Solve An Easier Problem

If you look at your viva prep as just so much to do, a great big problem, and if that is weighing heavily on you – know that it doesn’t need to be this way. Big problems are hard to solve. You can make this easier on yourself.

Start small. Make a little plan. Do something. Read a page of your thesis before you worry about how much or how often you need to read the whole thing. Have one conversation with a friend about your work before you create any anxiety about having a mock viva – or responding to questions on the day.

Of course there are lots of things to think about with the viva and viva prep. For some aspects there are no simple solutions about what to do, how much and when. But you don’t have to start with those big things immediately. You can start small. Solve an easier problem.

The Busy Factor

If you’re busy and you need to get ready for your viva:

  • Plan your prep. Take a few minutes to sketch out what needs doing and when you could do it.
  • Ask for help. Talk to your supervisors, friends and colleagues about what you need and how they could support you.
  • Spread the work out. Don’t overburden your plans. Give yourself space to do a little work regularly.
  • Be kind to yourself. Do the work – but remember that you have already done a lot! The years of work for your PhD all count towards your preparation.

If, for some reason, you’re not busy then all of the above still helps!

Rewarding Progress

If you need any extra motivation to get viva prep done, consider setting rewards for when you finish tasks. Big or small, rewards help spur people to action. What sort of rewards might help you? What sort of milestones in your prep could you aim for?

  • What could you do to reward a read-through of your thesis?
  • How will you celebrate when you have finished exploring your examiners’ recent publications?
  • And how could you bring a smile to your face after completing a mock viva?

You could ask others to join you for some friendly social pressure, or set some future rewards by yourself. The fact that you set rewards for yourself will do nothing to dampen your enthusiasm, so long as the reward is suitably motivating!

Pressures & Priorities

When and how do you get ready for the viva? How do you manage what needs to be done, especially considering that you’ve already got lots that you need to do?

Consider the pressures on your time and availability to get the work done. You don’t need thirty hours per week for a month before the viva; a little time each day can help. Focussed work helps you get ready.

If you have a job or responsibilities, if you’re looking for work or face other pressures then you can find time to get your prep done. Step back and look at the big picture. Find gaps to allow you to get the work done.

Consider that viva prep – even while getting ready for your viva – is probably not the number one priority in your life. Acknowledge that it needs doing, accept that there are other things that have to be your main focus, then plan out where and when you will do your work to get ready for the viva.

Sketch a plan over the period you think best, making sure there is enough time to do all of the things that will help you: reading your thesis, making notes, checking papers and rehearsing for the viva.

The pressures and priorities that are your personal situation can only be navigated by you. Step back: look at how things are and what you need to make space for. Then find a solution that works for you.

Easy Wins

Viva prep can sometimes seem like a huge project. Existing pressure, personal responsibilities and fatigue can all add to overwhelm. There are no shortcuts to getting ready, but you can start the process by completing tasks that take very little time.

  • Search for and bookmark your examiners’ staff pages to consult later.
  • Download a copy of the viva regulations for your university.
  • Stick Post-it Notes at the start of each chapter of your thesis to make it easier to navigate.
  • Send a short email to a friend asking them to give you a mini-viva soon.
  • Gather together stationery you could use to annotate your thesis.
  • Decide on whether or not you want a mock viva with your supervisor – and let them know.

Small tasks can provide real benefit to viva prep or help to set up greater success. If you’re daunted by the scale of what you need to do then get some easy wins. Get small tasks done and then start to break down the bigger project of viva prep into smaller pieces.

Defining Effective

I was helpfully challenged in a recent webinar to define what I meant when I talk about effective viva prep. It was a great provocation to help me unpick what I think.

  • Effective has to mean that it benefits the person doing the prep. They do the work and are prepared.
  • Effective has to include some idea of working smart: not starting early, not rushing or stressing while doing the work.
  • Effective viva prep must also help the candidate to feel that they are working towards being ready (and that ultimately they are ready for the viva).

Let’s define effective viva prep as a set of useful tasks and activities that help a candidate become ready for the viva in as organised and stress-free way as possible.

It’s a bit of a mouthful! Maybe there’s more we could say or a more concise framing but it’s not a bad start.

A definition doesn’t tell you what to do exactly for your situation though. For your circumstances consider:

  • What do you think you need to do?
  • When do you think you need to start?
  • How can you help yourself to see your progress to being ready?

We can usefully define what effective viva prep means generally, but you have to realise what that means for you specifically.

There’s No Trick To Viva Prep

Make a little plan for the weeks leading up to your viva. It has to include reading your thesis, annotating it usefully, writing some summaries, reading important papers and rehearsing for talking with your examiners.

Do the work in a way that doesn’t overstretch or over-stress you. Record your progress to confirm for yourself that you’re getting ready.

And that’s it. There’s no trick, just you doing the work.

Or maybe, if there is magic, it’s all you.

Adding Up

As a mathematician I remember the thrill of the first time I encountered the ideas of group theory.

Without getting too technical, let’s consider one of the most simple ideas: imagine if it mattered which way around you added things up in a sum. Two plus three is five, but what if three plus two was something else? What would that mean? We can get really abstract with group theory. There are all sorts of weird and wonderful things you can do but that core concept is really important: in group theory it matters what order things are done.

The same is true in the real world too. If your socks are big enough you perhaps could put them over your shoes rather than the other way around. Your feet would be covered by the same two layers but definitely not in the same way. When cooking, sometimes it matters what order you add ingredients to a pan – and when!


When I write or talk about viva prep I often try to explain that viva prep can be broken down into lots of discrete tasks. These all add up to someone being ready, but of course it does matter what order these are done in. It’s not a good idea to have a mock viva before you’ve read your thesis or checked some papers. It helps to find out more of what to expect before you even start to get ready. It’s probably a good idea to look into your examiners’ publications before you ask your supervisor about them.

With some tasks it matters less, but still consider in advance how and when you do things, and in what order. Viva prep really can be divided into lots of smaller tasks. Taking your time to complete these can lead to you being ready. It all adds up – but it does matter what order you work on your viva preparation.

Stacked Up

My daughter loves reading but hates tidying.

Consequently our living room builds up towers of books and ad hoc bookcases that lean against table ends. About once a fortnight something collapses, usually when just one more book has been added to an arrangement. Just one more book was just enough for the whole thing to give way.

As parents we encourage simplicity, putting things away, keeping what you need, tidying up what she’s finished with. She’s eight. She’ll get there.

(I hope!)

Viva prep isn’t that different, or at least how I’ve seen a lot of good candidates approach the work. They see “Just so much to do!” and think “How will I stack that up with what I already need to do?!”

It’s really not that much work. Starting with something simple helps.

Start by thinking about what you need to do to get ready. Start by listening to friends and colleagues about what they did. Start by making a little plan. Start by realising that you don’t have to stack all the work up: if you think ahead you can take your time. You can do the work in a way that works for you.

Then neither your viva prep nor your life will come crashing down around you.

Getting Prep Done

If viva prep seems hard – you’re tired, stretched, stressed, busy – then think about how you can make doing it somehow rewarding to you.

  • Can you incentivise getting it done?
  • Can you record doing it in a fun way?
  • Can you create a routine or ritual that helps you get the work done?
  • Can you include others in your prep in a useful way?

You need to prepare for your viva, but that need by itself might not be enough. What can you do to help you get it done?

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