Small Things Add Up

There are big tasks involved in finishing a thesis and preparing for the viva. Sometimes, though, you can make a difference by thinking as small as “How could I make this one percent better?”

Think small!

  • What small things could you do to boost your confidence?
  • What tiny notes could you add to your thesis?
  • How could you help your prep in five minutes or less?
  • What’s the shortest way you can usefully summarise an aspect of your research?

You need to think big to get a PhD done. As your viva gets closer there’s a place for thinking small too.


My daughter has an advent calendar every year at Christmastime. Normally her aunt buys her a toy calendar: every day from the first of December to Christmas Eve she opens the little door and gets a little person or an accessory building a festive scene. Every day she builds up the scene, and also increases her excitement – and ours! – that it’s almost Christmas.

In the same way, I think a little daily viva prep is useful for most candidates to feel ready for their viva. I’m not suggesting it’s the only thing to do; some activities – like, say, sitting down for a mock viva or making a mind map – are too time-intensive or complicated to be classed as “little”. But finding something to do every day to engage with your thesis, to reflect on your research or to prepare yourself in some way is valuable.

A little daily work can really build confidence for the day. Maybe, like an advent calendar, it can also build anticipation for the event rather than apprehension.

Three Easy Wins For Viva Prep

I’m a fan of the “three easy wins” productivity idea: simply put, start your day by getting three little victories. Clear that email out of your inbox, write down that short paragraph or check your blog feed for new posts. Just do three simple things that don’t require a lot of work. These little efforts add to your overall sense of achievement for the day. They move you along in the right direction.

Viva prep can seem overwhelming to some: it can feel like a lot to do before you might be ready for the viva. If this is how you feel, let me suggest three easy wins to get you started:

  1. Put a small Post-it Note at the start of each chapter in your thesis. This makes your thesis easier to navigate.
  2. Bookmark the staff pages for your examiners. Later you can go to these directly when you want to explore their recent work.
  3. Decide on a simple system for annotating your thesis. Figure out what pens, colours, tabs and so on you will consistently use.

Three easy wins, probably ten minutes in total. A great start to viva prep. After this, just keep going. You’ll get where you need to be.