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.

Six Steps For Friction-free Prep

In preparing for the viva you have your thesis, your knowledge, your talent…

…and a lot of things potentially in your way, stopping you from getting ready! Busy days, family ties, worry, uncertainty over what to do – there’s lots to slow you down!

Thankfully, there’s a few simple steps you can take to remove the obstacles in your way:

  1. Make a plan. Just a short one, just an idea of when you need start, when you need to stop and what you need to do.
  2. Get your materials together. You need your thesis, some stationery, some paper and some papers you’ve referenced too. Get it all together, don’t leave things for later when you can procrastinate and avoid prep because you don’t have that paper you need.
  3. Find a prep space. It might be your dining table, it could be your office, it could be a cafe. But find a space that you can work well in.
  4. Tell others what you need. Probably, you need them to leave you alone from time to time! Get the space you need.
  5. Do at least one thing every day. Read a chapter, write a summary, check a reference – do something so it becomes a habit. Small tasks add up.
  6. Make a task list for your plan. What are all the tasks you have to get done? Cross them off as you go to see your progress as it happens.

Be practical. Don’t stay in your head with worries, doubts, procrastinations. Work better by removing things that create friction as you get ready to pass your viva.

Empty Your Head

You don’t have to carry everything around in your brain for the viva. You can make notes. You can make plans. You can clear out the clutter and make sense of your ideas. When you start to prepare, write down a list of all the things you think you’ll do in preparation, then organise them.

Underline typos in your thesis as you find them (or make a list) so you don’t have to remember them. Add useful notes in the margins to help you. Write lists of questions you could ask your examiners. Summarise anything valuable or anything difficult about your work that you can think of.

You don’t have to remember everything. Lists, notes and summaries can reduce the burden on your brain for more useful thinking!


Viva prep doesn’t have to be frantic, rushed or pressurised.

Being relaxed doesn’t mean being lazy, or doing a bad job. It means being ready, taking your time, knowing what you need to do and when you need to do it. Rushing your prep is a choice. You can choose to be relaxed.

Do it by thinking ahead. Sketch what you’ll do, what sequence, what you need to help you, and then wait for the moment to arrive when you need to do it.

Even if you’re busy, rushing, frantic in your day-to-day, you owe it to yourself to prepare well for the viva.

Do that by being relaxed.