On The Surface

Imagine your thesis is an iceberg.

You can see it floating in a sea of knowledge. Big and beautiful, possibly dangerous! A hazard for other ideas, crashing and crushing, but approached carefully you can study it. Someone can think about how it relates to other icebergs/theses, what it means. They can dream up questions about it. Depending on who that someone is, depending on their experience – their own icebergs – those questions could be tricky…

But there’s more than what’s on the surface.

If an examiner or anyone else reads your thesis they see the surface iceberg. Your research and experience are underwater: a massive bulk of knowledge, skill, time, patience, talent, persistence. Quietly hidden, but there all the same.

Your examiners can ask about what they see on the surface, make guesses perhaps at what else is in the watery shadows.

You appreciate it all though; the surface iceberg-thesis and the experience-knowledge-skill-time-patience-talent-persistence-ice-mountain of research beneath the surface. It’s all there for you when you need it, hiding in the depths.

(with thanks to Sylvia Duckworth and Hugh Kearns for inspiration!)


A thought: you and your examiners are more similar than you are different.

Similar: all researchers, all interested, all capable, all talented, all there in your viva for a good reason.

Different: they have more experience than you, you have more expertise than them. They’ve read your thesis, you wrote your thesis.

All of these points help the story of confidence you can tell yourself about the viva.

Weak Spots

Why didn’t Achilles wear a boot?

If you know there’s a problem, wouldn’t you try to address it? If you know you have a weak spot, wouldn’t you at least try something?

For example, I knew my background knowledge on one of my thesis chapters was a bit shaky. I just hoped my examiners would focus on the results instead. I could explain how I’d tackled it. I could explain the results. I just crossed my fingers they wouldn’t ask me to explain what a certain kind of manifold looked like and why it was relevant.

Hoping it won’t come up is not a solution: actions help.

If you have a gap in your knowledge, take action. If you have trouble remembering a reference or an idea, take action. If you want to boost your confidence, take action.

Weak spots in your thesis or research probably aren’t as devastating as Achilles’ heel, but if you’re aware of something that could be a problem it’s up to you to do something about it.

Don’t just worry and hope it won’t come up. Do something.


There’s a lot of light cast around during the PhD process.

You shine a light on a topic you found, and create more when you write your thesis.

You brighten up your thesis when you prepare for the viva.

Your examiners bring your work into full sun, although hopefully it won’t feel like a harsh glare.

And fingers crossed you won’t have to burn the midnight oil to add a little more light with your corrections.

Every step of the way you illuminate something because you’re making it easier for someone else to see the value of what you’ve found.

Keep on shining.


In Jenga, whatever your intentions, you might knock the tower down at any moment. Your actions or a misplacement by the last player might make things so unstable that the tower can only fall.

It’s tempting to think of the viva is a precarious situation, but your thesis is not a Jenga tower, and the viva is not a game.

Questions from examiners aren’t like pulling bricks out. Your answers aren’t going to make your work fall apart. Discussion can bring in some wobbles, but your work is more than a tower of bricks. You designed this structure, it didn’t just come together out of a box.

The Flipside of Blame

Outside of the usual typos and copyediting, my biggest corrections were to rewrite two chapters. They followed a similar flow, two case studies using a process I’d developed. My examiners were happy with the result, but not with how it was set out. It took me several weeks to re-arrange the model I had in my head. Thankfully, the second chapter was much easier to write once the first had been done.

Last year, sharing this story with a PhD candidate they asked, “So who was to blame? Your supervisor? They should have caught it, right?”

Wrong. My supervisor was responsible for giving me feedback, and he did. He told me that those chapters explained the process that I had developed, which they did.

“Well, your examiners then, they were just being harsh.”

No, they were doing their jobs. They fulfilled their roles perfectly. They asked for corrections to help make my thesis the best it could be.

I was to blame for my corrections…

…and the flipside of blame is responsibility.

I was responsible for writing my thesis, and I was responsible for ensuring it was the best it could be for submission. No-one else. The chapters needed something. I could have spotted that. I could have seen that my descriptions, while accurate, were missing a lot of the terminology and rigour that was appropriate. It was hidden in the background, when I needed to bring it front and centre.

Blame and responsibility are shadows of the same thing. It depends where you position yourself to look at the situation. You’re responsible for your corrections…

…and you’re to blame for how good your research is overall.

Changing Focus

If I’m working from home then I love to walk my daughter to nursery to start my day. After I’ve dropped her off, I’ll often continue my walk near the River Mersey.

The view from the promenade looks towards Liverpool. I often take pictures of the city from the same spot on my walk.

Some days I focus on the beach…

…other days I’ll look up to the sky…

…and sometimes the sun shines just right and I capture something truly beautiful.

Changing my focus just a little can make a big difference. It’s the same city in the distance, but a little to the left, a sunny day or the tide being in can mean a radically different picture.

When you’re preparing for the viva, take time to look at your thesis in new ways. Ask yourself questions you’ve not considered before. Make summaries to tease out certain kinds of information. Reflect on what you’ve done and look from a different perspective.

You might see something interesting.

You might get some new ideas.

You might just see something beautiful.

Devil’s Advocate

Exploring how your research could be better while you prepare for the viva can be interesting. You’re not looking for fatal flaws, just inspecting your work and asking some critical questions. You’re not trying to anticipate criticisms in the viva, just think clearly about what you’ve done and what you could have done.

For example, thinking back, how could my PhD research have been better?

  • I could have learned C++ to make a good computer program for an algorithm I created.
  • I could have applied my results to other cases to see what was interesting.
  • I could have completed the big table of results that no-one else had done.
  • I could have finished those three other chapters.

Make sure you couple any critique with reasons why you didn’t do something different. So why didn’t I do any of these things that might have made my research better? Respectively:

  • I didn’t have time.
  • I didn’t think of some of those cases until I was writing up.
  • I wasn’t sure it was worth the effort.
  • I didn’t have time and wasn’t sure if there was something thesis-worthy in the ideas.

It could feel awkward to ask yourself how to make your work better, or ask yourself what’s wrong with it. Really, you’re just giving another check. It can also help to spot little things that need support with more ideas. Looking at your thesis with a different mindset is valuable. You’ve done a lot of good work by the time you submit.

Playing Devil’s Advocate is just taking a step back. You’re not thinking “This is rubbish, what’s wrong?” but “This is great, could it be even better?”

There’s Always More

Worried about whether or not you’ve done enough prep? Worried if you find a reference after submission that seems like it would be a good addition to your thesis? Worried that there’s something else that you just have to do before the viva?

Whenever I get stressed out and think I need to read more or do more, I remember a little line from Ecclesiastes 12:12. Probably 2500 years old and still relevant:

“…There is no end to the writing of books, and too much study will wear you out.”

You could read one more paper. You could check one more detail. Make one more note. But do you really need to?

At some point you just have to stop. Weigh it against everything else you’ve done, and you’ll find the right point.

Don’t exhaust yourself just because you’ve found one more thing you could do.

Cosmic Viva Prep

Think of your thesis as a star. It shines, it’s powerful. It’s there because you’ve set it out in the cosmos of your research field.

Somewhere in that vast space are the works of your examiners. They’ve done more; their contributions might make constellations. Patterns of lights in your discipline.

Don’t think negatively of yourself by comparison. Instead, just look at the constellations. What do they look like? What does a constellation tell you about what an examiner thinks?

And what might your thesis-star look like from their constellation?