Red Herrings

I love reading mystery stories. One of my favourite things is trying to figure out which clues are red herrings. What are the distractions? Which things don’t matter? What gets in the way of important things? It’s not always so easy to see.

It’s not always easy to see which things around the viva are red herrings either. Which things are distractions, and which things should you give attention to?

Hypotheticals are usually not worth your focus; reading your thesis is definitely something to prioritise. You can’t anticipate every question, it’s a distraction to try to – but a mock viva is worth your time so you have some practise at being in a viva-like situation. You can’t know how long your viva will be, so it’s not worth worrying about it; but you can find out about expectations generally to give you an idea.

Remember: you get to choose what you give your attention to. Figure out what the red herrings are, and focus instead on what’s worth your time.


In the viva, as with the rest of your PhD and life in general, there are things you can control and things you can’t.

You can control what goes into your final thesis, but you can’t control what your examiners think of it.

You can control how much you know about your research and your field, but you can’t control what questions come up.

You can control what you do to feel confident, but you can’t get rid of nervousness completely.

You control the actions you take. Focus on what you can do to be prepared, not on things which are beyond your control.

Me, Chocolate and Books

Boxes of bite-size chocolate frustrate me. I eat the treats I love first, Twixes and Twirls, then days later I open to find that all I have left are so-so Milky Ways and Mars… Finally I’m left with Bounty and Snickers that I won’t eat at all.

I look at my bookshelves and see similar behaviour. I look at my stacks of unread books and go for what attracts me most, or for a book I know I’ve enjoyed before. I push to the back of the queue any books that seem too big, too boring or just not right. I’ve had books on personal improvement, award-winning novels and sci-fi escapes in my library for years and always pushed them away. “I’ll get to them one day.” I go for the fun or the familiar. Save the rest for later.

If you’re preparing for your viva then it’s OK to focus on things you like about your research. You can make notes on things that are most rewarding or fulfilling to you. You can prepare for the questions or topics that you like most.

It’s your choice, but all of the other stuff is still there. Just because you don’t look at it, doesn’t mean that your examiners will avoid it too.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You might do the tricky stuff first, or you might set a particular time in your diary to look at it. But you have to do something.

You can’t always just have the fun stuff.

(having said all this, chocolate and books generally are fun and make excellent post-viva presents and rewards!)