Find Your Firsts

Build your confidence by identifying your achievements from your PhD. There’s more than just your thesis. Reflect on the first time you…

  • …gave a seminar in your department. When was it? What did you talk about?
  • …delivered a talk at a conference talk. Where was it? How did it go?
  • …wrote the first draft of a chapter. What feedback did you get? What did you learn?
  • …networked. Who did you meet? What did you share?
  • …realised you were going to finish. When was it? What prompted that thought?

Find your firsts: these are key moments in your PhD. They plot out a fantastic journey that’s brought you to today.

A STAR For Confidence

A great way to build your confidence before the viva is to find stories from your PhD to inspire you. I’ve mentioned finding STAR stories in the past to point to specific skills or parts of your work, but the same four-point structure can help to build stories of talent generally.

Try using this process to find stories that help you. Answer the following four questions in success:

  • Situation: Find a situation or project that was challenging. How did it stretch you?
  • Task: Detail what exactly you had to accomplish. What were the specifics?
  • Actions: Lay out the sequence of steps you followed. How did you try to solve the problem?
  • Results: Clearly state the outcome. What happened in the end?

How you think about your PhD and your talent is a story. If you need to, find a new story, or several! Find stories that boost your confidence and lay out how you got your research done.

Power Ups

What have you got that will give you that little boost of ability, of focus, of comfort and confidence before your viva?

Will it be a piece of music? A cup of coffee? A mantra or a prayer or a hug?

Checking one more paper? Reading your opening or closing chapter one more time?

A mock viva or a chat with a friend? An hour in a cafe, quietly sipping some tea and doing a crossword?

Maybe it’s none of these. Maybe you’re feeling fine for your viva.

But if you need something look for a power up.


…you’re talented.

…your thesis is done.

…you only have a little way to go.

…is not like your first year.

…you’re at the end of the journey.

…you’re able to think clearly.

…you have experience.

Whatever first year, second year, third year was like, now is not then. Now you’re on the final approach to being done. Now you’re the expert.

Now you can be ready for your viva.

Put On Your Sunday Clothes

Before every Viva Survivor workshop I rewrite my running order, arrange my props just so, prepare my flipcharts and listen to a few tracks from the Hello, Dolly! soundtrack. The music is really happy, and some of the lyrics in particular resonate with me:

Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out

Strut down the street and have your picture took

Dressed like a dream your spirit seems to turn about

That Sunday shine is a certain sign that you feel as fine as you look!

I’m pretty confident about what I do because of the amount of experience that I have. But I use everything I can before every workshop to prime myself: all of my preparations, what I listen to, what I do and think about, all of it helps me.

Before your viva, you have a right to feel confident too. Your thesis hasn’t just appeared: you did it, you did the work and wrote your thesis and you can only do those things by being very talented at what you do. Do whatever you can on the day to prime yourself to be your best.

What will help you be at your best? Do you need to put on your Sunday clothes? What will make the difference for you?


How long will your viva be?

What will your examiners think about your thesis?

What questions will they ask?

What award will you get?

How will you feel afterwards?

How long will it take to complete corrections?

You might have expectations, but some questions about your viva have answers that are unknowable at this point.

So focus on what you do know.

Your viva comes at the end of several years of hard work. You did the work. You are talented. You’re more than up to the challenge.