Little Lists

Annotating your thesis as part of viva prep is useful: it creates a better resource to be consulted during the viva and also focusses your attention while getting ready. You have to engage again and again to add value by underlining, highlighting and making notes in the margin. There’s plenty of space to add details but it helps to be concise and clear.

A specific, short idea for today then. Write a little list at the start of each chapter; five bullet points to capture something of the pages that follow:

  • A one-sentence summary.
  • The key takeaway of the chapter.
  • A reference that really supports the work.
  • A question to remember or reflect on.
  • Something you learned while doing the research.

A micro-review of each chapter will help sharpen your thinking while you get ready for the viva and continue to support you when you meet your examiners. Invest a little time in some little lists.

Good Viva Prep

At submission, if not before, take a little time to sketch a simple plan for getting ready for the viva.

When will you start? What do you need to do? Who do you need to ask for support?

As you ask and reflect on these questions you’ll realise changes or missing details. If you have a big thesis maybe you need to start reading it sooner. If you need more practise then you can make better arrangements with your supervisor or friends.

Sketch a plan, because it will help you to get organised – you can always make changes to it too! It can be hard to simply react if things change when your whole plan for prep is “just wing it”.

Good viva prep starts with a plan: you know what you need to do, when you need to do it and who will be there supporting you.

Side Quests

I love a good open world video game.

They often feature a big map to explore, an interesting story and characters to follow, missions to complete, a character to develop and more. What I like most of all is a world to fall into that’s different from our own.

Another common feature of these sorts of games is side quests: optional, shorter storylines that aren’t essential for completing the main game. If in the main story you’re hunting for clues or tracking down a villain, a side quest might involve simply helping someone out or collecting something you need.

Side quests also bestow rewards: more experience points to level up your character, a benefit that’s unobtainable somewhere else in the game or sometimes just a satisfying piece of the story or detail about the world.

Take some time to consider the side quests of your PhD journey as you prepare for your viva:

  • When have you productively diverted from the main path of your research?
  • How did that help you and what did you learn?
  • What have been the most rewarding times you’ve had during your PhD years?

The real world isn’t always like video games. We can’t see XP numbers. We can’t naturally apply stat boosts or perks. We have to reflect. We have to look back and see.

While you will have progressed through the main track of your PhD journey, you will have also benefitted from the side quests you’ve been on. In preparation for your viva, take some time to realise how you’ve got to where you are now.

What You Need

You need to feel prepared and confident for your viva.

What does that mean for you? I don’t know.

I can make some guesses:

  • You might feel you need to read your thesis a lot, so it sticks in your mind.
  • You might need to know about your examiners, to feel happy with who they are and what (you think) they might ask.
  • You might need to make a lot of notes, read a lot of papers or have a mock viva.
  • You might need to read the regulations or you might simply need to ask a few friends about their vivas.

You will need particular things to feel prepared and confident for your viva. You are the only person who can figure out what practical things will help you feel that way.

Presenting Helps

Two words I wish someone had shared with me over my PhD journey.

Presenting helps in so many ways to build someone up – both for the challenges of doing a PhD, succeeding in the viva and being more ready for life afterwards.

Presenting helps because it makes you think of your audience. To communicate you have to think about who they are, what they want and what they need from you.

Presenting helps because it encourages you to be clear. You have to really think about your message, how you express it, how you structure it and so on. This can be a real benefit for writing, for thinking and for asking questions.

Presenting helps because it makes the presenter nervous – of course, that’s not always a comfortable thing! It helps because, if you take some time, you realise that nervousness is related to the importance of what you’re saying. You have something valuable to share.

Presenting helps because it’s an iterative learning process: there’s always something to learn, something you can take away for the next time.

Presenting throughout the PhD can help you a lot. Presenting as part of viva preparation can be really useful to help explore the words you use to explain your research – and to clarify what makes your work valuable.

Describe The Ideal

How would you describe an ideal examiner for your viva?

Think about the qualities or attributes that they might have. Describe their research.

There might not be an individual you know of who meets these criteria. It may be close though: someone who satisfies three or four out of five points you might write down.

Now, what could you do to share this idea with your supervisor? You can’t choose your examiners, you can’t find perfection, but can you find someone close to the ideal you have in mind?

Pace Your Prep

Viva prep is not the kind of work that has to be compacted into a short period of time. It can be done that way, but is probably far better to give yourself space and time to think.

Explore your situation and consider: when will you do the work? How will you do it? Where will you do it? How often will you sit down to read your thesis and when will you begin?

You can pace yourself. An hour a day. Five days a week. Four weeks. That could be enough to be ready.

Of course, you might want to take an afternoon off to do a big concentrated burst of work; you might need a few hours in a row to take advantage of a mock viva opportunity.

Pace yourself in a way that works for you. Find the space in your schedule when you can do the work and not stress yourself. Do the work in a way that doesn’t add too much to an already busy schedule.

A Thesis Makeover

Between submission and the viva you have an opportunity to give your thesis a makeover. Of course, it’s great as it is, but for a special occasion doesn’t it deserve a chance to really shine?

  • You can spruce it up with short sentences in the margins to draw out key points.
  • Why not add highlighter to make key information stand out?
  • Accessorise your thesis contribution with bookmarks or Post-it Notes!

Choose your style of makeover, and create something that really works for you. There’s no right or wrong way: you have an opportunity to make your thesis more fabulous – more useful for you – for the day of your viva.

Make information stand out or easier to find. Give your thesis a makeover to make your thesis better for the viva.

Suddenly September

Where does the time go?! Just like that autumn is around the corner, Christmas is really not that far away when you think about it and 2023 is within shouting distance!

Of course, there’s no suddenly about it. Day by day we move forward, the weeks pass, the months go by and then we’re at another mark on the calendar.

Little by little we “suddenly” find ourselves at September.


It’s helpful to keep this in mind for your viva too.

It doesn’t suddenly appear. You’re not going to suddenly be surprised by it.

It may feel like you’re all of a sudden at the viva – where did the last few years go?! – but it really is the case that you’ve worked your way to that place over a long period of time.

Day by day you work on your PhD. Week by week you find new things. Month by month you get better. Year by year you make something that sets you apart.

A Score For Ready

A little bit of fun to help you think about getting ready for the viva.

Think about each of the following statements and give yourself a score from 1 to 10 depending on how well you agree with them (1 being that you don’t agree with it and 10 representing total agreement):

  • “I feel like I know my research and my thesis pretty well.”
  • “I know what to expect from a viva.”
  • “I have taken time to annotate my thesis well.”
  • “I feel confident about my examiners and who they are.”
  • “I have rehearsed for the viva enough.”
  • “I feel confident about meeting my examiners.”

Now reflect on the scores you’ve given. Think a score is low? Well, what can you do about that? What will you do about that? Who could help you? When will you take the next step?

Think a score is about right for you and your situation? Why? What evidence supports that? Is there anything else you could do to help?

Numbers can help you move yourself closer to being ready.

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