How Much Is Enough?

It’s a good question to ask about a thesis or a PhD, but a hard one to answer. There are lots of possible factors.

  • How much does your supervisor think you need to do?
  • How much time can you spend?
  • How many chapters or words are people telling you that need to write?
  • How many experiments/interviews/papers/tests/models/observations/questions are you being told that you need to complete?

At the start of a PhD you might struggle to respond to the question of how much is enough. All of these factors, and lots more, could make it tricky to consider.

Nearer the end you can give a response and reasons: “This much, and here’s why.”

And the sooner you decide how much is enough, the sooner you’ll be able to work towards that goal.

What’s On Your Mind?

Probably a lot.

101 questions, about life, the state of the world, what you’ll be doing in six months, what you’ll be doing next year…

What’s for dinner, what will happen in that show I like, should I call so-and-so, what am I forgetting…

And then you think about your viva.

Now 1001 questions.

What will happen? What will they ask? What do I do? What can I say? What do I say if they ask about that question or topic or thing I don’t like? What should I do? What could I do? Will they like it? When will I know?

And at the root of it all: Am I ready? Am I good enough?

Don’t drown in questions. Get them out. Write them down. Tell someone. Ask someone to help. Ask someone for information or advice.

But at the root of it all: Are you ready? You can be. Are you good enough? You will be.

Slow & Steady

Don’t rush preparing for your viva.

You’re busy, of course. You’re stressed, at least a little, most probably.

You only have so much time and you want to make sure you’re ready.

Start sooner rather than later. Do what you can. A little each day will help.

A little reading. A little writing. A little thinking. A little talking. A little practice each day.

It all adds up.

For viva prep, slow and steady helps you be ready.

One More

Before submission, you could always…

  • …read one more paper.
  • …do one more test.
  • …ask one more question.
  • …check one more thing
  • …have one more meeting.

It won’t take much to prepare for the viva, but however much you do, you could always…

  • …read your thesis one more time.
  • …check one more paper by your external.
  • …have one more conversation with a friend.
  • …write one more summary.
  • …worry one more time about what you might be asked.

There’s always more you could do, at every stage of the PhD. You don’t necessarily need to do that though. Instead, think about where you are, and think about what enough means for that stage.

The viva is one more day you get to show up and show what you can do before you’re finished.

Make the most of it.

What You Can Do

You can write a good thesis.

You can make yourself prepared for your viva.

You can know what to expect from your examiners.

You can know what to expect from the viva.

You can learn about remote vivas, if that’s likely to be the scenario for your viva.

You can build your confidence to balance out your worries.

You can’t be perfect, but you can do your best.

You can be good enough for your viva.

Are You Ready?

There’s always a thought that you could do more.

  • One more experiment before you write up.
  • One more section before the chapter is done.
  • One more paper to check or question to answer before your viva.

Before you ask yourself if you’re ready, maybe ask if you’ve done enough.

Before you ask yourself if you’ve done enough, maybe define what enough would be.

Enough research, enough of a thesis, enough prep for the viva.

Decide on enough, so you can confidently answer “am I ready?” when the time comes.

Everything? or Enough?

Have you done everything you could for your research and thesis? It’s almost impossible!

Have you done enough for your research and thesis? Probably, since most candidates do!

It helps to define “enough” before you try to decide if you’ve achieved it.

Similarly, you can’t do everything in preparation for your viva, but you can do enough. Figure out where you have gaps, where you need support, where others can help you, then work your way to being ready. Decide in advance on what you need to do before you get to work.

You can’t do everything, you can do enough.

When Do You Stop?

I remember knocking on my supervisor’s office door thirty minutes before my viva to check a mathematical definition.

I know of people who took the day off before their viva and just relaxed.

Some candidates will be checking notes almost until they go into the viva room.

It helps, as with writing the thesis, to decide in advance what you are going to do. Make a decision about what “enough” preparation looks like. What are the tasks you will complete? What needs to get done? I would suggest allowing for a little relaxation time the day before to relax your mind; perhaps you can make a special plan to do something nice, if your schedule allows?

You can stop when you’re done, and you get to decide when that is. Make that decision. Otherwise you may just keep nervously doing more and more until you start the viva.

Don’t Know, Do Know

Candidates often worry about “what they don’t know” but frame it as a nebulous fear that waits out of the corner of their eye… What they don’t know is something that examiners do know, and examiners are looking to use that against them perhaps. What they don’t know is unpredictable, unclear and uncertain. That makes it something to be afraid of.

It can seem unclear, but I think we can examine this more clearly by contrasting what you don’t know with what you do know.

What You Don’t Know

  • Everything.
  • What your examiners think about your thesis.
  • What questions they want to ask.
  • What the outcome of your viva will be.

What You Do Know

  • Enough – you’ve read enough papers, done enough work, built up enough knowledge.
  • What you think of your work, what your supervisor thinks of it, what others have told you about it.
  • How to answer questions: you’ve built this talent up throughout your PhD.
  • What the most likely viva outcome is, and why that happens.

Seth Godin has truly timeless advice on this sort of thing: you get to choose which list you focus on.

In this case, the second one is much, much more useful.


I felt like I had done enough viva preparation when I went to bed on the evening of June 1st 2008. I’d read my thesis. I’d made notes. I’d dug out all of the papers I thought were useful. I had packed my bag – including two textbooks just in case – and rehearsed my slides for my presentation. I was ready. I had everything I needed. I’d had plenty of time to get to that point.

I’d even packed a bottle of water and two chocolate bars in my bag. Prepared.

The next morning, viva day, I got to the university and went straight to my supervisor’s office. Knock-knock, “Hugh, can I just check, when we talk about genus 2 handlebodies, they’re…”

If you keep thinking, if you keep going, you’ll always find more. More things to do. More questions to ask. More things to check up on with your supervisor.

Enough for me was being able to find things in my thesis, being sure of my proofs, being clear in my mind about the results I’d got – and having everything I thought I needed in my bag the night before.

What does enough look like for you? Think about it, make some decisions. Make a plan. Now you know what you have to do to get to “enough”.