SWOT For Viva Day

I like SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats – as a simple tool that provides a lot of direction for thinking. I’ve written¬†about it before but today I want to explore how it could help you think about you as a candidate for your viva day.

  • Strengths: What are you strengths as a candidate? What do you know well? How can you use that to your advantage?
  • Weaknesses: Where do you feel weak? Why? What steps could you take to support yourself, if you need to?
  • Opportunities: Where are there opportunities for you in the viva? What questions could you ask your examiners? How could you make the most of the situation?
  • Threats: What could have a negative impact on your viva day? What’s beyond your control? What steps could you take to minimise the impact?

The threats are already minimal in the viva; perhaps think about how you will get there, and decide in advance what you will take. There are lots of opportunities to get useful insights from your examiners. They have experience that you can use, ideas that could help you if your plans are to stay in academia, for example. You might have weaknesses, but they can’t be terrible because you would never have got this far if they were. Think about what you might do to help you feel confident despite them.

Remember that you and your work have real strengths. Your work is good. You are good.

7 One-Pagers For Prep

Take a single sheet of paper, your thesis and half an hour to an hour and you can make something really useful for your viva prep. A summary of something, answers to a few key questions or thoughts on what makes your thesis special. Here are seven one-page ideas for viva preparation:

  1. Write “What’s important?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet. You could do this for your whole thesis or go chapter-by-chapter if you want to have room for more details.
  2. Write a page about your examiners and their interests. What do you know about them? What have they published recently and how might that connect with your work?
  3. Use the VIVA tool to analyse a key chapter or your whole thesis. Explore different aspects of your work to bring useful ideas to the forefront.
  4. Summarise the tricky parts of your research. Create a cheatsheet that details how you can explain difficulties.
  5. Write “What’s my contribution?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet.
  6. Create an edited bibliography. This might be a little tricky on a single sheet of paper, but could be done!
  7. Write out responses to a mini-viva! Select a set of questions from here and divide your page up as directed.

One page of A4 and an hour isn’t going to be all you’ll need to get ready for the viva. You can use it as a helpful exercise one day though. Structure helps get the work done!

Four Mini-Vivas To Kickstart Your Viva Prep

A year ago I first shared 7776 Mini-Vivas, a resource to create useful summaries, reflections and conversations as part of viva prep. I love seeing people share the resource, and I continue to tinker with it to find other ways to share it.

Today, I’m simply presenting four mini-vivas for you to use. You could write the questions out on a sheet of paper and give yourself thirty minutes to an hour to write down some notes. You could give them to a friend to structure a conversation. You could record yourself talking about them and listen back afterwards to reflect.

All four could help you to reflect on what you’ve done for your PhD and what it means – two areas of conversation that are sure to come up in your viva.


Mini-Viva 1

  • What is your main research question?
  • How do you know your methods are valid?
  • How is your work related to your examiners’ research?
  • What questions have you been asked about your work previously?
  • What’s the impact of your work?

Mini-Viva 2

  • What are the three brightest parts of your research?
  • What influenced your methodology?
  • How did existing literature in the field influence you?
  • How can you be sure of your conclusions?
  • What do you hope others will take away from your thesis?

Mini-Viva 3

  • How would you define your thesis contribution?
  • Where did you find support in the existing research for your methods?
  • What were some of the challenges you overcame during your PhD?
  • How would you summarise your main results?
  • What publications do you hope to produce?

Mini-Viva 4

  • Why did you want to pursue your research?
  • How would you describe your methodology?
  • How did your supervisor help shape your research?
  • How can you be sure of your conclusions?
  • What are you taking away from your PhD?

Remember to leave some time to come back to your reflections, whether written or recorded, to review what you think and see if more ideas come. You could also ask yourself “Why?” after most of these questions to prompt deeper reflection.

There’s another 7772 possible mini-vivas from the resource – you probably don’t need to use all of them as part of your viva prep!

7 Summary Starters

Writing a summary of your research, or some part of it, is useful for viva prep because it gets you making abstract ideas more concrete. It can be tricky to get started when faced with a blank page or a new text document. Sometimes the simplest way to start writing a summary is to answer a question:

  1. What got you started with your research topic?
  2. What was the paper or book that really hooked your interest?
  3. How would you describe your thesis contribution?
  4. What’s important about your thesis/research?
  5. What papers have been most helpful for your research?
  6. What has surprised you about your research?
  7. How has your research changed during your PhD?

If you use these questions, don’t just think about them, write down some thoughts. You don’t have to write perfect paragraphs, but capturing your ideas will help your thinking in the long term.

Ten Quick Top Fives

Viva preparation is not about speed, but sometimes a quick task is useful to break the inertia. I’ve shared a few “top fives” posts before, but here are ten quick tasks to get things moving.

  1. Top Five Places To Bookmark In Your Thesis!
  2. Top Five Useful References For You!
  3. Top Five Academics Who Could Be A Good Examiner!
  4. Top Five Questions To Ask Your Supervisor!
  5. Top Five Friends Who Could Help Your Preparation!
  6. Top Five Definitions To Remember!
  7. Top Five Expectations For Your Viva!
  8. Top Five Details To Check!
  9. Top Five Things To Boost Your Self Confidence!
  10. Top Five Preparation Tasks!

Little lists, quick tasks, quick questions – they won’t be the most useful things you could do in preparation. Sometimes you’re not in a position to do the most effective task. Sometimes you’re not building a wall, you’re placing a brick: little by little, adding to your sense of being ready for your viva.

Three Favourite Summaries

I like thinking about and developing ideas to get people creating summaries of their thesis.

An essential part of the viva prep process is to think about your research, and it’s useful to take a step back and try to think differently. Rather than let that thinking be abstract and drift away, it makes sense to capture it, both to help clarify what you think and to build a resource.

While I’ve been tinkering away on lots of ideas for a long time, when I deliver a Viva Survivor session, there are three in particular I recommend to candidates:

  1. “What’s Important?” – a simple, powerful question, framed on a single sheet of paper for each chapter. “What’s important?” can prompt a lot of thoughts in a lot of different ways, and restricting the answer to one side of paper for a chapter forces you to be thoughtful and not just wander off.
  2. Edited Bibliography – a prompt to explore the most useful references that support your thesis. Your thesis bibliography might stretch to hundreds and hundreds of articles, but what’s at the core of that? What would help a reader more than anything? What helps your research more than anything? What are the twenty or thirty most useful references? That’s your edited bibliography.
  3. A VIVA Summary – using four prompts to analyse a chapter and really direct your thoughts about your thesis. What’s Valuable to others in this chapter? What is Interesting to you? What do you find Vague or unclear? What questions might you like to Ask your examiners? These four prompts help to explore not just the ideas in your thesis, but how you express them, how you made them real and a lot more.

These are my favourites, and they can help a lot. If you try them, let me know how well they work for you!

Elevating Your Thesis Pitch

I’m sorting out my home office while I procrastinate about my next book. I’ve gathered a lot of notes and material over the last ten years of working with researchers, and not all of it is useful now. There are workshops I regularly did ten years ago that I’m not involved with now, and yet I’ve kept all of those notes just in case. It’s time to be ruthless, but I read and check them all one last time.

Just in case.

I found an old note about the 5Ps for elevator pitches and sharing business ideas. You can use the 5Ps – pain, premise, people, proof, purpose – to frame what you’re going to say about your amazing business proposal. These are essentially a shorthand for questions you’re answering while you tell the story of your idea.

  • Pain: what is the thing your business helps with?
  • Premise: how does your idea help with the pain?
  • People: who do you have on your team?
  • Proof: how do you know that your idea works?
  • Purpose: why are you doing this?

I like simple models for telling stories and communicating ideas. So when I found the 5Ps in an old note, one thing in the centre of a page of now-redundant information I wrote it out as a reminder. After a week of stewing at the back of my brain, I realised it could be a good way of reflecting what your research is about.

If you were to give a thesis elevator pitch, perhaps you could use the same 5Ps to prompt some questions and exploration.

  • Pain: what is the problem your research addresses?
  • Premise: how did you set about finding answers?
  • People: whose work do you reference in your thesis?
  • Proof: how do you know that what you’ve done is good?
  • Purpose: why did you want to do this research?

Each of these questions is generally good to explore before the viva. Together they make a neat little story about your research. Reflection and writing summaries before the viva is good preparation because it gives you opportunities to think about your work, and practice how you could talk about what you’ve done during your PhD.

Just in case.

A Few Sentences

Viva prep doesn’t always feel easy. If you find it tough to get going, or you feel stuck, or you only have a little time, you can still do something small that will make a difference. Writing a few sentences could be a good way to start.

  • Write a few sentences on key authors or papers you’ve used.
  • Write a few sentences to summarise your key contribution.
  • Write a few sentences to frame the challenge you’ve undertaken.
  • Write a few sentences to reflect on how far you’ve come.
  • Write a few sentences to unpick your methods.
  • Write a few sentences about your biggest achievement.

You can write a lot more if you want to, but you can get something nice, short and valuable from even a little reflection and writing.

Five Sentences

I love the provocation of five.sentenc.es: a call for shorter email and replies.

It’s sometimes tricky to explain ourselves clearly in a short space, but often rewarding when we do.

Think about what you could do in five sentences for your viva prep.

You could summarise your thesis in five sentences, or a chapter, a tricky part, or the core of your bibliography, your examiners’ work and so on.

Not everything needs to take a lot of words.

A Summary Of Summaries

Summarising your thesis or some aspect of it is useful. A summary helps you in two ways. First, through the act of creation: thinking about your work and then making something from those thoughts is a valuable reflection. Second, as a result, you have a resource you can use during your preparations for the viva.

A few considerations for how you might tailor this approach:

  • Use questions to direct your summary.
  • Decide in advance how much you are going to write, i.e., how many words? How many pages?
  • Follow your preferences for level of detail: what will be most useful to you?
  • Follow your preferences for what it will look like: bullet points, sentences or pictures?
  • Reflect on what gaps you might be trying to fill.

I’m keen on summaries as a helpful viva preparation tool. Take a look at similarly themed posts via this link. Explore what will be useful for you as you prepare for your viva.