Different Audiences

Here’s a thirty minute viva prep exercise. It aims to help you think differently about your thesis by considering how you could communicate your work with other people. All you need is something to write on and write with.

Take 5 minutes to make general notes, first thoughts about your research and how you share it with others.

Take 5 minutes to plot out a conference talk about your best work. What must you include?

Take 5 minutes to sketch a thirty minute talk at a local high school. How would you begin?

Take 5 minutes to brainstorm for a Three Minute Thesis talk. What would you have to cut out of your normal explanations?

Take 5 minutes to think about your elevator pitch. What would you say if you were in a lift with the head of your university?

Finally, take 5 minutes to review. What ideas or themes consistently showed up? What surprised you? What can you do with these ideas now? How does this help you to frame your work for others?

Exploring different perspectives and looking at your work in a fresh way is valuable. Make time to take a step back in your viva preparations and consider what someone else might think of your thesis. And think: you have the outline for four or five different kinds of talks about your work now. Why not give one of them?

The Elephant Story

There’s an old fable about a group of blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. In the story all of them think they’ve found something different because they each touch a different part: a snake, a leaf, a tree, a spear tip and so on. All of them are wrong because they don’t appreciate the full picture.

There’s a lot of parts to the viva and a lot of perspectives that people take. Expectations, examiners, preparation, questions, confidence, your research, your thesis, emotions and more. It’s useful to zero in on one area from time to time, of course, but not to the exclusion of everything else. If you only focus on one aspect of the viva and the prep then you’ll miss something important.

Make sure you have the full picture.

Balancing Acts

How much work do you need to do to prepare for the viva? How do you get ready when you have so many other things going on? How do you deal with anxiety?

It’s all about finding a balance.

Balance the prep work against what you know and what will help. See what other people do and what resonates with you.

Balance your day job and family life against the time you need to get ready. Find strategies that allow you to work effectively and fit the work around your commitments.

Balance your nerves against the work you’ve done. Your thesis didn’t appear from nowhere.

Simple solutions can work when you focus on them rather than problems.


My youngest sister is nearly eight years my junior. It feels at times like we’re separated by generations. I’m sure she was the first person I heard use the words “ceebs” as a contraction of “can’t be bothered.”

It’s a good word. Said with the right tone it perfectly conveys the frustrated boredom of knowing what you need to do, but being unable to get going. You can make a plan, set short term goals, have a vision and still some days you’re just ceebs.

Maybe you’re like this with getting your thesis finished or preparing for the viva. Maybe it all seems too big. Maybe you can’t see the end yet. What then?

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of work by Tony Robbins lately. I like one of the solutions that he promotes for ceebs: just do something. Don’t try to think your way out of whatever funk you’re in. Sitting there, thinking about not being all ceebs isn’t going to do it. Get up and walk around, change your physical state. Start something. Write something. Pick up a paper and read it. Open to a chapter in your thesis and start making notes.

Totally ceebs with your thesis or viva prep? Get going.

Presents To The Future

I used to be annoyed with past-Nathan all the time.

past-Nathan was the guy who covered papers with scrawl. past-Nathan was the guy who couldn’t organise his notes. past-Nathan filed things away in bizarre places so I couldn’t find things.

Then one day I remembered something from my undergraduate philosophy metaphysics course: somewhere, out there, there’s a future-Nathan for who I am past-Nathan. And I was annoyed with so many of my past-Nathans, but I want future-Nathan to think that I am cool!

Which leads me to ask: what do you want future-You to think of present-You? What can you do now to help viva-day-You?


Werewolves can be taken out with silver bullets. Vampires fear garlic and the sun. To kill a zombie you go for the brain. Scary things all have weak spots.

Scared of the viva? What scares you? What can you do about it?

Confidence can be built. Answers can be found. Read more, think more, learn more, talk more.

Applying the same talents you’ve built up during your PhD can make the viva seem less daunting.

Examiners Are

Too many viva fears are rooted in the mistaken belief that examiners are somehow the enemy. I’ve written before about what examiners aren’t, but what are they?

  • Examiners Are Human: if they think you’re nervous, they’ll respond kindly. They know that anxiety is about the importance of the day.
  • Examiners Are (usually) PhDs: your examiners know what the viva means. They know what matters, and they have an idea of the work you must have put in to get to that day.
  • Examiners Are Interested: you’re the only person in that room who has to be there. Examiners are asked and can say no – if they’re doing it, it’s because they’re interested.

That last point gets forgotten sometimes. Your examiners are academics interested in your work. They’ll be ready for your viva. They’ll read your thesis carefully, weigh it up, and come with questions in mind.

Would you have it any other way?

Either Way

If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.

(Henry Ford probably said something like this, but he probably heard something like it from someone else; see here)

A reflection for today: if your viva is coming up, honestly, truthfully, do you think you can pass it? If you do, what are you going to do to make it a certainty? If you think you can’t, what are you going to do to get help? Either way, what are you going to do?

A Tiny Insurance Policy

A few weeks after I submitted my thesis, in spring 2008, I got a bill from my institution. It was a request for fees as my funding had finished. The request was very formal, pay now, and there was no phone number to contact anybody.

This was the dark ages of mobile internet: no wi-fi and the 3G modem for my laptop was painfully slow. It took nearly an hour to find a phone number for someone who might be able to help. When I explained and they checked my student number they immediately said, “Oh yes, the system’s sent it by mistake; you owe nothing and there’s an amended letter on the way. No problem!”

No problem – except for the stress, the frustration and the lost focus I’d had for an hour!

Most candidates I help have a fairly good idea of the format and regulations for vivas at their university. Still, unexpected requests for fees or an unexpected regulation can be stressful. You might not be able to find out everything in advance; but today you can find contact details for someone who can help if you find yourself in a tricky situation. You might not need to call anyone, but it’ll take two minutes to find them now, just in case something crops up.

No problem – save stress, save frustration and keep your focus!