A Happy Accident

I started the daily blog five years ago today by publishing No Accident.

It was a short post to start an ongoing daily blog! I wanted to begin by exploring what gets a postgraduate researcher from the start to the end of their PhD. In the last line I clumsily expressed a simple truth about nerves and the viva:

It’s understandable if you are nervous, but it’s no accident that you’ve got this far. Keep going.

I meant that it wasn’t only luck. The outcome of a viva and a PhD doesn’t depend on an accident of any kind. A person can have good fortune but only when they do the work and that works out for them.

I’m sure many postgraduate researchers, even given the last two years or so, feel fortunate at times. They do an uncertain experiment that works out. A resource arrives when it is most needed. An opportunity you just seem to thankfully stumble into. A happy accident, maybe you are the right person in the right place at the right time, but still you have worked to put yourself in that place and time.

Over the last five years I have been very grateful for everything that writing this daily blog has brought my way, for all the things that I have stumbled into! I’m thankful for the funny looks from people who don’t get it; strange looks from people who do get it but think it’s kind of weird to do; grateful emails from people who have been helped by one or more posts.

I’m very thankful to Nathan-in-2017 for following the idea of a daily blog and for all other iterations of me over the last five years who kept going.

If you find yourself encountering a happy accident situation, recognise and remember the work that you’ve done. Be grateful when your hard work pays off.

Use all of that to keep going.

Four Years

That’s how long I’ve been writing this blog. Longer than I spent on my PhD!

I started with the following short post in 2017:

I’ve got a few questions for you: Did you do the work? Did you show up at the library or the lab or the office? Did you overcome obstacles through the tough times? Did you learn, did you grow, did you develop?

If you did all of these during your PhD, how could you be in a bad position for the viva?

It’s understandable if you are nervous, but it’s no accident that you’ve got this far. Keep going.

I’ve written about a lot of different aspects of the viva in the last four years, over 1400 posts, but this remains a core message of the blog. The final two words of that first post resonate personally, particularly given the last year or so.

Keep going. That’s my overall plan for this blog. I’m proud that Viva Survivors has reached so many people over the last four years, but equally happy that it’s had such an impact on me personally and professionally. I’ve been thrilled in the last twelve months to use this platform to reach out and share webinars. I’m looking forward to sharing more exciting things in the coming months.

If this is your first post or your hundredth, thank you for reading!

If your viva is coming soon, keep going. You’ll do it.

If your viva is behind you, keep going. There’s even better stuff ahead.

And again, thank you for reading 🙂

On Track

Even if this year has been bumpy, you’re still on track to succeed if you’ve submitted or are working to getting your thesis finished.

Being on track with your PhD means that you know where you’re going, even if you’re not quite sure how to get there. It means that you know you’ve got better – more skilled, more talented, more knowledgeable – and if you really reflect and review your progress you can see just how far you’ve come.

You’re on track because you’re still here, despite all of the problems, panics and frustrations that a PhD can throw at someone, despite all of the misery and pain that 2020 has brought up, you’re still here.

If you think there are any more bumps ahead, you can deal with them. Look ahead and plan if you need to, or wait for the moment to arrive and overcome as you’ve managed all of the other challenges of your doctorate.

You’re on track. Keep going.

Does The Viva Matter?


You won’t get your PhD without passing, so it matters.

It may be that your examiners have very few issues with your thesis, no problems to tackle, but they still have to have a good discussion with you. The PhD is for you – the thesis is part of the proof that you have hit a certain high standard. So while the thesis could be convincing, you have to be too.

You have to pass on the day, but you already have to have passed many other challenges. You have to pass, but really you have to already be able to pass to get to the viva.

The viva matters, but don’t forget the journey you’ve completed to get there.


Your viva happens at the right time, after you’ve had plenty of opportunities to do good work and become talented.

It happens in the right place – in a seminar room or online – but private, with space and time to fully engage.

It has the right process, rigorous expectations and fluid structure to allow for a valuable discussion.

The right people are involved, knowledgeable and experienced and who know what’s expected of them.

And the right person is there to be the focus, the only person who could be there.

A singular event like the viva is important, which tends to make those involved nervous, but that’s not bad. It’s just recognising the importance.

In short: right person, right place, right time.


Three Years On

Viva Survivors started in 2012 as a podcast, but since April 18th 2017 it’s been a daily blog. Apart from the odd day off for Christmas I’ve published a post every day for three years!

Too much has happened, particularly recently, for me to offer something super-reflective about over one thousand posts, my changing work and practice, and so on, without that post being over nine thousand words long. Instead, let me share the posts that have punctuated the last three years, the beginning and the first two anniversaries:

  • No Accident: the starting point for all of my Viva Survivors musings and one of the core principles for my approach in helping candidates. Simply, it’s impossible to get to submission and the viva “by accident” – you can’t be that lucky. You really have to work to get to submission, and that work carries you through the viva.
  • One Year Later: a short post reflecting on what I’d built up over the course of the first year of the daily blog. I wanted to create resources as well, and while I’ve not been as prolific as I would like, I’m really glad The tiny book of viva prep has been helpful!
  • The Culture Around Vivas: thinking a little about expectations, where they come from, but flipping that to think about candidates too. The more I think about it, the more I think the culture of the viva, candidates and academia more generally is something that could be dug into as a means of help.

Things have changed abruptly in the last few months. The jigsaw of my life has been scattered, and in the absence of a picture to guide me I’m trying to fit the pieces together as well as I can. I’ve found the edges. I can see spaces where some pieces can no longer go. I’m working slowly to find a new picture that fits.

I’m not there yet, but I’m trying. Writing and publishing this blog helps me do that. I hope it helps you too.

I’m very thankful for all the readers, long term and new, who find this blog, subscribe to this blog, share this blog, support this blog and who find something useful here. I’m going to keep writing; I hope you keep reading!

Keep going!


The Best Of The Best

It’s awards season. Great movies, shows, actors, directors, writers are all in competition. Five great people are up for this award, who will win?! Ten movies could all get that award – except, they can’t, only one can. Not just the best, but the best of the best.

Of course, PhD candidates don’t compete that way, not for their viva, not for their PhD, but language and mindset creep in.

You have to be better than good, better than great, you have to be perfect, you can’t make mistakes, you can’t go blank, you can’t slip up, you have to be better than anyone else!!!

To which I say, simply: no.

For the viva, for your PhD, you only have to be good. You have to be your best. Everything else is doubt and worry. We can’t sweep it away by saying “don’t worry.” You don’t have to focus on it either. Be your best. Be as good as you’ve become by the end of your PhD. Keep going.

And eventually, cross the stage and claim your prize.

Creation or Discovery

When I was a mathematician, some of my colleagues said maths research was like sculpture. A big block of stone was chipped away at until you had the art you were trying to make. You have to start with everything and keep working until you have the proof you wanted.

I was always fond of that analogy, and of the two philosophies that followed. One mathematician might say they were really creating the maths and results. Maths is an act of creation. Another mathematician would say the maths was already there, hidden, waiting to be revealed. In this way, maths is an act of discovery. I loved hearing different takes on this, and personally, when it comes to maths I’m on the side of discovery – the ideas are out there waiting to be found!

I’ve heard similar thoughts and feelings from people in other lines of research too. Often though, I notice people enthusiastically discussing this topic but missing something fundamental. Creation or discovery don’t happen by accident, only through work. Whether you create an equation or discover it, you do the work.

Whatever you have in your thesis, whatever kind of research you discuss in your viva, it only happens because you did it.

Actions Beat Hopes

You can hope your examiners don’t spot them.

A vague paragraph. An unfortunate typo. An unfinished project. The method you can’t quite remember. The definition that you struggle to place. The ideas you’ve not finished developing.

The things you hope your examiners won’t notice, but they easily could. Hope is wonderful, but in this case hope isn’t enough.

Rather than hope your examiners won’t notice something, think about what you could do. Could you help yourself with more thought and more prep? Could you write a note in the margin or make some other useful annotation? Create a summary to explore or explain ideas? Ask a friend to ask you questions? Have a mock viva?

Hope can help you in the viva, but your actions help you more.

What will you do?

It’s a Wonderful Viva

A few days ago I was inspired by A Christmas Carol. Today my mind turns to It’s a Wonderful Life, which is my favourite Christmas movie. I could write a lot about how this movie makes me feel, what I adore about it, why it makes me cry every time I watch it, but let me pull out a key moment and why it’s worth remembering for your viva.

Towards the end, the protagonist, George, who thinks his life has gotten so terrible that it would be better if he had never been born, is given the chance to see what that world would be like. He is shown a town which is cruel, where people are mean, where no-one knows him and where some of the people he knows are fundamentally different – all because he wasn’t there as part of their lives.

As his angel (second-class!) guide Clarence tells him, “You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?

Now, I don’t imagine many PhD candidates consider stopping just before their viva, or truly wish they had never started. However stressed or worried, whatever fears are conjured, whatever doubts they may have about their ability, they probably don’t wish for it not to be taking place, or for them not to be PhD candidates.

Still, remember: by doing your PhD you have made a difference. You have made something that wasn’t there before. You have become better than you were. You know more and can do more. And along the way you will have helped others, directly and indirectly.

By doing your PhD you have made a difference. Remember that and it might make a difference for how you feel about your viva.

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