Do Less

Viva prep is less.

Less reading than when you were researching.

Less writing than when you were writing up.

Less thinking than when you were figuring things out.

The viva is a fraction of the time you’ll spend on getting ready, and viva prep is a vanishingly small period compared to the months you’ll put into your PhD. Perspective matters. You need to get ready for the viva, but the real work that helps you pass has already been done.

Ten 5-Minute Viva Prep Tasks

A half-hour or hour of viva prep doesn’t have to be spent with your eyes glued to the pages of your thesis. Yes, you need to read, and yes you need to spend time on slightly longer, considered tasks – but short activities can be useful too. A few five-minute tasks spread between longer pieces of work can add to your sense of being ready.

Small things add up. Here are ten ideas for five-minute viva prep tasks:

  1. Reflect on a key reference for your thesis and write a paragraph about why it helped your work.
  2. Think and write down three questions you’d like to ask your examiners (and make a note of why for each).
  3. Record yourself (either audio or video) responding to the question, “What are you most proud of in your research?”
  4. Write about a tricky challenge you overcame. Why was it tricky? How did you resolve the situation? What did that help you to do?
  5. Search through your thesis for five pages/points that are great; put a Post-it Note or bookmark with all of them so you can find them again with ease.
  6. Record yourself responding to the question, “What do you not know about the viva process that you think would help?”
  7. Click the random Viva Survivors post link five times to get five random pieces of advice/help/perspective!
  8. Record yourself responding to the question, “What do you hope your examiners ask you about?”
  9. Make a list of five things you could do on the days leading up to your viva to help you feel confident.
  10. Take five minutes to listen to or watch one of the recording tasks from above.

More time-intensive tasks are required to build up your preparation for the viva. Smaller tasks help too. Think about how you can use your time well to increase your readiness for your viva.

(and contrast with 1-minute viva prep tasks!)

Viva Prep & Focus

Viva preparation helps you to change focus from the kind of work needed to get you to submission to the work needed to get you through the viva.

Is it ready, how much more, did I tweak that change that get it right…

Rush and overtime, a few more days, got to get it done get it done get it done done done

Prep, and the viva, require a slower pace. Nerves or anxiety come from the viva being important: rushing, continuing to try and get everything “right” is only going to compound nerves.

Use your viva prep time to change your focus. Slow down. Take your time. Read your thesis, make some notes, practise a little, remind yourself of your accomplishments and abilities.

Change your focus from rush to ready.

Thoughts on Sustainable Prep

Getting ready for the viva is far more productive and beneficial if it’s done in a sustainable way.

  • Don’t sit down to get ready when you’re already tired.
  • Don’t sit down in a space that isn’t right for you, where prep is going to be a struggle.
  • Don’t leave it all to the last minute so that you have extra pressures.

You can’t exhaust your personal resources and work well in an environment that adds pressures to you. That’s no way to get ready.

  • How can you get ready at a time that works well for you? When might that be?
  • Where can you prepare well? What might you need to do to prepare that space?
  • How do you need to plan your preparation so that it’s not a rush? When do you need to start?

Prep will take anywhere from a few weeks to a month. Invest a little thought into how you are going to do that to look after yourself, as well as considering what exactly you will do to get ready.

The Control Room

You can’t control how long your viva will be. Or what question you’ll be asked first. Or what parts your examiners do or don’t like. Or how they express themselves or pose their questions to you.

You can’t control the flow of the viva. Knowing which questions commonly come up won’t mean you can control if they’ll be asked to you. You can’t control whether or not a response to a question will be satisfactory. You can’t control if your examiners agree with you on a methodological point. You can’t control whether or not they are going to ask that one question which you dread being asked.

But you can control how you prepare.

You can control what you do to get ready.

You can control how you start your viva day.

You can make choices to help lead you in the direction of confidence for your viva.

Three Prep Sketches

A period of viva prep could be lots of things depending on your circumstances. You might not be able to control your situation entirely, but the direction of your work can be chosen. You could decide to have:

  • A few busy days: many hours a day of reading, noting, reminding – emailing your supervisor – checking the regulations at the last minute, unsure and perhaps worrying over what your examiners might ask or do.
  • Two weeks of prep: an hour or two most evenings. Reading your thesis, making notes, a mock viva to be scheduled and had, and a bit of a chance to sit with your concerns and do something about them.
  • A month of small tasks for the most part: thirty minutes most days. A week to read your thesis, a week to make notes and check details. You already know the regulations before you start preparing. Plenty of space to reflect and do what needs to be done.

Three sketches, but you can probably tell by my word choice which I favour!

Of course, different situations can drive different needs. Your situation could require you to squeeze your prep into the few days leading to your viva. That said, if you can space out your prep over a month you can take your time to be sure you’re ready. You don’t need to over-stress because you’re doing the long, slow approach to your viva which leads to confidence – confidence through regular, deliberate actions that highlight your talent and your knowledge.

Be Kind To Yourself

Whenever you’re reading this, be kind to yourself when you’re getting ready for your viva.

Don’t settle for less than you’re capable of, but do be kind to yourself and have reasonable expectations for what you can do with all of the pressure, stress and disruption around you. Make reasonable demands on your time. Recognise that you need to take a break.

How are you going to do your best in your viva if you’re not kind to yourself?

The Pillow Fort Principle

How can you make a sanctuary for yourself before your viva? How can you make a nice space for preparing, or create an environment that is going to help you feel good as well as get ready? It probably won’t involve setting up cushions and a blanket, but the same idea applies: how can you make a safe, sheltered, secluded space that’s comfortable, quiet and just for you?

What do you need to help make this real?

How do you need your friends and family to support you?

How can you take a little pressure out of your situation to help you get ready for your viva?

I could make suggestions, but they wouldn’t be as good as your responses to these questions.

What kind of a viva prep space are you going to make for yourself?

A Few Thoughts On Feeling Ready

“Ready for the viva” doesn’t mean “not nervous about the viva”.

Ready doesn’t mean perfect in any way.

Ready and prepared aren’t quite the same thing – but they travel in the same car.

Ready for the viva means you’ve practically prepared and found some confidence for the day.

There’s always more that you could do to feel more ready, but a finite list of tasks is sufficient to get you ready.

Ready is personal. What does it mean for you?

Clear (To You)

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide…


A few weeks ago I was half-humming, half-singing Bohemian Rhapsody as I was tidying up.

“What’s that?!” asked my seven-year-old daughter.

I started singing the song properly. I stayed in tune. I know the words pretty well and thought I did a good job.

When I stopped, I waited for applause and appreciation.

My daughter said, “No, what was that? I don’t know that. Is it new? Or is it really old?”

She could hear all the words, catch the tune, see her dad making a bit of a fool of himself (that’s standard operating procedure), but was at a loss for trying to really get what she was listening to. She’d never heard Bohemian Rhapsody, was unfamiliar with that kind of song or style of music, and so all she got from my virtuoso performance was confusion.

Whereas I thought I was being very clear!


Consider, as you prepare for the viva, where you feel you’re clear – in your thinking, in your knowledge, in how you communicate your research – and explore what you could do both to check how clear you are and improve how clear you are. Share your research with friends and ask them about what they understand and what they want to know more about. It’s not enough that you get it: check that they get enough of what you’re trying to share.

You know a lot and can do a lot to have got this far through your PhD. Now check how clear you are when communicating with others – something you’ll have to do when you meet your examiners in the viva.


Any way the wind blows…