Three Whats

I work on experiential learning workshops several times a year. “Three Whats” is one of the techniques we use to get participants reflecting. Typically we’d use them in sequence to encourage reflection after an activity or task:

  • What just happened?
  • So what does that mean?
  • Now what are you going to do?

The timescales are different, but these are also worth answering at the end of the PhD. Everyone will have different answers. Maybe once you have them you can see some other paths ahead of you.

Maybe you’ll look at the road behind you differently too.


I sometimes think viva preparation is like renovating a house.

Annotating your thesis is like hanging wallpaper. Making a summary is like knocking a wall through to let in more light. A mock viva could be repairing the roof, making sure the house is ready in case of a storm.

None of it helps if you don’t have a good house and foundations: your thesis and the research you’ve done to get you there.

Renovation takes time. Viva prep takes time too, but if you feel stretched because of work, because of life, then breathe. It’s OK. Do what you can, and remember you’ve done the hardest part of your PhD.

You laid strong foundations over years of work.

Best of Viva Survivors 2017: Reflections

I’m rounding 2017 off with five days of link sharing for five different areas I’ve posted on this year. Reflections is the catch-all category I have for posts which are when I’m pondering and musing over the viva. I spend a lot of time thinking about the viva and how to help people prepare for it, so it’s not all that surprising that this shows up.

There will be many, many more reflections from me on the blog in 2018. I hope that some of these have helped you think about what your viva will be like. See you here in 2018: tomorrow! 😀

Found another post that you think is awesome? Let me know! And please share my best of 2017 posts with anyone who might need them. Retweets are always welcome!

Best of Viva Survivors 2017: Short Posts

I’m rounding 2017 off with five days of link sharing for five different areas I’ve posted on this year. Today I’m sharing some of my favourite short posts. Sometimes I’ll have a thought and realise it doesn’t take many words to explain it. Others, it’s the beginning of something else I’ll come back to another time. In any case, all of the posts below are brief but helpful. I’ve provided a tiny excerpt from each post to give a taste!

These aren’t the only short posts on the blog. In 2018 I’m hoping to make time to go through and tag shorter posts so they become more searchable. Good idea?

Found another post that you think is awesome? Let me know! And please share my best of 2017 posts with anyone who might need them. Retweets are always welcome!

Best Laid Plans

The Three-Part PhD Plan!™

  1. Do a good piece of research;
  2. Write a good thesis;
  3. Be ready to answer questions in the viva.

All of these are achievable for a PhD candidate. There’s a lot more detail to The Three-Part PhD Plan!™, of course, but it can be done (and is, all the time).

But still most candidates get minor corrections, and obsess about getting them despite their best laid plans. They’d rather get none at all. Indeed, if you follow The Three-Part PhD Plan!™ how can you get any corrections?


  • …the word is “good,” not “perfect” – with best intentions you can make mistakes;
  • …writing a good thesis is non-trivial and you’re learning as you go – you can miss typos or have a structure that could be improved on;
  • …you’re clever, and talented, and well-read but you’re not omniscient – you can’t know everything or have considered everything in your field.

None of these are disqualifying, and none of these have to be massive ordeals to correct post-viva.

Aiming for minor corrections isn’t the right goal. Aim to do your best.

How do you do that? Check out The Three-Part PhD Plan!™

Eight Thoughts About Viva Stress

It’s normal to be a bit nervous about the viva. If you’re persistently feeling stressed as you approach the viva, you need to do something. Here are several ideas to help:

  1. Take a break. Step back from prep and do something you know helps you to relax.
  2. Reflect on how long you’ve been doing your PhD. You’ve not got this far by being lucky.
  3. Reflect on how short the viva is compared to how long you’ve been doing your PhD.
  4. When you can, gently read your thesis and focus on all of the good stuff to begin with.
  5. Visualise yourself crossing the stage at graduation. It’s not far away.
  6. Talk about it with someone you trust, someone who will listen before they offer advice.
  7. Write down exactly what is stressing for you about the viva. What can you do?
  8. Make a list of five things that help you to feel confident. Which of them can you do regularly between now and the viva?

Some people see stress as an endpoint. I try, not always successfully, to use it as a motivator: “I feel stressed. What do I need to do about that?”

Do you feel stressed about the viva? If so, what are you going to do about it?


We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK, but the act of being thankful is something that’s really had an impact on me in the last year. Taking time to step back and think, “What am I thankful for?” has helped a lot through difficult periods. It puts things in perspective and it helps to focus on the positive.

If the end of your PhD is approaching, what are you thankful for? When have you been fortunate? What ideas or theories have spurred you on? Who has helped you?

Remind yourself. Take time to take stock and be thankful.

Making The Cut

My thesis could be described as a collection of six chapters that all explored different niches in my field of maths. I have a couple of appendices that contain summaries of results and listings of computer code. It’s all self-contained and linked and good.

And still, nine years later, I have a folder with bits and pieces of at least three other chapters. Projects that didn’t end up getting finished. Ideas that fizzled out or didn’t come together. Every now and then I think, “What if…?” It would have been nice to adapt some of the techniques that I used to get one more result. It would have been cool to just push that bit further and classify one more type of mathematical object.

Except: there’s only so long to do a PhD. There’s only so much space in a thesis. There has to be some sense that Result A is worth more than Result B, that Potential Chapter X is a more powerful contribution than Potential Chapter Y. Your thesis is finite. You have to stop somewhere.

What doesn’t make the cut in your thesis?

Make a list of the half-projects and the maybes that didn’t quite make it. Make a list of the reasons why. Make a list of what you would need to do to take them further. Your examiners might not pick this thread up in the viva, but you’ll build up a good summary for yourself.

Leave it in a good enough state that one day you could pick it up and keep playing with it. If you’ve got plans to do this already, in your post-doc, in your spare time, that’s good. But if passing your PhD is your exit from academia, leave some notes just in case you want to explore later on.

You never know when inspiration will strike.

Presents To The Future

I used to be annoyed with past-Nathan all the time.

past-Nathan was the guy who covered papers with scrawl. past-Nathan was the guy who couldn’t organise his notes. past-Nathan filed things away in bizarre places so I couldn’t find things.

Then one day I remembered something from my undergraduate philosophy metaphysics course: somewhere, out there, there’s a future-Nathan for who I am past-Nathan. And I was annoyed with so many of my past-Nathans, but I want future-Nathan to think that I am cool!

Which leads me to ask: what do you want future-You to think of present-You? What can you do now to help viva-day-You?