first chapter and felt worried: 45 minutes on one chapter… I had seven! We took a break as we finished chapter four and we were two and a half hours in! At least in the discount store there was a time the clock was moving to when work would be done. Two and a half hours… Was this good? Was this bad? How much longer would it be?

I stopped watching after that point, kept my eyes on my examiners and the room. Watching the clock didn’t help. Clockwatching in the viva never helps. Knowing the time doesn’t help you to answer a question, to think or to be engaged with your examiners.

Take off your watch. Take down or cover the clock. Don’t worry about how long the viva might be. Put your attention on being your best self.

Why I Do This

I’ve been asked a few times recently why I do a daily blog. The inspiration to do it came from Seth Godin, a person I greatly respect, who has published a daily blog for many years. I saw someone trying something I thought was a good idea – but that’s more about what I do, not why I do it.

It’s hard to pin down a single reason for why I do a daily blog on the viva. Five that come to mind:

  • I wanted to help more people prepare for the viva.
  • I wanted to do something that would give me a space to create.
  • I wanted a regular practice to get better at something.
  • I hoped it might lead to more opportunities for work.
  • I wanted a new challenge.

A daily blog on the viva has given me plenty of ways to satisfy these reasons, and more. In eighteen months I’ve been amazed by how many people have read it; floored by how many have let me know that it has helped; I’m proud of how much it has helped me refine and build on what I do. And ideas lead to more ideas, opportunities lead to more opportunities: doing this has presented me with challenges many times over!

Still, the daily blog is what I do, not why I do it.

Your thesis is what you’ve done, not why you did it.

Get back in touch with that. Reflect on why you started, and whether or not your why changed as you went through your PhD. How have your research and your thesis resulted from your why? What is the journey that connects the why and the result?

Where will your why take you next?

Good Luck Charms

If it helps, why wouldn’t you have something lucky with you in the viva?

My good day socks were a story I told myself for years – “wear these socks and it will be a good day” – my viva, difficult meetings, the first time I ran workshops. There were so many situations where it made me feel better. I know people who wore a particular outfit to the viva because it was like armour to them, or a superhero costume. It added that extra something that helps them to feel better.

If you tell yourself the story that these clothes, this teddy, this piece of jewellery or whatever will help then you make sure to have them.

But it’s only a story – and there’s another one nearly reaching a conclusion.

You showed up. And kept showing up. You did the work and you did it well. You’ve written a thesis, and know your stuff. It’s not make-believe.

A few years ago I stopped telling myself the story of my good day socks, because I didn’t need it any more. If you do, that’s fine: good luck charms can help and help is good.

But don’t forget the other story: you did the work and you did it well. You can do well in the viva too.


You can be enthusiastic for the viva and also feel nervous about it too. They’re not mutually exclusive states. Rather than think of ways to combat nervousness, could you think of ways to boost your enthusiasm?

To my mind, there’s lots of reasons to be enthusiastic about the viva.

It’s the final test! You’ve written a thesis! You are talented to be there!

Of course, I have a different perspective on the viva. The reasons I can think of to be enthusiastic might or might not help you.

So what would?

New Resource: 7776 Mini-Vivas

I’ve wanted to make a viva-related game for a long time, but whenever I get close to an idea it always slides away while I’m thinking about it.

This is the closest I’ve got: a game-like resource for one or more people to help reflect on research and the thesis in advance of the viva.


Want to have a Mini-Viva? That’s what I’m calling a short reflection on your research or practice for the viva using useful questions.

There are two main sections to this resource: The Questions and Ways To Play. I’ve organised five lists of six questions. All are either typical of questions that come up in vivas, or useful to reflect on in advance of the viva. The basic idea is to take one question from each list to create a Mini-Viva.

You could use a standard six-sided die or pick a number from 1 to 6 to choose from the lists in The Questions. I’ve included five Ways To Play, ideas on how to use this resource both by yourself and with other people. With five sets of questions and six choices for each there are 7776 Mini-Vivas possible – perhaps don’t do all of them during your preparations!

I hope you find this useful! Scroll to the end for some Final Thoughts on this resource.

The Questions

Question 1

  1. How would you define your thesis contribution?
  2. What are the three brightest parts of your research?
  3. Where did your research ideas come from?
  4. Why does your thesis contribution matter?
  5. What is your main research question?
  6. Why did you want to pursue your research?

Question 2

  1. How would you describe your methodology?
  2. How do you know that your methodology is valid?
  3. What influenced your methodology?
  4. Where did you find support in the existing research for your methods?
  5. How did your process change as you did your PhD?
  6. What did you learn about doing research?

Question 3

  1. What are the core papers that have guided you?
  2. How did your supervisor help shape your research?
  3. How does your work build on prior research?
  4. How is your work related to your examiners’ research?
  5. How did the existing literature in the field influence you?
  6. What were some of the challenges you overcame during your PhD?

Question 4

  1. How can you be sure of your conclusions?
  2. What are your main conclusions?
  3. Are there ways that your results differ from previous ideas?
  4. How would you summarise your main results?
  5. What comments or questions have you been asked about your work previously?
  6. What questions would you like to ask your examiners?

Question 5

  1. How could you develop this work further in the future?
  2. What do you hope others will take away from your thesis?
  3. What’s the impact of your work?
  4. What publications do you hope to produce?
  5. What are you taking away from your PhD?
  6. If you could start again, knowing what you know now, what would you keep the same?

Ways To Play

Solo, Pencil & Paper: Divide a sheet of paper into five sections. Roll a 6-sided die for each question or choose one that feels appropriate. Write each question into their appropriate space. Spend some time reflecting on each and then writing notes into each space.

Solo, Record & Reflect: Use an audio recording app or software to record your answers. Roll a 6-sided die for each question as you make the recording, so the question isn’t completely expected, or simply choose as you go. Spend as much time as you like answering each question. Leave the recording for a day or two, then listen back to it and reflect on your responses. See what you think about them now.

With A Little Help, Scripted: Divide a sheet of paper into five sections. Roll a 6-sided die for each question or choose one that feels appropriate. Write each question into their appropriate space. Give this to a friend to ask you the questions; ask them to make notes in each space. Afterwards have a chat about what you each think of the experience.

With A Little Help, Unscripted: Give the question list to a friend. Ask them to roll a 6-sided die for each question or choose one that feels appropriate, without consulting you. Talk with them for each question they choose to ask you. Ask them to make notes if they’re happy. Afterwards have a chat about what you each think of the experience.

With A Little Help, Freeform: Give the question list to a friend. Ask them to use the questions to steer a reflective conversation with the goal of helping you think and talk about your thesis research. Ask them to make notes if they’re happy; you might benefit from making notes as well. Afterwards have a chat about what you each think of the experience.

Final Thoughts

7776 Mini-Vivas is a work-in-progress, albeit one that I’m happy to share and for it to be shared. I think there’s a nice structure underneath this for short, useful practice and viva prep. Perhaps there’s a better way to arrange the information? Or maybe it’s clear as it is.

My near term plan is to create a separate page for this resource, possibly with some download-and-print pdfs, maybe even a folding Pocketmod edition like The tiny book of viva prep (see here). I have more ideas of what I might do with this resource – but I’d love to hear your feedback and ideas for other questions, other Ways To Play or ways to implement the resource. Do send me an email or tweet at me with your suggestions!

If you play with 7776 Mini-Vivas I really hope it’s useful 🙂

Tearing Off The Paper

About six weeks ago I watched as a dozen children almost went to war in my living room. The reason?

Pass The Parcel.

It was my daughter’s fifth birthday party, and she’d insisted on playing a lot of games, including Pass The Parcel. We decided it would be like Pass The Parcel from our childhoods, with a single prize in the centre, and no little prize with every layer.


The kids were in uproar. We told them there was just one in the centre, but they were confused. Wh- Why?! Where were the little prizes? Then I want to win the one in the centre! They were desperate to hold on to the parcel in case this layer was the layer. They stopped having fun. We thought it would be alright, they would see the fun in taking part, taking a layer off getting closer to the prize, but they didn’t. Wanting the prize was too much for them. In the end, we fudged the final round so a particularly desperate child won.

(I feared tears and physical violence if they didn’t)

I was thinking about this game of Pass The Parcel the other day and was reminded of my PhD, and research more generally.

Sometimes, you only get to tear the paper off; sometimes, you don’t get to the big answer, the thing you were looking for. You get closer, but not all the way to the prize.

And that’s fine, you learn, you grow and you move everyone in your field forward.

It can be hard though, doing a PhD, writing a thesis, preparing for the viva, to see it that way. It might be true, but will your examiners see it that way? Or will they focus solely on why you didn’t get to the end goal? Examiners appreciate that not every research journey ends at the point one might want. They’ll have the experience to recognise what you’ve done if you don’t reach the point you wanted.

Your job, if this is your situation, is to be able to talk about how far you went. How close you came. What the different layers you tore off were. How you might have done it differently. And what other steps someone might need to take to reach the prize.

The Sum


One of the neatest pieces of shorthand I learned in my many mathematical years.

“The Sum of” and then an expression or a concept. In simple terms, add up everything that looks like this.

You might have some lower or upper bounds, you might have very specific things you want to add. If you’re lucky there could be a formula that represents what that sum is (I used to love working out those). I use Σ when trying to decide whether or not a crazy idea is viable financially.

A PhD candidate is the sum of their experiences. “Σ everything you’ve done” – there are lots of little formulas we could create…

  • Your talent is perhaps Σ your experiences.
  • Your knowledge is Σ your results + Σ your reading + Σ your failures!
  • Your thesis is Σ the hours you’ve spent.

There’s around 6000 of those hours. The viva is not a one-off event, it’s the next one that you’re going to succeed at. Add up all of the days that you’ve spent getting to the viva. All of the good things you’ve done. All of the less good stuff that helped you learn.

Σ all these things equals someone meant to be at the viva.

A Lack Of Silver Bullets

I was halfway through a short workshop on project planning. I was sharing a process researchers could use to outline their projects. At the coffee break a young researcher came to me and politely explained he was going to leave before we started the second half. “This is all very interesting,” he said, “But I just want a silver bullet. I don’t want a process, I want something that solves it all for me.”

I thanked him for coming, told him of course he should go if he felt that way – but also shared that in my experience there was no such thing as a silver bullet for project planning, no magic thing that just sorted it out.

Convenience is nice, but there aren’t a lot of silver bullets lying around. Sometimes you can lean on advice or experience, but more often than not you just have to follow a process.

There’s a real lack of silver bullets when it comes to the viva.

There’s no silver bullet for prep. Nothing you can load up that answers every question. No silver bullet for confidence as you walk in.

But then there were no silver bullets to get you from the start of your PhD to submission and you did that. You don’t need them anyway. You needed time and effort and ideas and talent to get your thesis done and you did. You have all of those things when you prepare for the viva, and in the viva too.

You don’t need a silver bullet now.

You just need you.


Every computer I’ve ever owned, every phone, every console has glitched at some point. From the blue screen of death to Netflix stalling, Firefox not responding and Open Office encountering an error, sometimes things go wrong. It just happens; reboot, restart and then things work. They work correctly 99% of the time…

…just like you. It’s understandable to worry about freezing, going blank or saying “I don’t know” in the viva. It’s important, you want it to go well. If you glitch then the solution is the same as your favourite expensive electronic device.

Reboot, restart and things will be fine:

  • if you go blank, pause, take a sip of water.
  • if you freeze, smile, think and move on.
  • if your only thought is “I don’t know” then ask yourself why, and you’ll see a way forward.

Glitches don’t happen all the time. When they do, you can take steps to overcome them.

If you glitch in the viva, you can do something about it.