Opening Moves

It’s unsurprising for me to recommend being prepared for the day of the viva. Often I talk about tips or tools for engaging with research, or ways to look differently at your research. Today I just want to suggest thinking about the day itself. Planning for the day can eliminate decisions you have to make, which can in turn conserve your attention for things that really matter (such as answering questions in the viva).

So what will you do to start the day? When will you get up and what will you eat? Get your clothes ready the night before. Are you doing any more reading, or will you be finding things to occupy your mind? Make a choice in advance. Pack your bag the night before. Decide how you’re going to get to the viva room. Save all of your thinking for the viva itself.

(inspired by a little reading on decision fatigue; have noticed anecdotally that I and colleagues work better when we have eliminated choices in advance)

Last Minute

If tomorrow was your viva and you’d not done much to prepare, what could you do? This sounds like a weird question, but it’s one I’ve faced on occasion from a candidate who seems very worried. So, some ideas for someone with a rapidly approaching viva:

  • Put Post Its at the start of every chapter so that you can break your thesis down and make it easier to navigate.
  • Give a good friend a call and ask them to help you unpick your thesis through discussion.
  • Use the questions in these three posts to help you think about your research.
  • Recognise that you are supposed to be at the viva: you’ve not got this far by accident!

Don’t leave it to the last minute, but if you’re short on time remember you can do a lot with a little time.

Field Tests

It’s great if you have read your thesis, made notes, created summaries. You’ve probably got a beautiful mental model of your research. Can you use it though? How will you do in the viva?

Find opportunities to field test your knowledge and your skills. The mock viva is a great opportunity to do that, as are discussions over coffee and seminars for interested friends. Get confident answering questions by getting people to ask you questions.

Sounds simple; is simple.

Colour Your Thinking

I’m a fan of Edward de Bono, and I love his Six Thinking Hats concept. It’s a way to manage discussions or problem solving. You can check out the details if you like; in short, you can imagine people putting on coloured hats to drive different kinds of thinking or observations. This stops people taking over with a particular agenda and prevents a certain emphasis being put on discussion.

Six Thinking Hats is a useful solo review tool for your thesis too. As each colour of hat corresponds to a certain kind of thinking you can explore your research in a different and useful way. For example, you might make some notes about a chapter in the following sequence of thinking:

  • White Hat: what is this chapter about?
  • Blue Hat: what process or method drives it forward?
  • Red Hat: how do you feel about the material in it?
  • Yellow Hat: what is good about this chapter?
  • Black Hat: what could be better?
  • Green Hat: where are the opportunities to build on this work?

If different coloured hats sounds silly, just take these six questions in sequence as a way to unpick some thoughts about your thesis!

Ten Out Of Ten

How would you score yourself when it comes to your PhD? I would give the me-from-ten-years-ago maybe a seven. I got results, but I was careless at reading papers and I didn’t speak up often enough when I didn’t understand something.

I think I would have stretched to an eight if I could have thought more about the structure of my thesis, maybe if I’d read a few more examples to see how others had done it. A nine would have been if I had really unpicked and understood the theoretical background of Chapter 5. I don’t know what a ten would look like for me…

How about you? Your examiners aren’t going to give you a score or grade like this, but if you can honestly reflect then maybe you can give yourself a boost. If you’re, say, a seven now, what would help you to score an eight? If you rate yourself an eight for viva prep, how do you get closer to ten?

Think about how you can make a difference for yourself.


“I’m trying not to think about it.”

Try to put anxiety out of your mind and it just comes back. Distract yourself for a little while and it comes back with a vengeance.

If you’re worried, it’s because it’s important. If your viva makes you uncomfortably nervous it’s because you’re recognising it’s a big deal.

Stop putting energy into a losing strategy. Burying your head in the sand is not going to solve the problem. Instead, reflect on what’s stressing you and think about what you can do to limit the impact.¬†What steps can you take? What questions can you ask? How can you increase your confidence levels when it comes to the viva?