Practised, Not Perfect

Remember that you don’t need to be perfect to succeed in the viva.

Remember that you will have invested a lot of time, effort and energy into becoming practised at all the things necessary for you to succeed.

You have read, you have written, you have learned, you have developed the skills for a researcher in your field and a lot more.

You’re not perfect. You are practised.

And that’s enough.

You Don’t Need To Be Perfect

You don’t need to have done perfect research.

You don’t need to have written the perfect thesis.

You can’t have done every possible task in preparation.

You don’t need to have an answer for everything.

You don’t need to be perfect to succeed in your viva.

Work hard, do your best, find out what to expect, prepare as well as you can.

You don’t need to be perfect: you just need to be you.

Games Worth Playing

There are PhD games that people play that are ultimately not fun or helpful. They’re founded in perfectionism and not knowing what’s expected. Playing them seems like a good idea sometimes, but is ultimately frustrating. Don’t play those games.

  • Don’t try to live up to an imagined ideal that doesn’t match the reality of what you need to do at the viva.
  • Don’t try to beat some stellar standard you perceive in other postgraduate researchers.
  • Don’t try to read everything, do everything or know everything – because you can’t.

These games aren’t worth playing. They won’t reward you or your progress.

The games that will help are personal games. You set a reasonable target and try to achieve it. You recognise the commitment you have and your growth (as a person and a researcher). You take action and move along the very, very long journey.

Play the games worth playing. Save your focus for what matters the most. Your success does not have to be defined by the achievements of others or false expectations.

Being Wrong

There’s always a chance you’re wrong about something. There’s always a possibility your examiners believe you’re wrong. Until they ask they won’t be able to know either way.

Being wrong or being asked something because you might be wrong is not comfortable. It invites all sorts of feelings and worries.

Did you make a mistake in your research? Did you write something up incorrectly? Did you misunderstand? Were you unclear?


  • You’re not perfect.
  • Your research can’t be perfect.
  • Your thesis won’t be perfect.

There’s a chance that you’re wrong in some way but a much greater chance that if you are then you can make it right.

You can do the work. Do the work in your prep to figure out how to correct things. Do the work in the moment in the viva to clear up what you mean. Do the work while you talk to your examiners to explain something. Do the work to correct your thesis after the viva.

You might be wrong, that’s human – as is working to make things right.


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.