The Best Of The Best Of Viva Survivors 2021

Between Christmas and New Year I shared some of my favourite writing from 2021. In case you missed those posts here are links to each with a piece that particularly stands out to me.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Viva Prep – lots of practical posts but the one that jumps out as always-relevant is Kind Prep. You need to be kind to yourself as you get ready, whatever practical tasks you have to complete.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Long Posts – after many interactions with PhD candidates in webinars over the pandemic, Space To Feel was a post I had to write.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Short Posts – one of the most helpful framings I’ve found in describing questions in the viva is treating them as Opportunities To Engage. No tricks, no traps, each question is an opportunity.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Confidence – I set myself a little challenge in writing The Basics. Confidence comes from many places. A key source could simply be understanding what the viva is all about and realising that, given the situation, you can do well.

2021 was not an easy year and 2022 has not started very well.

I’m always hopeful, but we still live in interesting times. Who knows what the rest of the year will bring?

From me, there will be another year of Viva Survivors posts! Subscribe if you’d like to get them sent to your inbox every day 🙂

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Confidence

I finished my look back over favourite posts last year with the theme of “surviving” – a break with several years of tradition.

2020 was a hard year, 2021 has continued to be challenging, but it feels right to come back to confidence. Confidence makes a real difference for the viva and how a candidate engages with it. Here are some thoughts from this year:

  • Confident or Arrogant – the difference between the two. (it’s a big difference!)
  • The Basics – a lack of confidence for the viva sometimes comes, very simply, from not having a good picture of what the viva is like.
  • A Few Thoughts On Survive – while confidence is the theme for today, it feels appropriate to share a few thoughts on this too.
  • Clearing Out Viva Doubts – confidence blossoms when we remove doubts.
  • Be Brave – a little extra step you might need to take.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances”. If you’ve made it through the last few years and your viva is some time in 2022 then you can be confident that you can rise to the challenge.

If you have managed to keep going so far, you can continue. You’ve not come this far by being merely lucky.

Keep going.

Hundreds To One

The viva: hundreds and hundreds of days of work that come down to one day. One day when you have to do well.

That could sound very worrying, but remember that all that work is the price of admission for the viva. You have to invest all of that time and effort to get that far. It’s not idly or blindly spent; all of that effort helps to make you ready for that one day with your examiners.

One way to look at the viva is telling yourself, “After all this time, it all comes down to this!”

A more helpful story is to think, “After all this time, I’m ready for this!”


Things have gone wrong. We can’t change them. We can’t alter what’s happened already and we don’t know when we can find a space or time that will feel like things are supposed to feel. So for now we have to survive – we have to manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

There have been times lately, when managing has felt like a struggle. Difficult has felt almost like too much.

Not for the first time in the last year or so I’ve had to start over with myself. Pause, take a day, breathe a lot and really reflect. Then try to figure out what my next steps are. Reboot myself and get going again.

If you’ve been finishing a PhD at this time I can only imagine the angst and overwhelm that must be in the background (and foreground) as you come to your viva. Like me, you might need to reboot yourself to keep going.

Starting over doesn’t mean a blank slate or doing something wholly new. It doesn’t mean you ignore what’s happened or happening. Rebooting means taking the best of what’s come before, and channeling it for what you need now. Take the things that have worked, that could still work, and build on them.

  • So what’s at the core of your talent? How can you use that now things are different?
  • What methods have helped you make progress throughout your PhD? How can you use them now to help you prepare for and succeed in your viva?
  • What’s helped you to feel confident before? How can you use that to build your confidence now for the viva?

Rebooting isn’t always easy, and it’s rarely ever perfect, but it might be very helpful in the coming year.

Keep going.

Concerning Publications

I’ve met plenty of good candidates who tie themselves in knots about the publications they do or don’t have, and how that impacts their viva.

Your examiners are most interested in you and your thesis in the viva. Prior publications are helpful, but don’t determine success. A chapter that has been accepted as a journal paper may still need corrections for your thesis; there could be more that needs to be said for the purposes of a thesis that was not needed in a journal.

Success in the viva cannot pivot on how many publications you do or don’t have; it’s a confidence boost for you if your work has been reviewed well elsewhere, but it’s not counted against you if publications don’t align with your own goals.

Review Your Records

Progress during a PhD can be hard to see sometimes. Days and weeks of incremental gains, the occasional epiphany soon pushed into the background by more hard work.

If you’re nearing the end of your PhD, review your records. Maybe your research journal or diary, perhaps a progress record that your institution insisted you keep. Maybe even the remains of notes or plans that have now evolved or been fulfilled. If your records are scrappy in places then work to remember and fill in the blanks.

Whatever you have, reflect on it all and remember: you did this. The successes you’ve found are yours. The results you have flow on from the work you’ve done and the talent you’ve developed.

It’s easy to pause and think, “How did I get here?” As you come to the end of your PhD, do the difficult work of really reflecting on that question. You’ll find confidence in the answer that you can take to your viva.

Final Chapter

Following Wednesday’s post, you could be a person, in a place, with a problem at the end of your PhD too. The mammoth task of submitting your thesis is done, but then you wonder:

  • What if my examiners don’t like something?
  • What if I’m wrong?
  • What if I forget everything?
  • What if I’m too nervous?
  • What if I go blank?
  • What if………

Sometimes you might have more than a hypothetical problem too. Maybe there’s a genuine error in a chapter. Perhaps you realise now there’s something else you wanted to say. You feel a gap in your knowledge.

None of these situations, hypothetical or definite, are insurmountable. None of them are beyond you.

Postgraduate researchers, as a rule, are are not just problem solvers: they are problem seekers. A PhD journey is built on finding problems to explore and (hopefully) solve. You have to. It’s not showing up for a 9-5, the same thing every day. No: you have to find problems, possibly problems that are beyond you at times, and rise to meet them.

Why should the end of your PhD, prep for the viva or the viva itself, be any different?

Of course there’ll be more problems. For someone like you, there will always be more problems to solve.

And for someone like you – capable, talented, knowledgeable – there will be answers too.

The final chapter of your PhD story sees you with obstacles still to overcome, challenges that may test you, but more capable than ever to meet them. Your story comes to a conclusion not simply with a person, in a place, with a problem.

It’s you, here, to get this done.

Go do it.

Viva Survivors: 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva

I had a great time last week sharing Viva Survivors: Getting Creative with PhD candidates dotted all around the UK (and the world!). It was really fun to take my creative prep ideas and see them connect: it was just lovely, as was the opportunity to respond to questions in real time. Bar the odd Zoom-related technical hitch it all worked wonderfully.

I’ll be sharing Viva Survivors: Getting Creative again in the future, but next I’ll be sharing another new free 1-hour session, Viva Survivors: 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva on April 22nd 2020. This is for PhD candidates who have their viva coming up and want to know why it’s going to be fine. Lots of people tell PhD candidates not to worry about the viva – relax, don’t stress, it’ll all be fine – sentiments which don’t always help because they often miss an important Why.

For some candidates, one thing – the right thing – can be enough to make the difference and help them feel certain about their viva. I have seven reasons to share next Wednesday, and my aim is to convince anyone coming that they will be fine for their viva. They may have work to do, things to check or prep to complete, but when the time comes, they can be ready. They will pass.

Like last week’s session, I want to run this again, but don’t have firm plans for now. If you want to come to Viva Survivors: 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva then book now! Full details are at the link: the session is free, but you have to register to attend. It’s open to 60 participants like the last session – which was fully booked – and at the time of writing 40% of places have gone. Simply click through to sign-up; all of the joining instructions will follow on after that.

Thanks for reading this. If it sounds like it might help you, then please register for a spot on the session. Hope to see you there.


Press Enough Buttons

Our washing machine broke a few months ago and blew a fuse. The power was off all around our house.

In the moment, I knew the sort of thing I needed to do in our fusebox, but couldn’t tell which fuse had gone. It took a little experimentation (and a call to my father-in-law) before I figured out what needed to be done. Ten minutes later the lights were back on.

You might know the sorts of things you need to do to get ready for the viva, but not which specific things will help you feel ready. You might know you need to do something, but not know the thing that will help you feel confident.

So pull some levers. Flick some switches. Press some buttons.

Try things: reading, annotating, presenting, rehearsing, priming, deciding on what you will wear… The list of things you could do to get ready for the viva is long. You don’t need to do everything, but if you press enough buttons you’ll figure out what helps you feel and be ready. Press enough buttons and you’ll feel confident for the viva.

Press enough buttons and the lights will come on.

Critics & Cheerleaders

Your Worst Critic?

It’s probably you. Pulling yourself down for slips, failures and mistakes. Overly critical of things that could be better. Berating yourself for things that are difficult. And the Worst Critic within is self-perpetuating, it’s hard to get away from the voice.

But you can try. If you hear your Worst Critic creeping up the backstairs of your brain place a call to your Biggest Cheerleader.

This could be you too!

Ask your inner cheerleader to tell you something good. Not just something positive and nothing false, just something truly good about what you do and how do you do it. You need your critic, but only so long as they don’t drown out your cheerleader. You need your cheerleader to help you believe in your talent. As you get close to the viva, there’s a place for both of them.

You need to think critically: to be clear, to be honest, to be able to engage well as a researcher with your examiners.

You need your cheerleader to remind you: you’re great, you got this, you can do this, you’re amazing.

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