Every now and then I look at the stats for the blog to see which of my posts have helped or resonated. Here are the ten most read posts from 2017:

  1. First Thoughts
  2. 9 Questions For The End Of The PhD
  3. Hierarchy of Worries
  4. Six Whys
  5. Who’s In The Room?
  6. Your Greatest Hits
  7. Cheatsheet
  8. Who’s Who
  9. Six More Whys
  10. The Perfect Thesis

There’s a mix of practical advice about preparation, reflections to get a candidate thinking and also discussion about examiners and worry. I’ve written on these themes a lot more on the blog, so you don’t have to look far beyond these posts to find something useful.

It’s also interesting because it gives me a perspective on what people find helpful and worth sharing. I’m really grateful whenever I see that someone has posted a link to one of my posts. The fact that these are the most read will help me to think about how I can do more to help people feel ready.

There’s lots of help on this blog, but there’s also lots of viva help elsewhere. Figure out what you need to feel ready and go looking.

Three Whens

It’s easy to forget the great stuff in the hustle and bustle of getting to submission and the viva. Draw on your past to remind yourself, if you need to, just how good you must be.

  1. When did you give your best presentation during your PhD?
  2. When did you have your biggest breakthrough or realisation?
  3. When did you have your best conversation with someone about your research?

The highlights of your journey are assets you can use in your prep. Don’t forget.

The 99th Percentile

“Excuse me, can you reach that?” Usually, yes. I’m six feet and four inches tall and in the 99th percentile for height in the UK. I didn’t have to work on it much, it just happened.

PhDs don’t just happen. Nobody gets onto a PhD programme, or gets through one, by being lazy or unskilled. You have to know things and you have to do things. Yet you compare yourself to others and you grow to doubt yourself. The viva comes around and you wonder, “What will the examiners think? What will they ask? How will they rate me?”

There’s a background fear in some candidates that examiners are just better. And not in a small way. “Examiners are at the 99th percentile!”

They’re six feet four, looking down on you.


I’m not so sure. It matters what you measure. Does it matter, assuming that it’s true, that your examiners are at the 99th percentile? Are you being examined on your total knowledge of your field? And if you were, wouldn’t you comfortably be in the top 90% or higher?

And what percentile are you at when it comes to more than your field? Where are you when it comes to you niche? When it comes to your research? Your thesis?

Your examiners may know a lot, and they may have experiences and knowledge that you don’t – but they don’t have YOUR knowledge and YOUR experience, or YOUR considered perspective from years of study.

GROWing a Plan

I was reminded earlier this month of the coaching tool GROW, and how useful it can be to start conversations that help people change.

  • Goal: what is it you want?
  • Reality: where are you now?
  • Options: what could you do?
  • Will: what will you do?

When I heard this again a little thought started to form about the kinds of questions that relate to these words. I was at a three-day workshop on leadership, and as my friend described GROW to the participants it struck me that this could also be a neat framework to help someone prepare for their viva.

  • Goal: what does prepared look like for you? What are you working towards?
  • Reality: how much time will you have available? Who could help you?
  • Options: given your resources, what could you do to be ready? And what do you not have time for?
  • Will: how are you going to make time for what you need to do? When will you get the work done?

A short, four-step sequence for figuring out options or a plan for viva prep. There’s no sense in making a plan that won’t work for you.

It doesn’t need to take long to get to work.

Strikethrough to Simple

The viva is not a mysterious unknown cobbled together from the worst-case scenarios that keep you awake at night about your research. There are regulations and best practices, a structure that rests on and comes from your own work. It’s not thrown together in the moment or something that jumps out of left field. Yours will be unique, but based on a common structure with others, and if you ask the right people the right questions then you can prepare for it.

Vivas don’t just happen. You can learn about them and prepare for them.

Effective preparation is based on a continuation of the types of work you must have done throughout your PhD. The kinds of work that create good research are the kinds of work that will serve you well on the run up to the viva. Asking questions and making summaries, finding opportunities to discuss your work and answer questions, making space for deep thinking – all will be valuable, you just apply them a little differently.

You know all the stuff that you did to do your research? Keep doing it.

A PhD thesis can vary in size wildly between disciplines, and academic language in your field may allow for or necessitate a grandiose usage of words, sentences and other meaning-bearing symbols. But you don’t need to focus on every single word in order to feel fully prepared for your viva voce: what if you took some parts of your work and actively crossed things out, leaving only the most important and needed ideas? Do you need everything, or would it be good to strikethrough and make it simpler? Would that be an effective tool for you in order to help figure out what matters most? There could be a great freedom in doing it – although perhaps you might want to use a separate copy of a chapter to help, rather than obliterate parts of your thesis!

Strikethrough to simple: cross things out and leave the most important material. But maybe use a spare printout!

Counting Chickens

Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched

…especially with the viva…?

Don’t count them.

Spend your time counting something more worthwhile.

Count the number of days you’ve spent on your PhD.

Count the number of papers you’ve read and referenced.

Count the times you’ve made breakthroughs.

Count the times you’ve heard someone say, “Interesting…” after you’ve told them about your work.

Count the times you’ve stood up and presented.

Count the ideas that you’ve come up with.

Count the ways that you’re a better researcher now than when you started.

What does all of that add up to?

Nothing poultry.

(sorry, couldn’t resist!)

Don’t expect there to be nothing to challenge you in the viva, don’t expect to fail; know that you’ve got the tools and talent to meet the questions of your examiners. Instead of assuming you’ll pass, or worrying you won’t, do what you can to remind yourself of why you’re there and how that happened.

Boss Battle

A possible screenshot of the viva has people imagining it’s like facing end-of-level baddies in a computer game.

After all of the trials and tribulations of doing research, your examiners appear through the fog, two mysterious and challenging foes! Whatever you’ve done before, the rules don’t apply to them!! They’re bigger than the other baddies, tougher, hit harder and if you’re not careful you’re doomed!!!

Well. That’s one way to look at things.

If we accept it then we have to accept everything else from the picture: you’ve reached the end of the level. You’ve fought your way through, and you’ve got there, and it’s not by accident. While a boss battle can seem much tougher, they’re based around all of the same moves that you’ve done in the rest of the game. There’s a different focus maybe, and a different challenge, but it’s well within your capabilities.

There are no cheat codes in the viva – but you don’t need them if you’ve got there.

Summary Fundamentals

A summary is an answer to a question. For a postgraduate researcher with their viva in the future the question could be:

  • How can I describe this concisely?
  • How can I explain this to a novice?
  • How can I display this visually for myself?
  • How can I outline my thesis?
  • How can I arrange what I know to most help myself?
  • What’s the story of my research?
  • What are the essential facts of my thesis?
  • What does my thesis look like?
  • What matters most about my work?
  • What stands out about my research?
  • Why is this a valuable contribution?

There are many, many useful questions to help create summaries. And there are many ways that you can arrange or display the content of an answer to create a summary. The act of making a summary is a useful tool for viva preparation. If you ask a better question you can find a more valuable answer.

Reflect a little. What kinds of information formats help you? So what kinds of summaries could help you?

So what kinds of questions could help you?


It’s my birthday! I’m taking the day off, and sharing the happy with 50% off my ebooks 😀

I won’t say how old I am today, but if you use the offer code THIRTYSEVEN before midnight on Monday 22nd January 2018 then you can get 50% off all of my ebooks at Just enter the code when prompted and you’re all set!

Thanks for reading, and do feel free to share the code with anyone who might find it useful 🙂

Back tomorrow with more viva help and advice!

On Weakness

No research programme can’t be improved. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made or limits imposed. Sometimes experiments or investigations don’t work out the way you hope they will. That doesn’t mean your thesis is fundamentally flawed, or your research is weak.

Still, a lot of PhD candidates ask me, “How do I talk about weakness in my viva?”

If there’s really something that could be better then you can discuss it by being honest, being clear and by talking about what’s great in your research and thesis.

  • Be honest: don’t try to hide or bluff and hope that your examiners will move on.
  • Be clear: set out the facts and your reasons, what they mean and why.
  • Talk about what’s great: not to distract, but to honestly persuade.

If there’s something you consider weak about your thesis or research, you don’t have to bring it up as you start the viva. You do have a responsibility to have thought about it and be willing to engage with your examiners. That’s no different to anything else in your research though.

You can’t write a perfect thesis. But you can’t get to the end of the PhD by accident either.

Remember: just because you think something is weak, it doesn’t mean that it is. If your examiners frame something as being weak, and you disagree, it doesn’t mean that they are right.

“Weakness” is a shorthand that people use for limitations, lack of time, doubts, worries and uncertainty. By all means consider how things could be improved or be different, but perhaps consider using a more accurate word to describe what you’re thinking about.