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)

You Have To Get Better

Think of three things that you’ve got better at by doing a PhD.

  • First list them: how would you specify these skills, processes or knowledge areas?
  • Write a few sentences for each about how you started your PhD: how would you qualify your ability or awareness then?
  • Write a few sentences for each about where you are now: how good are you today?
  • Write a few sentences for each about what made the difference: how did you get from where you were to where you are?

You have to get better at lots of things during a PhD, but progress and change can be so small day-by-day that it’s hard to see. Look back now, reflect and convince yourself.

Your development can be one of the roots of your confidence for your viva.


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.