The Spark

I’ve told this story before, but not, I think, on this blog. I share it to offer a short piece of a life, and to maybe spark reflection for you. I hope it entertains 🙂

I did an easy undergraduate degree, dominoed into a testing Masters, and before I knew it I was finishing my dissertation and wondering what to do next.

I was 22, nearly 23; I thought I knew so much about life and the world, but couldn’t make up my mind about doing a PhD. I had friends doing them in my department. They seemed to have it easy, but I was stressed out at the end of my Masters: almost stretched beyond my limits, so I decided to postpone deciding. I could always take a year out from studies and come back to it.

I started a small, safe job and started thinking.

Two weeks later I was missing maths, but still not convinced that a PhD would be right for me. Should I apply? Three or four years was a long time to invest in another degree. I might get funding, but what if I didn’t like it? I liked maths. I liked learning. I liked the department. I had friends there. I knew the way things worked, but what if…?

I was stuck.

By chance, one day over lunch, I got talking to an older person. A woman who had spent decades working as a missionary. She lived overseas fifty weeks of the year, and I happened to bump into her on one of her fourteen days visiting the UK. I don’t remember her name, just a little of what she did, but I have a lot to thank her for.

There were many, many good reasons I had carefully arranged into a pile that told me doing a PhD was a good idea, but it was her thoughts that sparked the decision to actually apply.

She told me of her work, how it helped people, the importance of mission. A life’s work. It was impressive. It was inspiring.

“And what are you doing young man? What are your plans?”

I told her of my new job as a study assistant, how I’d finished two degrees and loved learning, how I thought I might find something interesting in maths. Maybe I would be a lecturer after I’d learned more, or a teacher. I had ideas, but I was unsure which way to go. I told her this in the hope I would hear some wisdom.

Her response was not quite what I was expecting.

“What?! Another degree?! Wait. You’ve spent four years at university already, another committed to now for work, then maybe FOUR MORE for a PhD – that’s almost a decade at university!!! Oh! Oh! You’ll have no experience of the real world! What a waste!!!”

This, understandably, derailed our conversation. I made my excuses, left…

…and started my PhD application later that day.

The spark from her comments lit up all my reasons for doing a PhD and the fire caught. I realised, only when someone showed how strongly they disagreed with my ideas, just how strongly I was in favour of them.

“What a waste!!!” – but learning, discovering, hopefully making a contribution – that could never be a waste of time for me.

I knew for my viva that I had to be careful if asked about why I had started a PhD.

I chose my field because it sounded interesting. My supervisor and I chose the topic together because it suited my talents. I narrowed down my projects because I got results and built on them.

But I chose to do a PhD because an old lady told me it was going to be a waste of my time.

Why did you start your PhD? What were the reasons that pushed or nudged you? You don’t necessarily have to tell your examiners all of your reasons, but unpicking the threads of your own tale can help remind you of your beginnings – and how far you’ve come. What sparked your PhD journey?

Two Reasons I Couldn’t Sleep

I couldn’t sleep the night before my viva because:

  1. I had no idea what my examiners were there to do, or what my viva might be like;
  2. I had little self-confidence in my ability to discuss or defend my research.

These are common problems for PhD candidates, and can be really stressing, though thankfully I’ve not met many people who’ve had insomnia the night before their viva!

I didn’t know why I was lying awake at the time, I wouldn’t have known what to do had I realised why I couldn’t sleep, but both problems have solutions.

The first is solved simply by asking and exploring. Check regulations, talk with academics about their approaches as examiners, talk with graduates about their experiences. Building a set of expectations for the viva is useful to shape how you think about it. Generally, vivas are fine, but you need to know more about them to really believe it.

The second problem has solutions, but they are not so quick. Building self-confidence takes time, but the rewards for time spent dramatically outweigh the investment. Of course, in preparation for your viva spend time reading your thesis, making notes, reading papers, having a mock viva and so on. All of these are necessary and can help with confidence. But what else will you do to confirm to yourself that you are an excellent researcher? That you are capable and accomplished? That you have done the work and have the talent to be at your viva?

It takes longer to solve the confidence problem, but every step you take will help.

What’s Your Story?

If you have your thesis done and your viva coming up, it’s because you did the work and you developed yourself. Simple to say, but these things don’t just simply happen. What were the big moments along the way?

Everyone’s story is different. From my PhD, I remember…

  • …being six months into my PhD, sitting on a train, not even on my way to work, and suddenly the problem I had been considering snapped into focus. It was a small result at the time, but a meaningful one. It grew into a result that underpinned three chapters of my thesis.
  • …visiting Marseille for a two-week conference and summer school. It helped me present and share my research with others and was also a big boost to my confidence. It forced me to step out of my confidence zone.
  • …going to researcher development workshops, and then being invited to help on them. It helped me with presenting and thinking skills, it made me think about my talents more broadly, and it planted a seed that there was something interesting I might like to explore in the area of researcher development…

…which is how I ended up where I am!

Think back over the last few years. What are the big moments that have shaped and defined you? How did you get to where you are now? What stands out in your memory and why?

Why Do You Do What You Do?

Asking why your research is valuable starts the work of exploring what your significant original contribution is.

Asking why you wanted to explore this area gets at a different but equally fascinating discussion: what’s your interest?

Everyone has their reasons for why they do what they do. Those reasons aren’t always near the surface though. Over time they can even become buried beneath the daily hard work involved in doing a doctorate. I loved the challenge of maths – it was intriguing, it was hard, it was puzzling – and by the end of my PhD I was starting to forget that. It took a little re-reading and exploring to uncover that again.

Whatever your situation, reflect on why you do what you do. What’s your interest? What fascinates you? Reflect on the big picture and on each chapter. Pick out what gets you excited and fascinated.

Your examiners will be happy to find a passionate, excited researcher in the viva.

The Viva Is A Good Heist Movie

It really is! Like one of the George Clooney Ocean’s Eleven movies.


Let me explain:

  • You have heroes working to overcome an all-or-nothing challenge! (or at least that’s how it feels for the viva)
  • You have unexpected moments that have to be overcome as they happen! (where in the viva not every question can be anticipated)
  • You have talented protagonists with the attributes they need to succeed! (the only people taking part in the viva are highly talented candidates)

And finally you have the preparation. As much as there is satisfaction with the payoff from a heist or success in the viva, none of it would happen without the preparation. And no matter what you do to prepare for the viva, don’t forget all of the days spent doing research. They count. Those are your flashbacks. Those are the moments that add up to success.

So: the viva is a good heist movie.

Only with less casinos and criminality.

Three Things Come Not Back

I remember my first lecture at university. Before Dr Gould started telling us about complex numbers he shared an old proverb he thought would help us as we started our degrees:

Three things come not back: the said word, the sped arrow and the missed opportunity.

He then urged us to make the most of our opportunities while we were at university, not to let things pass us by. I’m fond of this saying. It’s stuck with me for almost twenty years, and it resonates with me for viva advice too.

Think before you speak: pause before you answer a question. Make the most of your opportunities in the viva, both to show what you know and get ideas and insights from your examiners.

Thankfully there’s usually not any arrows flying around!



The portal opens between here and the antimatter universe!

Look here! We’ve found it. A small and unremarkable planet orbiting a cold yellow sun. Don’t be deceived. Many things are different in this strange and weird place, but some things are almost the same.

But not quite.

Let’s call this planet Oppositeworld.

The vivas in Oppositeworld are odd events. Candidates still do research for three or more years, but in the end have nothing firm to show for it. The viva takes place with a couple of examiners, but the candidate drives the process with questions. They want to know what examiners think, see what they’ve understood in the thesis.

Examiners regularly fail candidates for not asking enough questions, for not asking the right questions, for not asking perfect questions. The rules are arbitrary, almost without definition. You could surmise that this might make things very stressful, but since most people fail, they expect that they probably will too and so don’t feel too bad when that expectation is matched by their experience.

Preparation is discouraged. Taking a copy of your thesis is forbidden. Your examiners are mean and hyper-critical, your supervisors give you the cold shoulder and no-one can help in any way. The road to the viva in Oppositeworld is dark and dangerous and those who pass are held in even lower regard than those who don’t. Hushed tones accompany them for the rest of their days, “There’s that Dr… What did they do?”


The portal collapses and Oppositeworld is shrouded behind the quantum mists once more. Notice how strangely familiar it was. Even when things were different they were not so different as to be incomprehensible.

While you may not wish to visit Oppositeworld, remember that they might not wish to visit here too. They might not really understand us nor would they care to have a “proper” viva in our universe.

After all, why would they want to go towards a viva which most people pass but still find stressful and anxious in preparation? Why, we can imagine them asking, would they worry when so many people in that situation pass?

Why indeed.

Pull The Lever, Take A Chance

A clatter of coins spills! I pulled the lever and now I’m rich, rich, rich!

Except I wasn’t. I was maybe ten and they weren’t coins, they were tokens. I grew up in a seaside town and there was a time when summer holidays meant stretching out pocket money in the arcade. I would jump from machine to machine, trying to find way to have just a little longer playing silly games.

The one-armed bandit could be fun for a time. Put your coin or token in, pull the arm down and watch the reels spin. Most of the time it was nothing. Sometimes it was a few pennies or a token back. Even rarer, an invitation to nudge a reel, see it drop but get nothing.

Sometimes, just sometimes…


…and enough tokens to keep spinning the reels for another ten minutes.

There was no skill, no talent, not even any real work. You had to take part, put something in, but your effort and money were the same as anyone’s.

Alas, some candidates think the viva is a one-armed bandit, a game of total chance. Turn up, pull the lever and who knows what will happen. What questions will spin up? What sequence of opinions will your examiners have? What random outcome will it settle on?

It’s not random. It’s not by chance. Your work is built on purpose. There can be luck, but that’s guided by direction, by talent, by effort.

Your thesis isn’t just thrown together: it’s a statement. Your answers don’t just appear: they’re built on work and talent. Your examiners aren’t just winging it: they’ve been selected for a reason.

You probably will hit the jackpot in the viva, ding-ding-ding, you’ve passed! But it’s not by chance. It couldn’t just happen to anyone.

You’ve not just been lucky. You’ve not got this far by accident.

Viral Viva Stories

this one time, a person had a two-day viva

your examiners play good cop/bad cop with their questions

they’re just out to get you

you can’t really prepare

Urban legends about the viva have spread well. Little idea-viruses swarming through the postgraduate population. Most candidates, however positive they are, have heard stories of a friend-of-a-friend that sound awful. Even if the vast majority of vivas work out fine, the myths and legends persist, leaving doubts and worries in their wake.

Ask around, not for what people have heard but for what happened to them. Ask PhD graduates what they did to prepare, and what happened on the day. Build a picture of what vivas generally look like and you’ll see what you need to do for yours.

When you’re done, share your story. Release your own idea-virus into the wild.

Four Ways To Prepare

You can prepare for your viva like you’re getting ready to fight: it’s a desperate struggle and you have to be ready for anything!

But how much time will that take? What does that say about how you feel about your thesis? What does that say about how you view your examiners?

You can prepare for your viva like it doesn’t really matter: most vivas end in success, and besides, your examiners have probably made up their minds anyway!

So is there nothing left to do? No value you could take away from the viva? Nothing that your examiners could surprise you with?

You can prepare for your viva like it’s just another day in the office: you know all you need to know, you’ve done all you can do and now there’s just one more day!

Which is the right ball park, but perhaps a bit fatalistic…

Or you can treat the viva as a milestone in your journey, and prepare for one more chance to show your qualities as a researcher in your field.

You can demonstrate, with a little preparation to get your thoughts in order, anything your examiners need from you in the viva.

Four ways to prepare for the viva. You get to pick which way you take. Totally your choice.