The S-word

I try to be as careful as possible using the s-word.


You should get ready for your viva this way…

You should be prepared for your examiners to ask…

You should start your viva prep…

Lots of well-meant advice is hard to hear, hard to act on or hard to follow because the person speaking throws the s-word in the mix. It can raise tensions or muddy expectations. It can increase pressure on someone struggling if they hear that they should do something, in a specific way or at a specific time, that conflicts with what they feel able to do.

Don’t ask for people to tell you what you should do to get ready for your viva.

Don’t tell people what they should do for their viva.

Share ideas. Say why something helped you. Tell them what could work. Say why something could be valuable.

Leave the s-word out of it.

What’s Your Worry?

Don’t keep your viva worry bottled up in your brain where you can merely be anxious about it.

Write it down. Tell a friend. Talk to your supervisor.

Your worry could be unfounded. Talking to someone who has had their viva or knows about the process could put your concerns in perspective. They could help you see what you can do to help yourself.

Your worry could be easily resolved. Being clear with yourself and knowing what’s wrong and could allow you to move forwards.

Your worry could be a tough situation – in which case exploring what you could do and what you will do, possibly with support from others, will allow you to work past that worry.

It’s natural, given the importance of your viva, that you might have worries. If you do then you can also do something about them.

Your Way

In the end, getting ready for the viva comes down to you figuring out your way to make it work.

There’s a lot of viva advice, both general and practical. This site alone contains over 24 hours of podcast interviews and 1500+ blog posts. You can’t do it all. As helpful as I like to be you can’t apply it all to your situation.

You have to do it your way.

Your friends, colleagues and supervisors will be able to help. They’ll have their experience. They might have key information which could help you get ready. But they’re not you: your life, your research and your situation might be so different that to do what they advise might be stressful or even impossible.

You have to do it your way.

So listen. Find sources that you can trust. Ask questions, then check the answers against your situation. Find a way to make it work for you. There’s lots of good advice out there. There are lots of things that will help you be ready and feel ready. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to viva prep.

You have to do it your way.

“How Can I Help?”

If you’ve had your viva, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, ask these four words first, before you start to offer your story, your opinion or your advice. See what support someone needs. Get a sense of how they’re feeling.

If you’ve not had your viva yet, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, still ask how you can help. Your friend might need a sympathetic ear, a sounding board, someone to listen or someone to ask more questions to help them reflect.

You don’t need to have had your viva to help someone else with theirs.

Cloud on the Horizon

Off in the distance, on the edge of a clear blue sky is a single cloud. Something to be aware of, but not something that needs to be acted on. The wind may never blow it your way, and even if it does, how could one cloud spoil a beautiful day?

That’s one way you could think about viva worries.

  • There could be a particular question you’re worried about.
  • A piece of the viva process could make you feel unsure.
  • The uncertainty of whether or not you have done enough could make you doubt.

But what are the chances that one little worry is going to ruin everything? Like a single cloud on the horizon, it’s really not that likely.

If you feel worried then figure out the root of your concern, why you feel worried. Then see what, if anything, you need to do as a result.

Consulting Your Supervisors

Your supervisors will be able to help with lots of things related to the viva. It’s good to consider them in the role of a consultant.

Consultants take a step back, they’re there to advise: you have to do the work. It’s best to ask highly-targeted questions and make specific requests – both to get the best response from them and respect their time.

  • Before submission they can offer feedback on your research, guidance on your thesis and talk through expectations for the viva.
  • During preparation time they can steer your perspective, share insights into your examiners and perhaps practically help your preparations with a mock viva.
  • After it’s all done they can support you as you deliver on your corrections, and hopefully even find a way to help you celebrate!

There’s lots of possibilities: before you ask for help, consider what you might really need from them. Then focus on asking for that.

Hitting A Wall

In your final burst to get to submission, or in your prep for the viva, it’s likely you’ll get tired.

Or you’ll get stuck.

Or you’ll not know what to do.

Or you will know what to do, but you just won’t want to.

Hitting a wall is hard, because it’s often painful. It can come with shame as well. Compared to some PhD stories I’ve heard, I know that I had quite a charmed PhD; nothing too bad happened. I was able to plot and plan my last six months and work to it and that helped. But I still hit the wall a few times on the run-up to my submission. I felt like I should be better, that I shouldn’t be making mistakes.

A lovely and well-intentioned friend in my office told me, Whatever it is Nathan, just get over it.

They were lovely and well-intentioned, but just get over it is, I think, very rarely the answer.

The answer always has to be quite specific, because the question isn’t simply “What do I do?” but “What do I do with this very particular situation of work and feelings and physical circumstances that has lead me to this wall?”

It could be that you’re tired from reading, or can’t make a connection, or you’re fed up with your PhD, or you’re concerned about something you’ve found – and these are the simple descriptions. The answer is going to be specific; you’ll have to find it probably.

The answer could start with:

  • Asking for practical help;
  • Taking a break;
  • Thinking about other situations you’ve overcome;
  • Remembering that you are awesome;
  • Walking away for a while to get perspective.

These are general solutions; they don’t fit every wall. You won’t just get over it, but there are lots of first steps you could take.

Thank Your Supporters

You can’t get to the end of a PhD without supporters.

They could have lots of different connections to you – your supervisor, your colleagues, family and friends – and they may help in lots of different ways.

You need help along the way, from people who can give you critical but constructive feedback, and people who help you to believe in yourself.

Say thank you when you go the distance. Reflect on what your supporters have done to help and write a word or two in your acknowledgements. Let them know how they’ve helped when you’re getting ready for your viva, and ask again if there’s one more thing they can do to help you get it right. Let them know how you’ve done afterwards and thank them one more time!


Today is my tenth wedding anniversary and I have been fortunate to have my wife support me for the last decade. I know what work I’ve done to come this far, and know I couldn’t have done it without her love, her encouragement, her patience, her listening, her feedback, her humour and so much more. This site wouldn’t exist without her support.

Thank you Kay 🙂

Help Is Everywhere

I didn’t have a Viva Survivor course or webinar to help me get ready for my viva. I didn’t know of any books on the topic, or think to look for them. I didn’t search for lists of questions, or blog posts on experiences or how to get ready. The academic community on Twitter hadn’t quite grown into the super-helpful space that it is now.

And there was no podcast with interviews of PhD graduates or blog with 1200+ posts to help candidates!

My point is not, Oh woe is me, I had it so much harder than you do today!

My point is not, I didn’t need anybody and you don’t!!

The point is, There is a wealth of help out there if you need it. Some of it is right here on this site. Some of it might be found in a friend of yours, and you just need to ask. Some of it could be a simple search away.

If you need help getting ready for your viva, it’s out there.

Go get it.

If You Need Help With Your Viva…

…ask for it.

This year, everyone needs help. Everyone is hurting somehow. Everyone is pressured, tired, concerned, and it could be tempting to think that it’s best not to bother people. What’s your viva compared to someone else’s troubles, worries, workload? Keep it to yourself, you might think.

Ask – of course, pick your moment, be aware of other’s circumstances, be prepared to perhaps compromise – but ask.

Ask your supervisor for a Zoom chat, but be concise and targeted with your questions. Ask your colleagues for help preparing, and be prepared to offer the same in return. Ask your friends and family to give you space – whatever your living situation, ask them to support a little place and time of calm so that you can get ready.

Support others however you can at this time, and look for the support that you need. In a strange and radically different world from a year ago, you matter, your viva still matters. Ask for the help you need to get it done.