You can’t be perfect: you can be good. You can know enough and do enough to be good enough for your PhD. You can show enough in your thesis and in your viva to convince your examiners that you’re good.

By submission you must be good. I think for many candidates there is a belief gap  – they don’t believe that they have become good enough. Some are not sure that they ever will be good enough.

You can’t simply wish to feel differently. Instead, reflect on what you’ve done to get this far. Analyse and list all of your achievements, big and small, that have lead you to submission and to viva preparation. Reflect on your talents and really see that you’ve done enough.

Know what you are good at – and know that you are good.

Better & Ready

Three ways I think about the same point of viva preparation.

Instead of pushing yourself to get better in advance of your viva, decide on what you can do to get ready.

Better is a never-ending chase for perfection. Ready is a destination you can reach.

You don’t need to get better for your viva, you need to get ready.

Pick whichever framing works for you – or make one of your own!

Perfect Is Hard

Actually, it’s impossible.

Trying to be perfect for your viva will only cause you pain, stress, worry and other feelings of falling short.

Perfection will always be ten steps ahead of you, but ready can be right by your side.

Aim for being prepared: perhaps a little nervous still, but confident, fully capable of successfully meeting with your examiners and doing what you need to.


Unclear or Wrong

You can’t – and shouldn’t – assume there are problems in your thesis. It’s worth checking through it carefully after submission. Read your thesis well to make sure that it holds up, that nothing has slipped through.

Find something unclear? What would make it clearer? Add a note of what you might say differently.

Find something wrong? Why is it wrong? What could you do to address it?

You can’t be perfect; you can be prepared.

Practice Makes…

…not perfect.

Today I’m delivering my 218th Viva Survivor workshop. I still get a little nervous, but only a little. I’m more likely to be anxious about travel arrangements than talking or presenting.

I make a point of giving the latest session count in each Viva Survivor – not to boast, but to emphasise that practice leads to confidence. I was a terribly anxious speaker when I finished my PhD: in talks I was always looking for places to hide, looking for anything I could do to not feel so nervous. There are lots of things I have done since then to build my confidence.

A simple part of it is practice, action aimed at becoming better.

My point isn’t to tell candidates to go and get as much viva practice as possible before their viva – they will only have one mock viva, not 217 before they get to the real one. My point is that real, relevant practice that builds a candidate up has been done all through the PhD.

You grow, you learn, you develop. You can’t always see it because the research is in the foreground, but it’s there. Your PhD experiences matter, and those experiences can lead to confidence.

Not perfect, but practised.


What does viva success look like to you? What’s the outcome that will make you happy?

If you set it as getting no corrections, or finishing within a certain time limit there may be nothing you could do to be successful.

If you try to be perfect, responding to questions quickly or with perfect paragraphs of ideas and arguments, you will almost certainly fail.

If you define success as doing your best, being prepared, being switched on and ready to engage with your examiners then you’ll have a goal you can achieve.

You get to choose. What will success at the viva mean to you?

Don’t Know, Do Know

Candidates often worry about “what they don’t know” but frame it as a nebulous fear that waits out of the corner of their eye… What they don’t know is something that examiners do know, and examiners are looking to use that against them perhaps. What they don’t know is unpredictable, unclear and uncertain. That makes it something to be afraid of.

It can seem unclear, but I think we can examine this more clearly by contrasting what you don’t know with what you do know.

What You Don’t Know

  • Everything.
  • What your examiners think about your thesis.
  • What questions they want to ask.
  • What the outcome of your viva will be.

What You Do Know

  • Enough – you’ve read enough papers, done enough work, built up enough knowledge.
  • What you think of your work, what your supervisor thinks of it, what others have told you about it.
  • How to answer questions: you’ve built this talent up throughout your PhD.
  • What the most likely viva outcome is, and why that happens.

Seth Godin has truly timeless advice on this sort of thing: you get to choose which list you focus on.

In this case, the second one is much, much more useful.

Worrying About Imperfections

Fear and worry about the viva is common. I think some of the biggest worries come from very simple things. A concern that some aspect won’t be quite right in the viva. Concern about an imperfection creates a worry that the viva will become a terrible place, somewhere to be afraid.

It’s not silly to worry, it’s not easy to dismiss fears, but they can be overcome.

Reflect, maybe write down: what’s the worst that could happen? Be reasonable about the situation, real or imagined, and be thoughtful about the outcome. What would it mean? What would it really mean for the viva? What’s the worst that could happen…

  • …if you don’t know something?
  • …if your external wasn’t your personal favourite?
  • …if you forget an idea?
  • …if you find a really clunky paragraph during your prep?
  • …if you forget a reference?
  • …if your examiner is not sure of something they read?

In many cases, if you really unpick concerns, you’ll see “the worst” is not so bad. Worries could be uncomfortable, but not disqualifying.

Imperfections are not always within your control. You can’t be the perfect candidate, have a perfect thesis or have a perfect viva. You’re not expected to be. You can always think, you can always act, you can always try.

What’s the worst that could happen? What can you do about it?

(probably a lot)