Must Read?

There’s probably hundreds of references in your bibliography. There are possibly dozens of papers written by your examiners. Many pages in your thesis. There are several books on viva preparation. There are thousands of posts and articles about the viva (almost a thousand on this site alone!).

Is everything must read? Do you have to read everything in order to get ready for the viva?

Of course not, but you have to find the balance right for you.

You need to read your thesis. You need to be familiar with your literature and what your examiners’ interests are. And it will help you feel confident knowing that your prep follows good ideas and principles. You have to see where the gaps are for you, and find good sources to bridge them.

It’s not all must read.

Citing Examiners

You might cite them, you might not. It depends on lots of factors:

  • What work you’ve done;
  • The shape of your field and the number of people working in it;
  • Who your examiners are;
  • When they were suggested as potential examiners;
  • How the work they do intersects with the work you’ve done;
  • And many, many more reasons…

It’s neither intrinsically good or intrinsically bad for you to cite them. It’s not a requirement to cite publications by your examiners.

But if you have: make sure you check those papers again before your viva. Be sure you’re familiar with why you used them, how you used them and what they did for your thesis.

Reflecting on the Edited Bibliography

I like the idea of making an edited bibliography as part of viva preparations: figuring out the core of your bibliography and where your research comes from.

You can go a step further than just making a list of your best references. Start with the following questions to really reflect on your research:

  1. Pick a paper. Why is it more valuable than many others in your bibliography?
  2. Which chapter is it most relevant to?
  3. How, explicitly, have you used it in furthering your work?
  4. What other papers does it connect up with in your edited bibliography?
  5. Are there any downsides to basing your work on this paper?
  6. Think about the whole list. How do these papers fit together?
  7. How many groups could you place them in, and how would you label them?
  8. What papers have you left out of your edited bibliography and why?
  9. If you could add one more paper to your edited bibliography, what would it be and why?

During your PhD, you dig into your field to help bring your research to life. During your viva prep, you can dig into your bibliography to help yourself even more.

Keep digging.


You do the research and write the thesis, but it doesn’t come from nowhere.

You have to be good to do it, and you have to grow as you go along. You have to do the work, but you’re surrounded by help. And you create a significant, original contribution but your research doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

There are essential supports that surround your PhD and help make it what it is. Review your postgraduate journey when submission and the viva are coming:

  1. How have you developed and how are you talented now?
  2. Who do you owe thanks to for helping you?
  3. What research and researchers have most inspired you?

Unpick your supports. Acknowledge them. Say thank you.

Questioning Your Bibliography

At the back of your thesis is a great big list of articles and sources that have helped your research. It can be massive. I’ve asked a lot of people about the size of their bibliography, and I regularly get answers in the region of two to three hundred papers. Someone once told me that their bibliography would have over 800 references!

Your examiners will likely have some questions for you about your literature review and bibliography. While you can’t predict all of them, you can still ask yourself some questions to help your preparation:

  • What are the top ten or twenty papers that have been useful to you?
  • Which papers have been most inspiring to you?
  • Have you cited your examiners, and what did you make of their research?
  • Which papers in your bibliography are most highly regarded?
  • What three or four categories could you group your bibliography in to?

Several hundred papers can be difficult to manage in your head. Questions can help to break that mental map up into something more realistic. These are a start, and are fairly generic. You know your research better than me, so think: what other questions might help?


A frequent worry in the mind of viva candidates is that their examiners will say something like:

I was really surprised that you didn’t mention Famous Paper X by Professor Important in your literature review…

What if your examiners say that you’re not cited something important? What then?

Well, that’s their opinion. Your examiners are in the viva to have opinions and ask questions. You’ve not thoughtlessly compiled and read the papers that you have to help support your research. You have reasons for citing the articles that you have, and you have reasons for not citing the articles that you haven’t.

If you’ve intentionally not included Famous Paper X then discuss why – and then explore the papers that you have referenced.

Remember, there will be a lot of papers relevant to your field, it isn’t possible to read them all. If you’ve not read Famous Paper X or not heard of it then ask questions. Why does your examiner think it is important? What do they think it would have added? Listen, and then discuss with them all of the papers or work in your thesis that is relevant to their point.

The viva is an exam disguised sometimes like a conversation. Some questions are testing, others are exploratory. Your examiners might have a different opinion, but they can’t claim that you’ve not done the work. Listen to questions, listen to comments, listen to opinions. Then respond.

Five More

In workshops I ask people to come up with lists of five highlights in their thesis, or five important papers that they’ve used in their bibliography. For many this isn’t too tricky a task, three or four come quite easy and the fifth is the work of a moment to fill in the blank.

How about another five? Not as easy perhaps.

The top five come to mind easy because we’re human and we make patterns; chances are you’ve already got a bullet point list of highlights or important references. You’ve settled on your talking points.

It’s not enough to just make a lot of lists to prepare for the viva. Stretching yourself by making lists can be valuable. For the examples above, you can expand on what makes your thesis great, or dig deeper into the papers that helped build your work. You have to think to do this. Don’t settle for what always comes to mind. See how far you can go and what new connections you can make.

The Bones Of Your Research

Remember Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Your work comes from somewhere. Whatever your contribution, it stands on the shoulders of other researchers. How many papers are in your bibliography? How many more have you read, which didn’t make it into your bibliography but which informed your development or your work’s development?

By the end it might be almost impossible to remember every paper that has helped or influenced you. But you can reflect on your thesis and think about the meaningful fraction that makes up the core of what you’ve done. If you have 200 papers, what’s the top 10? The top 20?

Your thesis is built on a great body of work. What makes up the skeleton?