Defining Effective

I was helpfully challenged in a recent webinar to define what I meant when I talk about effective viva prep. It was a great provocation to help me unpick what I think.

  • Effective has to mean that it benefits the person doing the prep. They do the work and are prepared.
  • Effective has to include some idea of working smart: not starting early, not rushing or stressing while doing the work.
  • Effective viva prep must also help the candidate to feel that they are working towards being ready (and that ultimately they are ready for the viva).

Let’s define effective viva prep as a set of useful tasks and activities that help a candidate become ready for the viva in as organised and stress-free way as possible.

It’s a bit of a mouthful! Maybe there’s more we could say or a more concise framing but it’s not a bad start.

A definition doesn’t tell you what to do exactly for your situation though. For your circumstances consider:

  • What do you think you need to do?
  • When do you think you need to start?
  • How can you help yourself to see your progress to being ready?

We can usefully define what effective viva prep means generally, but you have to realise what that means for you specifically.

Three Easy Wins For Viva Prep

I’m a fan of the “three easy wins” productivity idea: simply put, start your day by getting three little victories. Clear that email out of your inbox, write down that short paragraph or check your blog feed for new posts. Just do three simple things that don’t require a lot of work. These little efforts add to your overall sense of achievement for the day. They move you along in the right direction.

Viva prep can seem overwhelming to some: it can feel like a lot to do before you might be ready for the viva. If this is how you feel, let me suggest three easy wins to get you started:

  1. Put a small Post-it Note at the start of each chapter in your thesis. This makes your thesis easier to navigate.
  2. Bookmark the staff pages for your examiners. Later you can go to these directly when you want to explore their recent work.
  3. Decide on a simple system for annotating your thesis. Figure out what pens, colours, tabs and so on you will consistently use.

Three easy wins, probably ten minutes in total. A great start to viva prep. After this, just keep going. You’ll get where you need to be.


I advise candidates to annotate their thesis, but the word really in my mind is augment:

To make something greater by adding to it…

You’re not just adding some notes or bookmarks, some Post-its or highlighted sections; your thesis will be better for you doing it.

I use the word annotate in workshops, because that’s what people expect. Let’s be clear though: if you add Post-its to show the start of chapters, underline typos, add notes in a consistent way, highlight references, insert clarifications, decrypt technical language, update a thought and anything else like this – you’re augmenting. Your thesis is greater than it was, a richer resource for you.

Step one, ask yourself: what would make your thesis even greater for you?

Maximum Effort

Or rather, Maximum Effort! if you’re a fan of the Deadpool movies. It’s not quite a catchphrase, just a fun thing that the anti-hero says before a couple of cool moments in the films. I was away for work last month when I saw the second movie, and the phrase stood out to me.

As I was walking back from the cinema I pondered: “What would Maximum Effort! look like for viva preparation?”

Would it be…

  • …checking every paper your examiners had ever published, learning them by heart?
  • …having a mock viva, a mock-mock-viva plus weekly status update and chapter breakdown meetings with your supervisor?
  • …preparing answers to every question you could think of?
  • …putting Post-it Notes everywhere in your thesis?
  • …reading your thesis until you can see it with your eyes closed?
  • …optimising everything you can think of to fine-tune your confidence?

Erm, yeah, probably.

But do you need to do all of that?

No. Not at all. Check out your examiners’ work, have a mock if it will help and practise answering unexpected questions. Annotate your thesis in a useful way, read and check it so you have a good mental picture and do what you can to be your best on the day.

You don’t need to make a Maximum Effort! for the viva when you’ve come as far as you have already.


As you get to the end of your PhD you might have some questions without answers. That doesn’t mean you’ve missed something. Three, four or seven years is a long time, but it’s still a finite period. You might not have been able to cover everything you wanted to.

Examiners can still be interested, and it’s likely that you are too. Make a list for your own benefit. Keep it clear. What’s your question and what got in the way of answering it?

The Four Elements

There are four elements of practical viva preparation, four key modes of activity to pay attention to:

  • Thinking: specifically, reflecting on your work, how you did it, what it means.
  • Reading: your whole thesis, carefully, and any papers that you need to remind yourself about.
  • Writing: adding annotations to your thesis and creating summaries of your work.
  • Talking: making and using opportunities to practise answering questions about your thesis.

None of them requires you to learn radically new skills. Investing time in these areas will be rewarded by your increased confidence as the viva comes around. There are lots of things that you can do in each of these areas:

  • Thinking: use a questions list; explore your contribution; reflect on why your thesis matters.
  • Reading: don’t skim the first read-through; look for vague passages; target the good and bad.
  • Writing: make important parts stand out; write overviews of your chapters; find new ways to explain things.
  • Talking: talk to friends; have a mock viva; give a seminar and take questions.

You might not have done any of these things during your PhD, but you can do all of them. You only have to find expressions of the four elements to match your personal preferences: for example, not everyone will want a mock viva, but every candidate will benefit from practise through answering questions.

Find ways to think, read, write and talk that build confidence for your viva.