It’s Not One Day

Hundreds and hundreds of days over the course of a PhD.

Thousands of hours of learning, discovering and knowledge-building.

So much personal development, growth and talent.

And, yes, you need to share all of this for a few hours of one day in order to pass your viva – but the test is not one day. It’s all the days you’ve invested; all the times you’ve stayed determined and kept going.

If you’re nervous, anxious or worried about your viva then consider how far you’ve come. Reflect on how you’ve made that progress and then find a way to keep going. Keep going until it’s done.

People Like You

People like us do things like this.

Seth Godin‘s definition of culture is useful to reflect on when unpicking expectations for the viva. How long are they? How do they start? What happens?

Regulations tell you some of the details, but the rest comes from looking at what examiners do because of how they are trained, their experience and also the practices of their department or discipline.

People like us do things like this.

What do you do? What do people like you do? What does the culture say about the kinds of things that a postgraduate researcher does?

  • Postgraduate researchers do things like becoming more skilled and knowledgeable.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like showing determination.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like getting ready for the viva.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like passing the viva.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like making a difference.

So what will you do? And what could you help your community – your us – do as you and they get ready for their viva?

A Supervisor’s Faith

At one of my final sessions before my summer break, a participant commented that supervisors wouldn’t let a candidate submit their thesis if they didn’t have faith that their thesis was good enough.

I think the core of this is true: good supervisors are invested in their researcher’s success. Good supervisors care enough to give guidance and feedback. Good supervisors make sure their researchers have an idea of what to expect from all stages of the PhD process, including the viva.

You have to believe, but you also have to ask. If you need more – guidance, feedback, information – then you have to take the first step to find out more.

You can have faith, but you can also take certainty from their support too. If your supervisors support your thesis submission you can be confident they think you’ve done enough and you’re good enough.


With thanks to soon-to-be-Dr Stewart McCreadie for his observation at a 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva session!


The viva’s not the first time you’ve had to respond to questions about your research.

The viva’s not the first time you’ve been asked about your contribution.

The viva’s not the first time you’ve really had to think hard about something.

And it’s unlikely that your viva is the second time you’ve had to do any of these, or the third, or the fourth.

Again and again throughout your PhD, in small and big ways, you grow, you learn and you become better than you were. Again and again you demonstrate that you are a talented, capable and knowledgeable researcher.

In the viva you have to do it again. One more time, but with all of that experience behind you.

You can do it. You’ve done it before, you can do it again.

Good Fortune & Hard Work

In my PhD I can remember times I was lucky. Lucky to be at a particular seminar and see an unsolved problem that I knew I could solve. Lucky to suddenly make a breakthrough and get the result I needed.

Except I wasn’t. I was in the right place at the right time perhaps, but I couldn’t have spotted the first solution without all the results I’d already achieved. I couldn’t make my breakthrough, everything slipping into place, without three weeks of background reading and calculations first.

Words matter.

In all my seminars I remind PhD candidates they’re not lucky to have finished their thesis or to have got results – they’re fortunate. Fortunate is when hard work pays off. There might not have been a certain outcome, but it could only have happened thanks to someone taking the actions that they did.

None of your PhD success is luck. It’s good fortune, when your hard work has paid off.

Remember your good fortune. Remember too the hard work that has got you there.

Saturday Morning Transformations

In our house we’re all fans of Saturday morning cartoons and adventure shows. If someone or a group have magical items, secret abilities, arch-enemies or a world to save, then we are there to watch and enjoy the story!

Often, characters have to transform somehow to show their abilities off. She-Ra has a magical sword. The Power Rangers, whatever incarnation of the programme – Power Rangers Dino Charge forever! – have items that help them morph from teenagers into giant-robot-summoning-superheroes.

Also often, characters will be faced with situations where they can’t access their abilities. In one episode there’s a magic dampening field and they can’t transform. They lose their power item. Their powers are taken away.

In those stories they discover that, actually, their greatest power was inside them all along. Determination. Intelligence. Experience.

I have a quarter of a million words of reflection, advice, tips and thoughts on this blog to encourage PhD candidates. Practical steps to take, questions to reflect on, resources to use. And you have a window of opportunity to get ready for the viva after you submit.

If you take all of that away, you would still have what you really need for your viva: everything you’ve done so far for your PhD, everything you know, everything you can do and the drive to keep going.

Viva prep helps. Advice helps. Learning about expectations helps. But you already have what you need to succeed in the viva.

So why not take a little time off and rest before you dive into prep and finding out more about the viva?

If you need to relax, might I suggest you watch some Saturday morning cartoons?

From Day One

How did you feel at the start of your PhD? How do you feel now?

What have you learned since the day you started your PhD? How much have you invested into your research? How many pages have you produced in your thesis? How many more have been edited out along the way?

From day one you work and learn and make something amazing – that leads to one day where you have the chance to talk about it, defend your choices, explain and explore and more.

You got this far through your PhD journey by working hard. You get through the viva in the same way.

Invisible Work

My daughter was surprised when she came home and saw some new bookcases and a wardrobe in her bedroom. “Wow! How did you do this?!” She couldn’t quite get the hours of reading instructions, hammering, using tools and moving things to get it all in place.

It’s a little the same in academia I think. I remember being amazed at conferences that everyone else in the audience would be nodding along to talks. I could barely understand the ideas.

How are they getting all this? Why am I not getting it? How did that person talking figure this out?

At that early stage in my PhD I hadn’t had time to do the “invisible work” that could help me to understand. The background reading, the practice, the skill building, all the hours that go in to getting good at something.

Once you are good at something, it’s easy to forget about all that time you’ve invested, and simply focus on the end result. For passing the viva it’s essential to try to hold on to that awareness of time spent. Hold on to the understanding that you have invested all of that time and focus into work that has produced a good thesis and a good candidate.

You got this far because you did the work, even if everyone else sees only the end result.

Unanticipated, Not Unmanageable

Every viva is “unique, not unknown” – always different, but following patterns from regulations, expectations and even traditions within departments or universities.

We can also say with confidence that a viva could be “unanticipated, not unmanageable” in how it occurs. A viva could deviate from expectations in a way that no-one could expect from the outset: a question could be unpredicted, a comment could seem random, a line of discussion could even be uncomfortable.

All of which would be unanticipated – but not unmanageable. Given the time a candidate would spend working on their PhD, investing in their development and getting ready, the viva could be surprising, more than the expected challenge, but still within the capabilities of the candidate.

Unique, not unknown. Unanticipated, not unmanageable.

Which is the short way of saying that you can have reasonable expectations, and rise to the challenge of anything you can’t foresee.

Even shorter: you can do it.