The Greatest Worry

I’ve thought a lot about what candidates have told me for the last ten years. I’ve been in a fortunate position to meet many thousands of postgraduate researchers, and to help them get through various stages of their PhD. And when you listen for long enough you notice patterns. Sometimes it’s the things that are said often but sometimes it’s how things are said.

And I think I know what the greatest worry of postgraduate researchers is as they get closer to the viva.

It’s not that examiners won’t like their work.

It’s not that the thesis will be somehow incomplete.

And it’s not that they will go blank or have to say “I don’t know” to a question.

The greatest worry is that they will get to the viva and discover that they are not who they think they are.

They will find out that they are not talented. They will find in that moment that they are not as clever, as quick or as resourceful as they had hoped. They will find out that they are not as knowledgeable as they thought they were. This doubt can be held quite deeply within; the fear, the worry that you are not as good, as clever, as confident as you think.

This kind of self-doubt can be hard to beat. I think a solution can be found though in questions and reflection. If you’re doubting yourself at all before the viva then start with these two questions:

  • How else could you have got this far?
  • What can you point to in your research that’s great?

The first question is needed to start to unpick doubt. Doing a PhD is hard. While you can be fortunate you can’t just be lucky. You can’t get to submission and the viva by chance alone. There’s no other explanation other than you must have worked for it. That work must have produced something. The second question is useful to start exploring just what that might be. If you list the great things that have come out of your research you can start to believe that you’re great too.

Self-doubt can be a hard problem, but it’s not intractable.

Rather than beat away your fear it might be better to build up your bravery instead.


Picture two friends: the first has just passed their viva, the second is trying to unpick what happened…

…I was really lucky with the questions-

-lucky? Why, were they easy?

Well… No, they were pretty challenging in places. I was lucky because I knew how to answer them well.

Lucky? The answers just came to you?

…noooo, they were things I’d considered before. Or I could figure them out. They were tricky, but I could deal with them. I guess it’s lucky my examiners decided to ask those particular questions.

There’s that word again! Lucky? Did they just use a big list of random questions? Was it super-lucky that those were the ones they picked off the list?

OK, I see what you’re saying! My thesis will have guided them a bit-

-“a bit”?!

…I don’t know! What do you want me to say?!

Your thesis didn’t just happen! None of it’s “luck”! You did this!

I know, I know. I get what you’re saying… I still feel lucky!

…did you get corrections?


Do you accept responsibility for them?

Of course!

Then accept responsibility for the rest too!

It’s not luck that did your PhD or helped you through the viva.

Accept responsibility.


Compare your experience and knowledge to your examiners and you might feel pretty small. They’ve had longer to see more, learn more, do more and know more. A candidate could easily worry as a result.

But more is not the same as better. Yes, your examiners know more in general, but you know more specifically. They could have a better view of the big picture, but you have a clearer perspective of your research.

Remember: your examiners have read your thesis, but you made it.

Behind The Curtain

In The Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy’s friends all thought they were missing something.

The Scarecrow didn’t have a brain, the Tin Man lacked a heart and the Lion had no courage. Dorothy takes them to see the Wizard, thinking that a great and powerful man like him will be able to give them the qualities they lack. Ultimately though, he shows them there is nothing he can give that they didn’t already have. All he gives them are symbols that recognise what was there.

Those qualities were there because they had the opportunity to show them through their adventures. They had to do something to demonstrate their intelligence, their love, their bravery, but after years of doubt they couldn’t see they had those qualities. They had to have the symbol and someone to point it out to them.

There are two Wizards in your viva. They can’t magically give you a PhD. Their questions give you the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do, something that you’ve been doing for a long time.

The curtain is pulled back and the truth is there. There’s no magic, but that’s no problem. You already have everything you need.

Fate Accomplished

“What determines your fate in the viva?” is one of the more unusual questions I’ve been asked in seminars.

  • Could it be your topic? Perhaps you need to choose something that resonates with your examiners and others.
  • In which case, could it be your examiners? Maybe you need the “right” ones to listen to you, read your work and ask the “right” questions.
  • So maybe the biggest element is your supervisors? Their mentoring helps develop you and your thesis over many years.
  • But then surely it has to be your thesis, right? A great thesis means you’ve shown yourself in a good light.

The common factor is you. You undertook the topic, you wrote your thesis, you worked with you supervisor and you’ll answer your examiners in the viva. It might be overreaching to claim you determine your fate in the viva, but you’re definitely the biggest factor of your own success.

(Apologies for the title! It just jumped out at me!)

1345 Days

That’s how long my PhD was, from the day I started to the day I had my viva. 1345 days is just over three and a half years. That’s a long time! I didn’t work every day. I took holidays, I had breaks, but still a large part of those 1345 days involved going to the office and working.

And thinking about my work on the train.

And in the gym.

In the shower.

While eating my breakfast, or watching TV.

1345 days might be longer than your PhD; it could be shorter in some cases.

But no-one gets to the viva without putting the hours in. No-one finishes a good thesis without working for it.

A thousand and more days really prepares you for the hundred or so minutes you defend your thesis.

New Year, Old You

What are your resolutions? What are you changing? In particular, what efforts are you going to make to ready for your viva?

Change can be good, but it’s worth asking whether or not you need to change in the first place. Do you really need to make big changes to get ready for your viva? Do you need to give everything 110%?

Maybe you don’t need a New You.

You’ve not got this far by accident. Old You is up to the task.

Good Luck Charms

If it helps, why wouldn’t you have something lucky with you in the viva?

My good day socks were a story I told myself for years – “wear these socks and it will be a good day” – my viva, difficult meetings, the first time I ran workshops. There were so many situations where it made me feel better. I know people who wore a particular outfit to the viva because it was like armour to them, or a superhero costume. It added that extra something that helps them to feel better.

If you tell yourself the story that these clothes, this teddy, this piece of jewellery or whatever will help then you make sure to have them.

But it’s only a story – and there’s another one nearly reaching a conclusion.

You showed up. And kept showing up. You did the work and you did it well. You’ve written a thesis, and know your stuff. It’s not make-believe.

A few years ago I stopped telling myself the story of my good day socks, because I didn’t need it any more. If you do, that’s fine: good luck charms can help and help is good.

But don’t forget the other story: you did the work and you did it well. You can do well in the viva too.