Do One More Little Thing

There are big things that need to be done to get ready for the viva, but lots of small things too.

Small things build up. Small gains in preparation. Small tasks that set up larger activity.

If you’ve done everything on the “one little thing list” I shared last year, here are a few more little things that could help you get ready, when you’re tired or pressured or time is tight:

  • Write two sentences about one great paper you used.
  • Stick one Post-it in your thesis to mark something amazing.
  • Find one song that helps build you up and add it to a playlist.
  • Scribble down one question you think you could answer really well.
  • Take five minutes to just rest.

A thesis and a PhD are typically made up of big things. Lots of small things help stick them together. Small wins, small gains, small improvements.

Prep for the viva isn’t so different.

Viva Prep & Wiggle Room

It’s helpful to be kind to yourself and generous with timing for your viva prep. Getting ready doesn’t have to take long, but it won’t be the only thing you have going on.

When it’s time to plan your prep, spread the work out as much as you can. Something else may come along and disrupt your plans. Leaving yourself wiggle room gives you room to breathe, room to reshape your plans, space to not stress.

That wiggle room can always be used to rest if things do go according to plan!


When you plan your viva prep, look for things that could slow your progress.

  • Creating summaries might not be rewarding unless you’ve read your thesis first.
  • Anticipating examiner questions won’t be possible until after you’ve learned about their research.
  • Building a set of expectations can only come after you’ve asked others about their viva experiences.

As you plan your prep consider what will help later work. You can choose where you direct your thoughts and efforts. Choose carefully so that you don’t have to over-invest your time. Plan clearly so that you don’t have to do more than is necessary.

You Have To Finish Sometime

Following on from yesterday’s post, it’s easier to finish when you know what success looks like.

You can feel confident you’re ready for the viva if you define in advance what you need to do to prepare.

  • What actions or tasks do you need to do?
  • What can help show you that you are done?
  • How are you going to define “enough”?

And to avoid stress, consider the limits you could put on any day that you spend time on getting ready. What is “enough” work for a day that you do prep?

You Have To Start Somewhere

With viva prep you get to decide when, where, what and how.

(the why and who are already taken care of!)

Viva prep doesn’t need precision planning, but a little thought can help sketch out a useful idea of what you need to do to start and when you need to do it.¬†Reflecting on the following questions around submission time should help:

  • How busy are you?
  • When do you tend to have periods of uninterrupted time?
  • What will you start your viva prep with?
  • And when do you need to begin to limit stress and pressure on yourself?

You have to start somewhere, and the good news is that you get to pick.

Arbitrary Milestones

You might need to set some for your viva prep. They’re arbitrary in the sense that they’re not fixed by a strict process, but by your needs, your circumstances. For example, there isn’t a deadline for when you must have read your thesis, or you have to have a mock viva.¬†Annotating your thesis can be really valuable, and you can do it whenever you need to. It helps not to do it on the morning of your viva, of course.

It’s useful to think about your prep ahead of time and set milestones for yourself. They’re just for you, to help your prep be as stress-free as possible and guide you into feeling ready for the challenge of your viva. Look ahead to the time around your viva and consider what milestones can help your personal journey to being ready.

Pick A Time

If you can manage it, a little routine could be useful for helping you to get ready for the viva. Viva prep will not be the first thing that goes in your diary or on your wall planner. You’ll have other commitments and responsibilities that have to come first. The prep needs to get done though. Think carefully:

  • When are there gaps in your schedule for half an hour to an hour of considered work?
  • How could you find a time that means you won’t be too tired?
  • Is there a way to make consistent times that you can do viva prep?

Reflect a little and find times when you could get the work done. It doesn’t have to be every day, but having a routine could be useful to help you tune into the work that needs doing.

The Humble To-Do List

Make a little list of things you have to do for your viva prep, things that you know will help. It might include:

  • Read all of my thesis;
  • Read two or three papers by my examiners;
  • Chat to friends about my research;
  • Check the regulations;
  • Find out how my video viva will be done;
  • Check my supervisor’s availability for helping me.

Just a little list – this example is by no means complete, but there shouldn’t be hundreds of things! Some examples can be crossed off neatly, others will take time. You might want to break those down, depending on your preferences.

It’s much easier to know when you’re ready if you plot out what you need to do to get ready.

A little to-do list could help a lot.

Busy Times

Even before coronavirus, PhD candidates would ask me about what they should do to prepare for their vivas because they were busy.

  • “I have a full time job as well, what should I do?”
  • “I get home late, what should I prioritise?”
  • “How much time do I really need to spend?”

I shared a post a few months ago about the kinds of work to prioritise (here), but time is a hard thing to give an easy answer to. It really depends on circumstances.

Twenty to thirty hours of work at most would be enough. It can be spread out over weeks with a little planning. If you have a full time job or you get home late or you’re just stretched at the moment, it may feel really hard to find an hour in a week – nevermind an hour a day or even thirty minutes of peace.

But that’s what you need: peace, calm, quiet. An hour to breathe and read and think. Thirty minutes to add a few Post-its or make some notes.

If you’re busy you still have to find time to get the prep work you need to do done. I can’t help with finding time, but while you do have prepare for your viva – even if you’re busy – you have a greater duty to be kind to yourself. If you are exhausted, take a break. If you just cannot make time for a task, then rest. Effective viva prep doesn’t happen under pressure.

Important, Not Urgent

Whenever I start a big project I treat it as important – worth doing well – and not urgent – worth doing without time pressures that could compromise me, the work, or stress me out. I’ve seen similar sentiments in lots of planning and productivity literature and advice. It is a general attitude I would encourage when preparing for the viva. It’s important, and needs to be done well, but not something that should be stressful or adding to any burdens a candidate might already feel.

So make it not urgent, and plan for it.

  • Some people can take a leisurely month to get ready, thirty minutes to an hour per day. Great, plan for it.
  • Some candidates could be horribly stressed by work, family life or external conditions and only get a short period of time at the end of a busy working day. Which sounds rough, so they should plan for it.
  • Some will take time off to prepare, and only have that one opportunity to get it done. So plan for it!

A plan for viva prep doesn’t need to be broken down hour by hour; a little thought goes a long way. When do you need to start? What flow of activity will you follow? What will enough prep look like for you?

Take a little time to treat your viva prep as important, by making it not urgent.