What Could I Do?

I’m fond of short questions. After a chance conversation in a workshop last month I’ve been reflecting a lot on “What could I do?”

“What could I do?” is, I think, at the heart of the research process. It’s the problem-solving question. “What could I do?” starts the journey, long or short, to the next step.

Need more feedback than you’re currently getting? What could I do?

Unsure if you’ll hit your submission deadline? What could I do?

Not feeling quite prepared? What could I do?

Examiner just challenged you with a comment? What could I do?

Around the end of the PhD, in preparation for the viva and in the viva itself, What could I do? is one of the strongest questions you could bring to bear on any challenge.

PhD done and looking for your next challenge? What could I do?

(What couldn’t you do?)


There’s a lot of light cast around during the PhD process.

You shine a light on a topic you found, and create more when you write your thesis.

You brighten up your thesis when you prepare for the viva.

Your examiners bring your work into full sun, although hopefully it won’t feel like a harsh glare.

And fingers crossed you won’t have to burn the midnight oil to add a little more light with your corrections.

Every step of the way you illuminate something because you’re making it easier for someone else to see the value of what you’ve found.

Keep on shining.

Finding Feedback That Helps

After submission and before the viva, feedback is still one of the most useful things you can go looking for as part of your prep.

Make a list of who could really give you useful feedback: your supervisor, your office-mate, a person you met at a conference…

Make a list of topics: the way you answer questions, how clear your thesis is, whether your assumptions about your examiners are useful…

Make a list of questions: is this useful? how could this be better? why does this work well?…

Then go ask.

Go get the support you need.

First & Last

There’s a rule of thumb for the viva some examiners have mentioned to me:

“The first question will be easy; the last question might not be.”

There’s no trick to the first part of the statement. Examiners want the viva to go as well as it can. The first question is likely to be something you’ve thought about or could realistically expect (like how you got interested in your topic). The intention is to help get past the awkwardness and nerves of being there and get down to business.

There’s no trick to the second part either. You might get tricky questions in the viva. You might face criticisms of your work. You might find the discussion leads to a tough debate. Given the nature of what you’ve done and what the viva is for, it’s reasonable to expect the odd difficult question, particularly near the end.

It’s unreasonable to think that every question will be hard though. Expect the viva will start well. Expect your examiners will ask tough but fair questions of a talented person.

(that’s you)

Power Ups

What have you got that will give you that little boost of ability, of focus, of comfort and confidence before your viva?

Will it be a piece of music? A cup of coffee? A mantra or a prayer or a hug?

Checking one more paper? Reading your opening or closing chapter one more time?

A mock viva or a chat with a friend? An hour in a cafe, quietly sipping some tea and doing a crossword?

Maybe it’s none of these. Maybe you’re feeling fine for your viva.

But if you need something look for a power up.

Fourteen Faves

Quick exercise to get you reflecting on your whole PhD journey. What’s your…

  1. …favourite paper in your bibliography?
  2. …favourite discovery you made?
  3. …favourite meeting with your supervisor?
  4. …favourite conference talk you gave?
  5. …favourite question you’ve been asked?
  6. …favourite talk you attended?
  7. …favourite chapter of your thesis?
  8. …favourite sentence of your thesis?
  9. …favourite word you didn’t know when you started your PhD?
  10. …favourite thing you still don’t have an answer to?
  11. …favourite break from your PhD?
  12. …favourite place to work?
  13. …favourite time you made a breakthrough?
  14. …favourite contribution you’ve made to your field?

Your mind has collected a lot of neat stuff over the last few years. What stands out?


In Jenga, whatever your intentions, you might knock the tower down at any moment. Your actions or a misplacement by the last player might make things so unstable that the tower can only fall.

It’s tempting to think of the viva is a precarious situation, but your thesis is not a Jenga tower, and the viva is not a game.

Questions from examiners aren’t like pulling bricks out. Your answers aren’t going to make your work fall apart. Discussion can bring in some wobbles, but your work is more than a tower of bricks. You designed this structure, it didn’t just come together out of a box.

Thirty Minutes

Have you got thirty minutes to spare for your viva prep? In thirty minutes you can:

  • Read through a good chunk of a chapter;
  • Check a couple of references;
  • Make some notes about your examiners’ interests;
  • Create a list of interesting questions;
  • Add some annotation;
  • Reflect on what your research means.

There’s a lot more you could do. You can’t prepare for your viva in a hurry. Thirty minutes by itself won’t be enough…

…but thirty minutes regularly will do it.

Framing The Viva

A year or so after my PhD, when I was starting out as a freelancer, I came across a book called Gamestorming. It’s a collection of tools for use with groups of people. If you need to generate ideas, coordinate a team, break problems down or just get to know people it has lots of different suggestions. It was perfect for someone learning how to facilitate people.

One of my favourite things in the book is a model called the 7Ps Framework. I’ve used it for most of the last decade to help get my head in order when I design workshops. The 7Ps are seven words to help frame any kind of meeting.

Today, it strikes me that the 7Ps could help us get clear about the viva.

  • Purpose: you’re there to discuss your work of the last few years with your examiners.
  • People: it’s you, your examiners, maybe an independent chair, occasionally your supervisor.
  • Process: the viva is a discussion; your examiners will lead with questions; you have to think and answer and take part.
  • Product: a PhD graduate! (eventually; you’ll likely have some corrections to complete)
  • Preparation: your PhD is great preparation, but there are lots you can do to get ready.
  • Practical Concerns: take your thesis, take a pad to write on, take some water; be prepared for it to be several hours or so.
  • Pitfalls: don’t rush to answer, take your time; don’t expect to get no corrections.

There are lots of aspects to the viva. It’s easy to focus on one and forget another. A clean perspective is out there though: just take your time and look at it from a step back.