Holding On

At the start of a new academic year I’m reminded of how much my life has changed over the last few years; while for the most part I am very happy with where I am now, I still remember vividly how sharp and how stark things have been at times.

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances – and while it doesn’t have to be dire to be difficult it helps to reflect a little and remember how you have made it through.

If you have survived this far that means you kept going. How? What did you do through your PhD to make it so far when things have been so tough? What have you learned about yourself? How did you adapt?

As your viva comes closer, whatever else you feel, remember that you persisted. Whatever bad times you’ve had, you held on, you made it through. You were determined, often enough, to get to the end. How did you hold on? And what you can do now to keep holding on until your viva is done?


Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances. In some ways I feel like this is quite a mundane definition, almost boring: it doesn’t capture the flavour of what people tend to think about survival. Over time we have skewed survive to only mean situations where life is threatened and nearly all hope is lost.

Survive implies, I think, a challenge that is being worked through. It feels like the best verb to describe the kind of challenge being overcome in the PhD viva: it’s not a new challenge, it’s not impossible, it’s not supposed to be a struggle. It applies to the PhD as well, of course, though the challenge is bigger, for longer and can take many forms.

Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances sometimes doesn’t capture the nuance of the difficulty or the challenge. It doesn’t account for how someone might feel about their PhD or viva. It’s still the best verb I can think of for describing how someone can engage with the circumstances of their viva.

Keep Going

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

I often tell candidates that getting ready for the viva could be summarised simply as “keep going”. If someone has got to submission they must be talented, knowledgeable and determined. Whatever challenges they’ve faced they have done enough: if they keep going then they will succeed at the viva.

Hence, one could simply offer advice on viva prep as “keep going”.


This advice doesn’t mean “just keep going without finding out more about the viva”.

It doesn’t mean “keep going even if you’re worried or anxious”.

You can’t simply “keep going” if you are overstretched or overwhelmed.

And I’m definitely not suggesting that anyone “keep going” alone when they need support.

Keep going is an encouragement: “Keep going because you made it this far.” If your situation now is such that you need help, support, advice, direction then ask for it. Find help and then carry on.

The Viva Challenge

The viva is a challenge because you don’t know what will happen.

It’s a challenge because you don’t know what your examiners think.

It’s a challenge despite the vast majority of candidates passing.

It’s a challenge because the outcome matters.

It’s a challenge even though you have the right skillset and knowledge base to succeed.

It’s a challenge even knowing that it all springs from your work and research.

Perhaps the best thing you can do is simply accept the challenge. Remember that you have done well and done enough in the past. Believe that you can succeed again.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Confidence

I finished my look back over favourite posts last year with the theme of “surviving” – a break with several years of tradition.

2020 was a hard year, 2021 has continued to be challenging, but it feels right to come back to confidence. Confidence makes a real difference for the viva and how a candidate engages with it. Here are some thoughts from this year:

  • Confident or Arrogant – the difference between the two. (it’s a big difference!)
  • The Basics – a lack of confidence for the viva sometimes comes, very simply, from not having a good picture of what the viva is like.
  • A Few Thoughts On Survive – while confidence is the theme for today, it feels appropriate to share a few thoughts on this too.
  • Clearing Out Viva Doubts – confidence blossoms when we remove doubts.
  • Be Brave – a little extra step you might need to take.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances”. If you’ve made it through the last few years and your viva is some time in 2022 then you can be confident that you can rise to the challenge.

If you have managed to keep going so far, you can continue. You’ve not come this far by being merely lucky.

Keep going.

Survive Sounds Scary

We hear survive and think of tragedy. Desperate situations. Almost impossible and yet somehow someone makes it through. Of course, given those associations, survive sounds scary.

Survive sounds scary but survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

Survive sounds scary but it doesn’t have to be life and death. It could be much less serious.

It could be difficult to meet with your examiners. All you feel about your work. All you’ve done. The anticipation and the nervousness making you uncomfortable.

But how difficult has your PhD been already? You’re still here. You survived. You managed to keep going in difficult circumstances.

Survive sounds scary. For the viva the simple thing to hold in your mind is you need to keep going.

For The Hundredth Time

It might take a lot of re-reading to remember something that you need to know. On the morning of my viva I knocked on my supervisor’s door to check the definition of something I had been using in my work for over two years. I tried and tried but it just wouldn’t stick.

It’s not trivial to build up a mental model of the knowledge you need for your research. What’s harder is building up the certainty and confidence that you are good enough, that you’ve done enough. You might need to repeat that over and over to yourself. You might have to reflect and review and consider many times to see that you’ve done enough.

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances. If you get to submission, if you’ve got this far, then you’ve got through enough to show you can succeed in the viva.

For the hundredth time: if you’ve got this far then keep going.

A Few Thoughts on Survive

After many years of working in this area I still think survive is the best verb to associate with the viva.

Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

Survive doesn’t mean it’s going to be a struggle, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be hard.

Difficult is different for everyone. Manage might be harder or easier. Survive doesn’t come automatically.

The difficulty of the viva might be found in different things for different people.

Survive doesn’t mean you might not thrive in the viva. Survive doesn’t mean you will be scarred by the experience. Survive has a positive aspect for you: whatever the difficulty, whatever you did, you kept going.

Surviving doesn’t automatically mean the circumstances were bad. They were difficult. They were a challenge.

Not so great that you could not keep going.

Before and After Submission

Before submission focus on getting your research completed and your thesis finished.

After submission focus on getting your confidence raised for the viva through a little preparation.


Before submission you don’t need to prepare for your viva.

After submission you don’t need to second-guess and nitpick details in your work.


Before submission you’re on track to pass your viva.

After submission you’re on track to pass your viva.


The definition of survive is manage to keep going in difficult circumstances. It applies to the whole PhD as much as it does to the viva.


Before submission? Keep going.

After submission? Keep going.


If ever you’re tempted, by a hard day or a tough moment in your PhD to say one of the following, remember to add the word “yet”:

  • I haven’t got it to work…
  • I haven’t figured it out…
  • I’ve not submitted my thesis…
  • I’m not ready for my viva…

“Yet” is a reminder – you can do this, you want to do this, there’s time to do this – and even a promise, I will do this.

You might not be there yet, you might not be ready yet, but you will be.

There’s time. Keep going.


(inspired by countless posts and podcasts by the always-inspiring Seth Godin)