Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Confidence

I finished my look back over favourite posts last year with the theme of “surviving” – a break with several years of tradition.

2020 was a hard year, 2021 has continued to be challenging, but it feels right to come back to confidence. Confidence makes a real difference for the viva and how a candidate engages with it. Here are some thoughts from this year:

  • Confident or Arrogant – the difference between the two. (it’s a big difference!)
  • The Basics – a lack of confidence for the viva sometimes comes, very simply, from not having a good picture of what the viva is like.
  • A Few Thoughts On Survive – while confidence is the theme for today, it feels appropriate to share a few thoughts on this too.
  • Clearing Out Viva Doubts – confidence blossoms when we remove doubts.
  • Be Brave – a little extra step you might need to take.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances”. If you’ve made it through the last few years and your viva is some time in 2022 then you can be confident that you can rise to the challenge.

If you have managed to keep going so far, you can continue. You’ve not come this far by being merely lucky.

Keep going.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Long Posts

The Viva Survivors review of 2021 continues with some of my favourite long posts from this year.

Most of the time my daily posts range between 100 and 200 words; occasionally I go a little longer. Here are five that will take more time to read but which hopefully also contain more for the extra words.

They’re a little more reflective in most cases; it’s been that kind of year I guess.

  • Still Interesting Times – a year on from my first post about the pandemic on the blog. I have a feeling there will be another post like this in March 2022 at the two year anniversary.
  • Solving The Prep Problem – a big post all about getting prep done!
  • The Missing Things – another post reflecting on how things have changed in the last few years and what you might need as a result.
  • The Essentials – a story from my journey as a researcher-developer and some questions to help unpick what you might need to get ready for the viva.
  • Space To Feel – a reflection on something important that has stood out to me more and more while delivering webinars.

More posts but fewer words tomorrow – I’ll share some of my favourite short posts from 2021.

Alone For The Viva

Consider the movie Home Alone and the PhD viva, two very different things:

One of these things is a story about someone preparing to face two determined professionals in advance of a really important day. A particularly talented protagonist uses everything they know to be ready for the challenge ahead. They face uncertainty and mixed feelings about the situation, but very quickly become prepared despite a tight deadline. In the end, the challenge is resolved quickly and positively thanks to the protagonist’s talent and their preparations.

And the other thing is the movie Home Alone.

End Of Year Blues

It’s a lovely time of year, but looking back I felt a little blue reflecting on my work of the last twelve months.

The projects that stalled. The work that never went ahead. I had to cancel some sessions because of lockdown. The contacts that never followed up.


Then I reminded myself to reflect some more.

On all the sessions that did run – and there were lots of them. All the people I shared them with – and there were lots of them! I didn’t develop my new zine project, but I did share another year of daily blog posts. And I was asked to deliver a keynote talk for a conference, something that I was thrilled by and still smile about now!

If you aim high with your PhD then there will undoubtedly be times when you feel blue. When you prepare for your viva you will probably be reminded of things that could have gone better. The answer isn’t to set your aim lower, but to remember that for all the things that don’t work out as well as you hope there will be plenty that does. There could even be things that have greater results or impact than you imagined possible.

Beat end of year blues by focussing on the things that worked out well.

Beat end of PhD blues by preparing for your viva with a focus on your successes.

The PhD Is A Journey

A long journey.

Tiring and stressful perhaps. At times the destination might have seemed uncertain – or perhaps even changed! But if your viva is somewhere in your near future then you’ve almost reached your journey’s end.

As you get closer, pause and take some time to reflect:

  • When has the journey been most joyful?
  • When has it been hard?
  • When have you been lonely?
  • When have you been supported?
  • When have you made the quickest progress?
  • When have you struggled the hardest?
  • When have you had to make difficult choices? (and how did you make them?)

And most importantly, what’s kept you going?

Reflecting on the PhD journey can bring up sensitive or upsetting memories sometimes. It can also help to show your progress, your success, your development.

You got this far. Now keep going. Your journey’s final destination isn’t too far away.

No Big Questions

Let’s forget ideas of “big” questions in the viva. There are no small questions either. Instead all questions are important. Each question is an opportunity you’re being given to demonstrate something:

  • Something you know.
  • Something you did.
  • Something you can do.

You can prepare effectively for responding to every question. Read your thesis, check what you need, rehearse. Then show up on the day, ready to listen, breathe and take your time.

Show up with the idea that all questions are important and you can respond to anything that is asked.

Time For Confidence

Here and there throughout the many Viva Survivors daily blog posts you’ll find clear hints that I’m a fan of science fiction. 58 years ago today was the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who.

In their fantastic TARDIS timeship, the Doctor and their companions travel through all time and space – but they don’t always get where they mean to. They often get close, but the TARDIS is tricky to control. The console is presented as having hundreds of buttons, levers, switches, bells, bits and bobs that make it do what it needs to. Even if you’re 1000 years old (or more) and exceptionally talented it would take a lot to make it work right every time.

Controlling the TARDIS makes me think of confidence.

A person can be really talented, but feeling good and capable – feeling self confident – could be a difficult thing. It’s not one button to press but many switches to manage. What you do, what you don’t do, what you think about or don’t think about, even what you wear – so many things can influence confidence. But you can get there; you can land close to where you need to be.

And for your viva you really need to. You’re talented, you’ve done the work, you’ve proven already that you’re a capable researcher. Now you need to do what you can to feel confident and show your examiners your best self.

Don’t start thinking about this the day before your viva. Confidence needs action over a long period of time – thankfully not 1000+ years – but you can steer yourself to how you want to feel.

Find confidence for your viva and pretty soon there’ll be one more person with the title “Doctor”…


Postscript: If you’re looking for more Timelord-inspired help, one of my favourite episodes of the old Viva Survivors Podcast was with Dr Tatiana Porto – who talked about how Doctor Who helped with her PhD journey!

Valuable, Interesting, Vague, Ask

Around 2013 I invented a series of prompts to help a candidate reflect on their thesis.

Through not-so-subtle phrasing I got these keywords to spell out VIVA. The tool is used to explore the contents of a thesis chapter. All of these reflections combined then create a useful summary of the thesis.

The four prompts (and associated questions) are:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone else find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about your work?
  • Vague (or unclear): what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask (your examiners): what questions would you like to ask in the viva given the opportunity?

I shared VIVA for years in seminars. Switching to webinars I couldn’t find the right way to share this tool in a session. I’ve felt sad about this for a year now. There are other tools, but this one really speaks to me. I’ve done some reflecting on why this is the case:

  • Valuable: as a set of prompts I think it intuitively allows a candidate to find the key ideas that are going to be useful to them, both in the prep and in the viva.
  • Interesting: for me, it was always fun to present and not mention the acronym at the start, only drawing attention to it at the end. Acronyms are fun!
  • Vague: or “unclear” – I had to add this word because vague was a little too vague at times, not as known a word as I thought.
  • Ask: I like that the tool invites and prompts questions. It is a little open-ended and allows a candidate to dig deeper and engage with the thesis and research – just like a candidate would have to do in the viva.

I would encourage every candidate to spend a little time in advance of their viva using VIVA to reflect on and analyse their thesis.

Every chapter of your thesis has something valuable in it. Everything you’ve done springs from something you found interesting. Find what’s vague so you can make it clearer in your thoughts for the viva. Consider what you might ask your examiners – and thus how you’ll play your part in the viva.

And find more thoughts on VIVA at this link!


Take time to stop and think.

Reflect on your PhD. Reflect on the journey. The peaks and troughs of hard work and difficult circumstances that have brought you this far.

Not far to go now. Reflect on what you need to do to get to the end.

And reflect on how it will feel and what you might do when your PhD journey is over – when you start a new one as a PhD, not working to be one.

Take time to reflect before your viva.

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