No Shortcuts

There’s no secret path that takes you to the end of the PhD.

There’s no list of amazing tips that dodges all of the work involved.

You can’t hack your way past the necessary steps that got your thesis finished.

And that’s good.

All of the work you put into the PhD makes you amazingly qualified for your viva. There’s no way of doing the PhD without putting the hours in. All of those hours help you when you sit down to talk with your examiners.

Future Focus

It can be hard to look past the end of the PhD.

Try to imagine graduating. Picture crossing the stage at graduation, if it helps. Picture shaking the hand of someone distinguished. It’s a symbol that says you did it. That moment is months away perhaps, maybe longer, but it’s out there.

You’ll get there.

Imagine future opportunities (some you could be working towards now, even before you submit or have your viva). A job, a business, a series of projects or maybe even just a long-awaited break.

You’ll get there.

You just have to keep doing the work now.

A focus on the future can help make the present more hopeful. If you’re feeling stuck, if you’re unsure, if you’re bored, or even happy but only thinking about the viva or getting your thesis, then think about the future.

Think, I’ll get there; so what do I do now?


There are lots of things people think will have an impact on their viva or their prep. Here’s a partial list of factors people think could make a difference, for good or bad:

Your examiners. Your institution. The number or types of awards or results. Whether you were part-time or full-time. Home or international. Number of supervisors. Time spent on your PhD. Do you have a Masters? How long between submission and the viva? Will you have an independent chair? Have you cited your examiners? Number of references in your bibliography. Number of chapters in your thesis. Number of published papers during your PhD. Number of hours spent on prep. Will you have had a mock viva? Have you read a book about the viva? Did you go to a workshop about the viva?

I’m a mathematician and there’s part of me which would love to take all of these variables and make an equation. But there’s far too many. Lots of them could make a difference.

So why not focus instead on the constants? The things that are always there.

You did the work. You made the choices. You steered yourself. Your examiners are capable researchers, who know what they’re doing in the viva. You are a capable researcher by the time you submit, and have the time to prepare yourself for the viva.

Focus on the constants that hold true for everyone.

Step By Step

Any big project can be intimidating and viva prep is a big project. To do it well, like any project, you first have to look at the big picture, the main goal – but then dig into each step. What will you do first? What will you do last? How much is involved and how will you break that down between when you start and the viva? Focus on getting one task after another done. Do enough, step by step, and you’ll be on track.

The viva can also seem intimidating if you focus on passing the viva!!! instead of remembering to take it one question at a time. You don’t have to answer every question at the same time; you don’t have to answer every possible question that could come up (because not all of them will). Find opportunities before then to practise, use them well, and then take each question as it comes on the day.

Step by step you get to the pass.

Puzzles & Problems

During my PhD I became obsessed with certain kinds of puzzles. Killer sudoku is a variant on regular sudoku with different conditions on the grid. I would spend hours and hours playing them. I infected my friends with the killer sudoku bug. For a time we would compete to solve them, nothing but our honour and bragging rights at stake.

We discovered kakuro puzzles. We lost weeks of lunch breaks when a Scrabble clone was launched on Facebook. We turned our brains to becoming office champion. While I wouldn’t say I was champ, I still feel proud at earning 390 points in a two-player game once!

Puzzles are awesome. They teach the skills and processes to help solve problems. A PhD is a mix of puzzles and problems. In some cases you do things to practise a method or explore an already understood idea. Then later you apply what you know to something that’s a problem: something that’s believed to be true or which people think there is something interesting but which isn’t known for certain.

All of my play with killer sudoku and kakuro helped me. My mind raced faster looking for connections in my research. I used notation from puzzles to solve research problems. Bizarrely, playing a lot of Scrabble made it easier for me to focus on problems.

Puzzles and problems go hand in hand. When the viva comes around, you can take all you’ve learned in with you. All of the skill you amass from playing and exploring and researching. It doesn’t go away. It’s right there, a rich resource to draw on.

Think about all of the puzzles and problems you’ve encountered. With everything you do during a PhD, is it really that likely your examiners can find something that will be out of your reach?

Keep Doing The Work

The work is what gets you to submission. The work is important, even if you’re sick of it. The work matters. The work is a significant and original contribution to your field. The work didn’t just come from nowhere.

You did it.

When you submit, keep at it. Your focus changes but you’re not done. You have to check the work. You have to make sure you understand the work, and can explain the work. You have to defend the work. You can do all of this because it uses skills you already have.

Use what you know, use what you can do, and keep doing the work.