Overcomplicated Prep

You could plot out minute by minute when you are going to do your viva preparations. When will you read Chapter 4? How will you make notes for various sections? Which colour highlighters will you use to encode different associations?

How far in advance will you bring up mock vivas with your supervisor, and how will you raise the topic? Which approaches will you follow for making summaries? How often will you re-read your thesis, and at what intervals? Who will you look to for advice, and when will you let them know what you need?

There are many, many questions you can ask yourself to figure out what you’ll do. Many plans you can set in motion. There’s always more detail you can pile on. And at the end of it all you could be a viva-ready machine, thoughts all composed just-so, almost every detail anticipated.

But do you need to do all of that? Is that really what you need?

Or rather than overcomplicate things, can you focus on the fact that you did the work, that it’s good, and that really viva preparation is just checking details, reflecting on your work and finding some opportunities to talk?

Expect The Unexpected

Hindsight is wonderful. Before my viva I worried about whether or not I would forget things in the moment; would I be able to explain this process or that proof, things I knew really well…

…what if, what if, what if…

It never occurred to me that my examiners might ask me questions that, well, had never occurred to me.

I didn’t expect that they would ask questions about the background of my field. I didn’t expect that they would ask questions to explore things which I thought were obviously true. I didn’t expect them to question why I had included a chapter exploring a topic that had produced negative results.

I didn’t expect that they would only ask a fraction of the questions that I had expected.

Your examiners will ask you questions you could plan for, but they will probably also ask questions that you can’t anticipate – because you’re not them, you think differently, have different experiences and knowledge and are approaching the viva with a different agenda.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t be prepared for them.

  • Use the valuable opportunities of a mock viva or conversations with friends to get comfortable answering questions you haven’t considered before.
  • Read through your thesis and try to imagine how someone other than you might read it. What would they be thinking? What could they ask?
  • Realise that your examiners are not asking unexpected questions for fun: they’re exploring your work to drive the process of the viva.

It’s impossible to anticipate every question in the viva. It is possible to engage with every question that your examiners ask.

Nervous and Excited

More candidates tell me they’re nervous rather than excited about their viva. Many who tell me that they’re nervous wish they could feel confident or excited about the big day. Today, for the first time, I can reveal my four step plan to deal with viva nerves!

A process for anyone who is nervous about the viva:

  1. What would move you one step closer to excited? What concrete action could you take?
  2. Go do it.
  3. Are you nervous about the viva? Go to Step 1. Are you no longer nervous? Go to Step 4.
  4. Congratulations!

…If only it were that easy. Nervous and excited are not binary states that you land in and stay in. One day you could wake up excited; two hours later you’re anxious and wondering, “What if…?”

Still, find steps that move you away from nervous and towards excited. Actions will help more than just thoughts. You can do more than hope you’re not too nervous.

Coffee Break

Viva coming up? Offer to take your friends out for coffee. Buy their attention for the price of an americano, or if summer arrives a frappuccino.

There’s a lot you can do in forty minutes over a coffee.

If your friend has some understanding of your research then give them a good summary of what you’ve done; ask them for questions, what do they need to know? What wasn’t clear?

Are they a good friend? Give them a chapter or two to read ahead of time, and over a latte dive straight into questions. What do they want to know? What are their thoughts?

Really good friend? Give them your thesis draft a few weeks before and brace yourself for questions. You may need to buy them a muffin.

You can get some valuable help from friends over coffee. Chances to practise questions, opportunities to think some more about your work. Really valuable. Your friends get something valuable too: they get the chance to see someone who is close to the finish line. They can read your thesis and see a possible format for theirs. They can be inspired by you.

And they get coffee!


When is the best time to start viva prep? I don’t know, at least not for you.

I don’t know how long your thesis is, whether or not you have a partner or kids, whether or not you have a job, whether or not you’re applying for jobs. I don’t know how much you’ve thought about your prep already, how often you have presented at conferences, how comfortable you feel about answering questions about your research.

So I don’t know when you need to start preparing.

However, I do have some thoughts that might help you:

  • Take at least two weeks off after submission before you read your thesis again. You can then approach it with a fresh perspective.
  • Give yourself at least two weeks to prepare. You will feel better if you can take your time a little and spread out the work.
  • Block out a rough period in your diary when you think you will be preparing for the viva. It helps to visualise a project.
  • Think about what you want to do and estimate how long it might take. Then add 20%.
  • Look at the time period you blocked out and the tasks you want to do. Explore how you will break that up.
  • Ensure you make some time to practise answering questions alongside all the writing and thinking prep.

And: don’t stress about preparation. Think a little about what you need, take steps toward getting it done.