Getting Ready If You’re Busy

I had a luxury of time to prepare for my viva. I didn’t have a job or a family, so I treated my prep as a continuation of my 35-to-40 hours per week routine.

Most candidates won’t be in that position. You could have a full-time job, or a part-time job, or family obligations or 101 other things that I didn’t have to think about.

And that doesn’t need to be a problem. It just takes a little planning to make sure you don’t feel overwhelmed.

There are lots of things you could do to get ready (and there are lots of posts on this site on those sorts of topics!). Think about what will make you feel prepared. Explore how much time you might have, based on when you might submit and what your work pattern is like.

Break things down. How long would it take to read a chapter of your thesis? How long would it take to write a summary of a chapter? How could you spread it out over the weeks before your viva?

Even if you don’t have specific dates and times now, you can map out roughly how you might get it done. Keep that rough map. When your thesis is submitted you can start to make that sketch a reality.

Viva preparation doesn’t take hundreds and hundreds of hours. If you’re busy, or you’re going to be, sketch a plan today.

Answers On A Postcard

A viva prep idea that seems apt for summertime: use postcards to make notes about key reflective questions for your research and thesis.

Get half a dozen different postcards (choose your images carefully). Use half of each one to answer a big picture question like those below:

  • How did I get interested in this topic?
  • What’s my key contribution?
  • What are my three main results?
  • What is my methodology?
  • Who is my research important to?
  • What are my three most important references?

Use the other half, where one would typically write an address, to capture a few keywords, an extra short note or perhaps an important reference or two.


There are three useful elements here. First, the answer in a small, restricted space gives a concise reflection. Second, a few points or helpful things that jump out. Finally, the image of the postcard to build memory associations.

Index cards are often used to help with revising something, but I’ve never come across postcards. What do you think? Useful or not?

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?

One Little Notebook

My favourite notebook: a tiny Moleskine, 64 pages, each smaller than a typical postcard. Many years back I bought a dozen in a sale and I’ve been hooked ever since. I use them for special projects, which got me thinking…

If one little notebook was all you could use to make notes about your thesis and research in preparation for your viva, what would you make notes of? What would help you? What would you use the space for?

  • A summary of each chapter?
  • A plan for your prep?
  • Notes on key papers or researchers?
  • Notes on your examiners’ research interests?
  • Notes on core questions of your own thesis?
  • A summary of what you’re most proud of?
  • Key questions you need to be sure of answering?

And you’d probably still have pages free.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, you get to decide what you need most in order to feel prepared for your viva; whatever good ideas or advice other people have, you’re the one who has to do the work. Turn this one little notebook idea over and see if it might work for you.

Second thought: you probably need fewer resources to get ready for the viva than you think.

Review Review Review

I started this blog almost a year ago. I’ve written over 300 posts in that time. Over 50,000 words. I have to check my records constantly. I have a spreadsheet with every post listed by date, and often when I’m thinking of a title I have to doublecheck I’ve not used it already.

Last week I wrote a post and was super-proud of it…

…until I realised that it was very similar to a post I had written the week before, only slightly better! (which is something at least)

I review the blog all of the time. I’ve recently started a project to make themed posts easier to find. I’ve started at the beginning and am adding tags to posts to make ideas easier to search for. Hopefully I’ll be able to put them into useful categories.

Doing a PhD you have to review your ideas and progress all of the time. Are you on track? What’s left to do?

Writing up you have to review what you’ve done and how you can communicate it. What works? What do you need?

Preparing for the viva you have to review… everything! Start at page 1. Made notes? Review them. Used key papers? Review them. You don’t need to remember everything, but you do need to feel sure about what you think.

If you’re doing something important – like a PhD, like the viva – then the review never stops.


Doing a PhD and writing a thesis is like finding your way to the centre of a maze. You might have some ideas about how to get there when you start, but it will still take work to make it through. You can go down wrong paths, get lost, but with time and effort you’ll get there.

Preparing for the viva is finding your way back out of the maze. It takes less time, but you have to check your way as you go. Just because you made it in, it doesn’t mean you know the shortest way back. You can still get lost. But you have a lot of experience to draw on now.

Describing the maze is the viva. How it looks. How you got there. Why you decided to walk it in the first place.

Walking back out of the maze will help you make sense of how you got in. Checking back over the twists and turns will make explaining the route to someone else a much easier task.

The Power of Post Its

I love Post It notes. They’re like joyful paper. They can break big ideas up into smaller thoughts. They can help group disparate thoughts into larger concepts. They label. They highlight. They’re so so useful for viva prep.

Put a Post It at the start of every chapter and make your thesis easier to navigate. Read through and highlight the most important sections of your thesis. Use larger square Post Its to add notes and breakdown jargon. If you find anything that could be clearer when you re-read your research, use a Post It to make it clearer.

There are lots of useful things that you could do to prepare for your viva. Before you begin, get a selection of Post It notes.

Talking Helps

Last year I chatted with a PhD graduate about their viva prep.

In her department they encouraged final year students to give a seminar about their PhD. As the viva approached they would deliver a talk summarising their research and then take questions. For the graduate I spoke to this was a hugely helpful practice: she got to spend time thinking about how to communicate her work, an opportunity to practice talking about what she had done, and lots of chances to answer unexpected questions from her audience. Three things that are perfect preparation for the viva.

A great idea. At the time I heard the story I thought, “I wish my department had suggested we do this.” A while later I realised, “If it had occurred to me, I could have just done it.”

And so could you. You don’t need permission, you just need a room. Find a space, invite some people, share your work, prepare for your viva.