How are you better now than when you started your PhD?

Because you must be: as talented as you were when you were accepted and began your programme, you must be even better now that you’re near the end. Progress and development can be hard to see without reflecting though, so I imagine there are times or situations where you still feel the same.

Here’s a short reflective exercise that I hope helps:

  • Make a list: five things that you can do now or know now that you didn’t when you started your PhD.
  • For each point: write a sentence for how this has helped you through your PhD (because it must have).
  • For each point: write a sentence to say something about how this helps you for the viva (because it will do).

What stands out to you? What helps you feel confident for your viva?

(that list can probably be much longer – start with five, and keep adding as more thoughts occur)

A Few Nevers

Never enough time in a PhD to do everything you could do, but usually enough time to do everything you need to do.

Never a way to prepare for every possible question in the viva, but certainly plenty of opportunities to be ready to respond to any question that comes up.

Never a chance for you to be the best, but only a need to be your own best.


Once we get away from “all” and “every” and “perfection” in the PhD and the viva, it’s not that hard to realise what “enough” looks like.

You are enough.

Weird Differences

I’ve found a lot of interesting ideas and wisdom from TED Talks since I finished my PhD. One of the shortest, and most helpful for me, is Derek Sivers‘ talk (embedded below) which starts by comparing the way we might distinguish streets and blocks for finding where we are:

I think it’s a nice reminder that people, by culture or personality, might just see things differently to you.

Your internal might see a different interpretation of your data for example, not because you’re wrong and they’re right, but because they see something you didn’t. Your external might think a different method is more appropriate for your research problem, only because they’ve never used your method. Again, they’re not wrong, they’re probably not weird either – they just see things differently.

Ahead of your viva, consider what you’ve done: where could your work be different? Why is it the way that it is? And if it’s “weird,” why is that valid for what you’ve done during your PhD?

Find Your Reasons

While there are general reasons why a PhD candidate will have got to submission, and general reasons why that candidate would pass their viva, personal reasons will be much more powerful. What are yours?

  • What have you learned that has brought you to where you are?
  • What have you achieved?
  • What keeps you going – particularly in 2020?

Find your reasons for why you will pass, and you find a source of confidence that will keep you going.

Thoughts on Viva Prep

A loose collection of thoughts on getting ready for your viva…

If you’ve not submitted your thesis then you don’t need to start getting ready for your viva.

You need time to read your thesis, annotate it, check any relevant papers, make any useful summaries and rehearse.

A useful range for time needed to do viva prep well is 20 to 30 hours, depending on size of thesis, free time, confidence and so on.

Everyone is different:

  • How long do you think that will take for you?
  • How busy are you generally?
  • Then how long before your viva do you need to start preparing so you don’t rush and stress yourself?

Sketch a plan around submission time for how you might do the work. Probably only start the work once you know your viva date. Don’t overcomplicate things. Don’t tie yourself up in knots. If you have a problem, get help. If you need support, don’t be afraid to ask.

Viva prep is work that continues the development that has lead you this far, not something wholly new. You already know and can do the overwhelming majority of what you need to do for your viva when you submit.

Maybe viva prep is not so much getting ready as proving to yourself that you are ready.

Highs & Lows

No project, period or PhD is super-excellent all the time, or super-terrible for that matter.

There’s ups and downs, highs and lows. I can remember some of mine from my PhD days…

Highs from my PhD:

  • Realising the fundamental structure of the first algorithm I created.
  • Winning a poster prize from my department.
  • Realising a key step of a proof before my supervisor – and being able to explain it to him.
  • Being asked to help with two residential skills workshops…
  • …and being invited back to help again after I did a good job the first time!

Lows from my PhD:

  • Postponing two months of supervisory meetings because I was ashamed I hadn’t solved something.
  • Comparing myself to office-mates who seemed so much more capable than me.
  • Not finding an answer to the problem in my seventh chapter.
  • Being super-anxious before every presentation I did.
  • Not admitting when I didn’t understand things.

What have yours been during your PhD? As you get closer to the viva, perhaps make a list of highs and a list of lows. File the lows list away – don’t throw it away, just don’t give it your attention. It doesn’t define you.

Keep the highs list to hand. Give it your attention from time to time through your preparation. You can find confidence from considering the highs of your PhD.

Postscript: this is another variation on the Make Two Lists approach of the wonderful Seth Godin! Credit where credit is due 🙂

Post-postscript: my viva doesn’t feature on either of my lists. I don’t think I know anyone who would put their viva on a list of PhD-highs or PhD-lows. Something to keep in mind maybe…

Two Reflective Mini-Vivas

I’ve been playing around with my Mini-Vivas resource recently: I have ideas for other related game-like resources, and am thinking about how to adapt it for other purposes. I happened to roll some dice to get a few mini-viva sets and the following two struck me as being particularly reflective ahead of a viva…

First Set:

  • Where did your research ideas come from?
  • How did your process change as you did your PhD?
  • How did the existing literature in the field influence you?
  • What are your main conclusions?
  • What publications do you hope to produce?

Second Set:

  • Why did you want to pursue your research?
  • How did your process change as you did your PhD?
  • How does your work build on prior research?
  • What questions would you like to ask your examiners?
  • If you could start again, knowing what you know now, what would you keep the same?

While I think it’s more useful to ask a friend or colleague to prompt you with questions as practice, that’s not always possible. There are several suggestions on the mini-vivas page for how you could use questions by yourself. The sets in this post couple help you to summarise key aspects of your research and get you reflecting on the last few years of work.

A little reflection can go a long way to helping you be ready for your viva.

Thesis & Viva

A few loosely connected thoughts…

The viva is bigger in some ways than the thesis, but takes much less time (to read or write!).

A lot of focus is given to the viva, but without a good thesis you won’t pass your PhD.

Your thesis has to be good. Your viva has to go well. The former helps the latter.

Your thesis prompts the discussion for the viva, but doesn’t hold all the questions (or answers).

You don’t have a viva without a thesis first, and you don’t need to prepare for your viva until your thesis is finished.

Demo Discs

I’m old enough to remember demo discs: CDs or DVDs that came with gaming magazines and which allowed people to try new games or software before the full release.

(I’m actually old enough to remember demo cassettes, but let’s put that to one side as I start my six-month countdown to my forties…)

Demo discs gave fans the chance to try things. Here’s the first thirty minutes of the new game you’re excited for! Here’s something interesting to whet your appetite! Here’s a little something to get you used to this new thing!

Demo discs were useful to set expectations and raise interest. Demo discs are less common now due to digital downloads, but it’s possible to demo or trial all sorts of things in a useful way.

Like the viva!

A mock viva is a demo for the real thing: it can never be the same, it might be time-limited and you might only be able to trial it once, but it will help set your expectations.

A mini-viva is a demo for your viva: it focusses on specific parts of your work, it’s feature-limited as well as time-limited, but it’s also simple to get started. (user-friendly!)

A seminar is a demo for your viva: it’s not the same format, but showcases a lot of the elements that will go into your viva.

Explore your options for rehearsing for your viva. There are lots of demo options available to help you prepare.

The First Viva

The first viva must have been really awkward.

What questions would the examiners ask? How might the candidate know what to expect? How would the examiners know what to expect?!

Who decided what made a good thesis? Or if the candidate had done enough? Or if they did enough in the viva?!

Why were they even having a viva???

Of course, the viva as we know it today is an evolution of former practices. Structure given to culture, rules to rhythms. That’s not a bad thing: it may be tricky to pinpoint exactly when and where PhD vivas started, but we know where they are now.

For your viva you can know what to expect. There are regulations, expectations and experiences to frame your understanding. Your viva might feel a little awkward and uncomfortable, but I’m sure it will be much better than the experience of the candidate at the first viva!