Once Upon A Time

There’s a fairytale aspect to the viva.

Generally there’s a rhythm and sense of how one will unfold. More often than not, a clear sense of beginning, middle and end, patterns by which the story comes together.

Only a few important people in the story, a clear protagonist, a series of challenges – though thankfully no goblins, ogres, giants or trolls.

And like fairytales, when you ask around you discover that nearly every viva has a happy ending.

Save Points

Video games have been a big part of my pandemic coping strategies. Interactive stories, complex challenges, puzzle solving and sometimes great big emotional experiences to distract me from the background of life right now.

Save points have featured a lot too: either specific locations within a game where I have to pause and record my progress or a menu option that takes me out of the moment so I can make sure my journey through the game’s experience is recorded.

Save points are useful in viva prep too for keeping you on target. Rather than simply record your state for the next time, a prep save point could act as a very quick review – a growing record to look at and know that you are getting closer to being ready.

Any time that you take time to get ready, as you finish, just ask yourself:

  • How long did I invest in my future success?
  • What did I do?
  • How did it help?
  • What could I do to keep building on this progress?
  • What will I do when I next do some viva prep?

Each time you finish some prep task respond to these, quickly, a few words or sentences for each. Two minutes to capture something that helps prove to yourself that you are getting ready.

You are getting closer to that big achievement of passing your viva.

All Your Victories

Write down all of the things that you’ve achieved over the course of your PhD.

Write down as many things as you can think of where you’ve succeeded despite a setback.

List all the times you overcame your own doubts and worries.

Consider how much work you had to do to write your thesis.

Consider the background state of the world against which you’ve done all of this.

With all of your victories, you are in a great position to now succeed in your viva. Any nerves that you feel are not a sign that you are missing something; you’re just recognising that the viva is important.

With all your past victories you can work towards one more now.

And Now…

…you’re ready to face one more challenge: your viva!

Wait, I skipped ahead! Go back to the beginning…


You got onto a PhD programme because you were good enough. Your story before then, your successes, your challenges, your grades and skills, they convinced your institution you could do a PhD.

You worked through to submission because you were good enough. It won’t have been easy. You’ll have had success but also lots of challenges. Some days and weeks will have been joyous, but perhaps some months will have felt awful. In the end though, you did it. You did your research, you wrote your thesis and submitted it. One more milestone reached.

You prepared for your viva by building on what you did. You highlighted the important stuff, reflected on how you did it and got ready to talk to your examiners. You’re good enough. You really are!

You’re good enough, and now you’re ready to face one more challenge: your viva!


Now, right at the end, it’s worth reflecting on the journey that’s got you this far.

Imperfect Prep

Your prep will be imperfect. Getting ready for the viva, there’s no way to account for every bit of information you might need. You can’t anticipate every question you could conceivably be asked by your examiners.

Your prep is built on layers of imperfection too. Your research won’t be perfect. Your skills will not all be at their absolute peak. There will always be ways to make your thesis better.

In all of these things, you don’t need perfection. Your prep doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to make you ready. It needs to make you good enough.

Your prep, while imperfect, can help make you ready for anything you’ll find in your viva.

When The Light Doesn’t Come On

About a week ago, first thing in the morning, I opened the fridge to get the milk to make the first cup of tea of the day.

The light in the fridge didn’t come on.

My brain performed a complicated dance of thoughts and feelings:

  • “Oh no, we have so much in the fridge and freezer that will be ruined!”
  • “We’ve had it for over seven years, so of course it’s out of warranty…”
  • “Wait, it’s the weekend! Where are we going to get a new one from?”
  • “Can we save any of the food? Will my mum have room in her freezer? Can we give some to neighbours?”
  • “A new one? What am I thinking jumping to that, can we afford to just buy a fridge-freezer?!”
  • “Ugh, I’ve not even had a cup of tea!!!”

And then a quiet part of my brain whispered… Check the button.

There’s a little button that is held in place by the fridge door when it’s closed. When it’s opened it pops out and the light comes on. I touched it and it popped out and the light came on. The fridge was fine.

The button had just stuck in place for a second. That’s all. No problem. No solution needed. No cause for panic.


“Problems” sometimes aren’t really problems, but our first instinct encountering a potentially difficult situation is to panic.

In the viva, an examiner asking a tricky question might not intend it to be hard. If they say they have a different opinion, they are not trying to ruin you. If you don’t know what to say to a question, or haven’t spotted a typo previously, or just go blank, there’s no need to panic. These are all situations that you can respond to in the viva, but they might not be problems at all.

If you’re asked a question in the viva and the light doesn’t come on, stop and check: is this a problem?

The Map Is Not The Territory

Regulations can give you the general shape of the viva, the broad understanding of the process. Stories shape big expectations, and the stories of your friends and colleagues can help you see the norms, the common practices in your department.

This is the map of the viva landscape: it could have lots detail, but it’s only a representation. All of the regulations, expectations and norms that you understand – and it’s worth taking the time to find them out – won’t be able to tell you exactly what is going to happen in your viva.

You’ll only appreciate the territory, your viva, when you’re there, when it’s in front of you. There you’ll see the unique features, the slight changes, the parts that stand out to you that others didn’t mark or notice.

The map is not the territory, but the map is still useful. You can help update it after your viva. Once your viva is done, the corrections are in and you’re getting ready to move on to life after the PhD, find ways to share your own experiences to help someone else get a sense of what is ahead of them.

(another post inspired by The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish!)

Your Best

I’m preparing the blog for the end of the year and the start of 2021. My tradition is to do a few “best of” posts between Christmas and New Year, picking out prep ideas, reflections, short posts and the like – the things that stand out in over 350 days of writing. If any posts from this year have really resonated let me know! It might be interesting to do a day sharing reader choices.

But while I get thinking about the best posts of the year, consider that for the viva you need to bring the best of you – which hopefully won’t be too difficult because you must have been bringing that to your PhD for a long time.

Your best for your viva means being ready, being thorough, being willing to engage and think, doing something to build your confidence (if you need to) and recognising that you must be talented enough by now.

You’ve been doing your best for a long time. Clearly it’s worked.

What Did You Enjoy?

A simple question to reflect on ahead of the viva. I don’t think it’s likely that your examiners will ask this, but it’s worth considering. Whatever your motivations for starting a PhD, and whatever you’ve found to keep you going, I think there must be aspects that you’ve enjoyed.

What were they? Simply, where did you find work that you loved doing? What things did you look forward to? And why?

It’s right to shine a light on research processes that are unnecessarily harsh, working conditions that should be better, funding situations that should be improved. It’s also good to acknowledge that there is joy to be found in the work of doing research. Where did you find yours?

And how did that help you in creating your thesis?

The Most Important

What are the most important papers or ideas that started your research journey?

What were the most important days of your PhD?

What are the most important passages in your thesis?

Where did you do the most important work of your research?

What are the most important skills you’ve developed or built on while doing your PhD?

All of these questions have subjective responses, but are all worth considering. Your work must have important stuff, and even with typos or different perspectives or things that could be changed, it’s far better to focus on what is important and good about your research, than direct attention to things that could detract.

A question with an objective response: who did the work to create a thesis from all of this important stuff?

(don’t forget the answer to that one)