How To Finish Well

Look back over the progress of your PhD journey. Your progress.

Realise that there is something new that now exists – and the only reason it does is because you made it happen.

Prepare for your viva carefully, invest time to make sure you are ready and confident.

Listen, think and respond to your examiners; make the most of your viva.

And when all of that is done, take a moment to think about what you take with you beyond your PhD. When it is finished it’s not the end for you and who you are now.

Alternative Routes

Things happen during a PhD. Deadlines slip, feedback is delayed or a promising idea reveals a sticky situation that has to be avoided. Plans change and alternatives must be found.

One way or another you get the research done. You get your thesis written and finally your viva is close at hand. While getting ready it can be useful to reflect on the paths not taken. Reflecting on alternatives can show why they were not taken, how your route was the right one or give you a fuller picture of the situation.

  • Some routes will not have worked and would never work. A poor idea or lack of time perhaps, or an idea that just wasn’t quite developed enough.
  • Some routes could have been perfect – but there were reasons why you didn’t take them. In preparation for potential questions in the viva, what were those reasons?
  • Some routes are only visible with hindsight. With the benefit of experience you know a less treacherous path or a shortcut to avoid obstacles.

Looking back at possibilities is helpful in preparation for the viva. It shows learning, it highlights your progress and helps you to demonstrate your ability as a researcher.

You’re near the end now. You can’t go back and take a different route. You can be aware of the alternatives and what they mean.

Assemble With Care

It occurred to me recently that the viva is a little like flat pack furniture: a wardrobe or chest of drawers that you have to assemble from eighteen pieces of wood with three kinds of screw and two very similar looking types of dowel.

There are clear instructions for the viva, like flat pack furniture, but that doesn’t guarantee that it will be easy. It’s a challenge to get it done, takes a few hours usually and benefits from having others present to help – examiners in the case of the viva!

Like all good analogies, it breaks down when you stretch it too far. The viva is far more like a piece of bespoke furniture, one of a kind even if it follows a type or form. The viva is always brought together by very skilled people.

To bring it back to flat pack furniture, the viva is better when it’s assembled with care. Take time to know what you need to do and how you can do it well.

A Helpful Acronym

If you’re looking for some help reflecting on your research ahead of the viva, consider reading one of the chapters in your thesis and then respond to the following questions:

  • What is valuable in the chapter? What difference does it make? How does it add to your significant, original contribution?
  • What do you find interesting about the research? How did you connect with the topic? What could you do well?
  • Is there anything vague in what you’ve presented? With hindsight could something be clearer? How could you speak about it when talking with your examiners?
  • Are there any questions you think you’ll ask your examiners based on the work? Is there anything you think they’d like to know? Can you do anything to prepare for possible questions?

There’s a lot more that you could do to get ready for the viva than simply consider the valuable, the interesting, the vague and the questions someone might ask. To start reflection these four words can be very useful – and very easy to remember when you spot the acronym they make!

Your Greatest Challenge

Think back over the course of your PhD journey to date. What stands out to you as the greatest challenge you overcame? Reflect and explore what you remember.

  • Why was the situation a challenge for you?
  • How did you work to overcome it?
  • What was the result of your success?

Your examiners need to know about your research and your journey – as told by you in your thesis and your viva – so that they can confirm you have done enough.

You need to really know how you have got this far – by reflecting on the challenges you have overcome – so that you can convince yourself you are good enough.

On This Day

You probably have at least one account with a major internet entity that backs up your photos, or where you share what you’re up to in some way. It’s likely that you post or tweet or save a photo away in an archive.

If something good happens today or tomorrow – in fact, whenever something good happens for your PhD – take a picture. Write a post (keep it private if you like), but do something to mark a good thing in your research or PhD journey.


A year from now you’ll be minding your own business when your phone, tablet or app will remind you that you have memories: “On this day you did this…”

You’ll remember what you did and you’ll know you are making progress. You’ll see how far you’ve come. Maybe a year from now it will even be after your viva! But that’s OK. The need for recognising achievement and benefitting from confidence doesn’t stop with the viva.

Find a way to remind yourself of your work, your progress and your success. You’ll find confidence in your ability when you do – and help feel even more ready for the challenge of your viva.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer is asked this, at least from time to time. Postgraduate researchers are asked this too, particularly in the viva.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“Why did you want to follow this research topic?”

“How did you know to do this?”

In your viva you have to be willing to talk about what started your process, how you knew to do something, why you wanted to do it and so on.

Ideas could come from reading. They could come from your supervisor. There might be a highly personal story or a really mundane, practical reality to them. It may be that on the way to working on one project you spotted something interesting that you needed to explore. There are so many routes to inspiration.

You need to be able to talk about the origin of your ideas in the viva, but don’t forget that as interesting as those ideas are they are nothing without the work that has developed them. Your work might be inspired by 100 papers, a chance encounter or by a funding advertisement – but it’s your work that has created your success, not the idea itself.

Wherever your ideas came from, it’s your work that has taken you so far.

Confidence & Nervousness

These are not opposite ends of a spectrum. Nervousness is a response to importance; we tend to feel nervous about an important event, good or bad. Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance, certainty or capability.

Nervousness says, “I hope this goes well!”

Confidence says, “I’m pretty sure it will.”

It’s likely you would feel nervous about the prospect of your viva because passing it is important. It’s possible to feel confident for it because of all of the work you’ve done, all of the things you know, all of the talent that you must have. Reflecting on all of these things can help you to find and feel confident. It’s a far more useful thing to do than to try to squash nerves.

Nervousness is about the event. Confidence is about you.

Fuses & Feelings

My mum called in a panic: her electricity had gone off and she had no power.

By the I time I got to her house, she had checked and reset the main fuse box. The power was on again. It was still a mystery though. What happened? It just went off? The TV was the first thing she noticed… Hmm…

We decided to relax with a cup of tea. My mum set the kettle to boil and the power shut off again. Five minutes of careful trial and error helped us realise it was not the TV, the main fuse box or the electrical socket in the kitchen that was at fault. The kettle was no longer safe and was tripping the mains fuse, in turn, shutting off the power.

With the fault diagnosed, my mum didn’t have a kettle for a day, but everything else was fine.


This reminds me of so many times I’ve found myself cross, worried, anxious and unsure. Sometimes I feel one of these ways and I just don’t know why.

Taking a step back helps.

Reflecting helps.

Thinking about what happened in the lead up can help too.

How you feel about the viva has an impact on how you get ready for it. If you feel anxious or worried then it’s worth trying to unpick what the cause is. Anxiety and worry are right on the surface. Explore what’s underneath.

There are many possible causes, including:

  • Not knowing about an aspect of the viva;
  • Having a concern about what to do to prepare;
  • Being unsure of how to respond;
  • Being worried that you won’t be able to respond at all.

There will be many more, much more personal reasons to feel anxious. Something could just trip the fusebox of your feelings. Reflect, explore and find out the cause – then think about what you can do to set that right.


Whatever challenges you faced during your PhD, they helped you get to submission and to the viva.

Whatever prep you do it will build on a solid foundation of knowledge and ability that you have developed.

Whatever disruption you encountered because of the pandemic you have worked around and persevered.

Whatever questions you are asked you will be able to find a way to respond.

Whatever you feel before your viva, you are a talented and capable researcher.

Whatever happens you are good enough.

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