Make A Timeline

Go back through your calendars, diaries, lab books, log books and records for the last few years of your PhD. Your memory can trick you sometimes. Sometimes you can forget what you did when – or even what you did at all.

Map out the years of your research. When did you ask that question? When did you complete that project? When did you give that great presentation? When did you find yourself becoming talented at something?

Mark it all down. By doing it you’ll help yourself in two ways. First, you’ll have explored more detail that you can share with your examiners in the viva. This will help you answer questions and engage in discussion.

Second, and in my opinion, more importantly, you’ll see just how far you’ve come. You’ll see the story of your talent: this is you. This didn’t just happen. You did this. You made all of this happen. You’ve had success. And you can continue that success in your viva.

Five Minutes

To prepare for your viva you need time. A significant number of candidates may have a job or be applying for one when the viva comes around. Time is always a precious resource, but can feel quite pressured for some. While it’s still important to organise and have a decent amount of space to think, there are some valuable ways you can use small blocks of time in preparation for your viva.

  • Tidy your workspace.
  • Make a list of bigger tasks you need to do.
  • Write a 100-word summary of a chapter.
  • Make a list of papers you need to review.
  • Message someone to tell them how you’re doing.
  • Listen to a song that helps you to feel happy.
  • Write down what you’re going to do next and why that’s going to help.

Viva prep takes time, usually in blocks of more than five minutes, but little things add up. With five minutes you can make something to help yourself, setup future progress or prime yourself for the next big task.

What could you do?

My Good Day Socks

I’ve noted before that I wore a pair of my “good day socks” to the viva. There’s no magic involved, just a little boost. An association I’d built up in my mind with particular socks and the state of “having a good day”.

I’d done the work, read my thesis, made notes, met with my supervisor and more. I was as ready as I could be for the viva.

So on they went: cushioned, comfortable, secret pattern hidden at my toes and heels. It put a smile on my face and stilled the wings of one of the butterflies in my stomach.

A little boost.

When you’ve done the work, when you’ve read your thesis, when you’ve made your notes and met with your supervisor – what else can give you that little boost in confidence?

Is it silly? Does that matter?

Postscript: For the longest time I had three or four pairs of good day socks and all of my other socks were normal. One day it struck me… If I had more pairs of good day socks, then every day could be a good day! Or rather, I could prime myself every day to think of the day ahead as a good day. Socks, songs, routines, whatever makes a difference. For the viva or everyday, what could make that difference to you?


A pat on the back. A thumbs up. “Good luck.” Motivation, encouragement and reinforcement come in many forms. Sometimes you have to look to your memory and your experience. The words you choose to use can help prime you for confidence.

As the viva gets closer, try these phrases out and see if they help:

  • I did the research and wrote the thesis: I can do this.
  • I’m the expert in the room.
  • I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m ready.
  • Per Scientiam Ad Meliora.

It’s a reminder, not magic. What words could prime you to be at your best?

Fear Doesn’t Matter

It’s alright to be anxious or afraid of the viva. Maybe you feel it, maybe you don’t; maybe a little, maybe a lot. It could be specific or vague, keep you awake with “what ifs” or sound asleep with uneasy dreams.

Do nothing and let it fester, or explore why you’re afraid and figure out what to do about it. Viva fear is a sign you recognise the viva is important. Once you figure out the root of your fear you can do something to help.

Fear doesn’t matter; your actions do.


Werewolves can be taken out with silver bullets. Vampires fear garlic and the sun. To kill a zombie you go for the brain. Scary things all have weak spots.

Scared of the viva? What scares you? What can you do about it?

Confidence can be built. Answers can be found. Read more, think more, learn more, talk more.

Applying the same talents you’ve built up during your PhD can make the viva seem less daunting.

Work Past Worry

I think most people feel nervous before the viva. That’s normal. But feeling nervous is different from feeling worried. Feeling nervous is a signal you know something is important. Feeling worried is like an investment in fear. What can you do?

  • Ask yourself why to figure out the root of the worry. Reading your thesis won’t help unless the worry is all about being sure you know your stuff. Even then, by asking why you could trigger an idea that will help more than just reading.
  • Make a plan for yourself. Sit down and at a minimum write down three things you can do to be better prepared. Now write down when you’re going to do them.
  • Think about situations where you’ve felt in control, when you’ve felt confidence. What were the circumstances? Can you recreate some of them now to damp down your worries?

Worry won’t help. Your response to it might.

Find Confidence

There’s a great TED talk from five years ago by Amy Cuddy. In it she describes how adopting certain kinds of physical poses can influence how people feel. The shorthand sometimes used is “power-posing,” an archetypal pose of confidence, a display that shows power. Research at the time suggested that adopting certain poses made people feel more confident, and also made people they were interacting with judge them to be more confident.

In the intervening five years there have been attempts to replicate the study or to look more deeply into the subject; they’ve raised questions, and that’s what science is supposed to do. But the core is still there: adopting physical poses can change how confident you are.

Now, I’m not writing today to say “pose like a superhero and you’ll feel awesome in the viva!” My main takeaway is a thought that has been in my mind for some time now, and which I’ve explored on the blog before. Confidence is not about hope: it’s not something you have or don’t, it’s not something mercurial that just comes and goes and you don’t know why.

There will be lots of things that trigger you in one way or another when it comes to how confident you feel. I think that for the viva you owe it to yourself, if you’re worried at all, to invest a little time exploring what could make a difference to how you feel. What can you do to make yourself more confident? For you it may not be about expansive physical stance, but there will be some conditions that help you more than others. Find them. Use them.


During my PhD, I used to pray for a lectern whenever I gave a talk. I could hide a bit that way. It’s not that I didn’t want to share my research: I would simply feel too nervous. Feeling nervous felt bad. My knees would knock as I stood up, my cheeks would flush and my voice would quaver. I’m tall; when my knees shake, my whole body shakes. All I could think was, “I hope I’m not nervous, I hope no-one will see.”

I had grown to build up a strong association with important events and nerves: Something big coming up? Feel nervous Nathan!

I wasn’t nervous for my viva, although there was a lot of the same background feelings. I felt prepared for my viva, and perhaps knowing it was a small audience helped to limit my nerves and how I felt.

I’ve kind of reversed it now though: Feeling a bit nervous? It must be important then!

With that connection I can help myself to not feel overcome. It only came from experience and time: I stood up a lot more and paid attention to what happened and how I felt. If your viva is coming up and you feel nervous, there may not be time to change your perspective completely. But maybe you can plant a seed in your mind: “I feel nervous, so this is important.” What are you going to do?


Fake It ‘Til You Make It?

I love Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, the web series by Jerry Seinfeld where he interviews comedians in ca- well, you probably get the idea. One of my favourite episodes is with Steve Martin. It’s funny and well worth a watch, and his book Born Standing Up is also really great. In the episode, he describes how in his early career he made a conscious decision to “fake confidence.” He wanted his audience to think he was happy and at ease with what he was doing.

Seinfeld asks how that is any different from actually being confident, because presumably the output of confidence or faking confidence is the same – people think you are!

“Fake it ’til you make it!” I see this advice a lot. Show confidence even if you don’t feel it. Don’t let them see fear. But that kind of pressure can take a toll. If the output of faking and being confident – assuming that you can successfully fake it – is the perception of confidence… wouldn’t it be better to work on being confident? If someone feels nervous or uncertain, and if that goes so far as to knock their confidence, it would be so much more rewarding to do something to build confidence back up rather than try to fake it.

When it comes to the viva, I hope that every candidate feels confident – which doesn’t mean that they won’t feel nervous, they could still have some anxieties. To my mind there are three areas in particular that any viva candidate can feel confident about:

  • They can feel confident in their work, which has taken time to develop.
  • They can feel confident about the choices they’ve made, and if they have to, can explain them.
  • They can feel confident in their talents, their competence, their abilities as a researcher – things which have necessarily developed over the course of research.

If you’re near the end of your PhD, viva just around the corner, it’s OK to feel nervous – but it’s right to be able to look at yourself and everything you’ve done to get there and feel confident in your achievements. You didn’t just stumble upon the end of your PhD.

When it comes to the viva, it’s not fake it ’til you make it: you’ve made it.