The Story Of Your PhD

Remind yourself at every opportunity that you have not got this far by being lucky. The unfolding story of your PhD features you front and centre: doing the work, making progress and getting close to viva success.

Nothing “just happens”. Your research outcomes, your personal growth and thesis submission are driven by you. Yes, you may have allies and supporters, but you are the protagonist of this tale. You are not in the background and you are not drifting along.

The story of your PhD is one of success through your effort. Remind yourself that your actions have got you as far you’ve come, whatever stage that might be, and that those efforts will see you through to a successful conclusion too.

Who Is It For?

Your thesis is not written for your examiners. You have to write it for your PhD and your examiners have to read it to examine you. It’s not written for them – the goal is to make a contribution to knowledge.

You don’t learn about viva expectations so you have a template you’re trying to complete. You’re learning more so that you can prepare well. You’re not trying to meet some ideal for your examiners.

Your prep is not done for your examiners. It’s for you. You want to be at your best, ready, refreshed, feeling confident – but that’s not for them. You want to to feel ready for you.

Remember to keep the focus where it needs to be for the viva.

Amazing & Spectacular

If you’re looking to build your confidence, consider the hero moments of your PhD journey.

When did you do something that was extraordinary?

A comic, show or movie featuring superheroes often shows them in day-to-day moments doing something that someone else couldn’t do. We might smile at someone doing a mundane task in a special way, but we cheer when they do something that no-one else could do.

That’s a hero moment. When have you had those during your PhD? You may have built your knowledge and capabilities as a researcher through day-to-day work – that’s essential for your success as a postgraduate researcher. You will also have had times where you did something amazing. Something spectacular. Something that no-one else could do.

When you made a connection.

When you solved an equation.

When you found the solution.

When you wrote something that was wonderful.

When you knew something your supervisor didn’t!

When you presented well in spite of your nervousness.

When you finished your first draft of a paper.

When you finished the first draft of your thesis.

When you looked back and realised how far you had come.

Unlike a superhero movie, sometimes the hero moments of a PhD journey can fade into the background against the day-to-day tasks that you have to complete. Take some time, as you get ready for the viva, to reflect on what you’ve done. Take some time to appreciate that you did the work that has got you this far, the everyday and the heroic, and that that is what will help you through the viva.

You are amazing. You are spectacular.

All The Signs

Looking out of a window might not be enough to help you decide whether you should take an umbrella with you.

You might need to step outside and feel the breeze. You might want to think about what the weather has been like for the last few days or consider the time of year. It may help to ask someone what they think. Or you could always check the weather forecast, get a statistical sense of what will happen.

At some point though you have to make a decision and accept it: the sky is cloudy and grey, the wind was cool, you see people with raincoats on and umbrellas poking out of bags. And the Met Office says there’s a 70% chance of rain before midday.

All the signs are there.


The story above isn’t that different to the situation with you and your viva.

“Are you going to pass?”

Well, when you listen to the stories of people who do pass, you’ll see that they’re not so different from your situation. When you talk to academics about what happens at the viva you’ll know what to expect and realise there’s not much to be concerned about. You could check online, read stories, listen to podcasts and do the work needed to get ready.

When you think back over your progress you’ll realise that all the signs are there – all the signs from the last few years, showing your determination, knowledge, progress and ability.

You know what the most likely outcome is for your viva.

One Way

There’s no single right way to select examiners. There’s no best criteria for deciding whether you should have you supervisor at your viva. I can think of many options for planning out and completing viva prep. I have a lot of suggestions for how someone might build their confidence before their viva – but I don’t know the best one to suggest to you offhand. And, of course, there are many different questions that can be asked at the viva, many approaches that your examiners can take, endless variety of situations on the day.

There are so many aspects of the viva that have lots of possibilities and yet, ultimately, there’s only one way you succeed: you do the research, grow as a researcher, write your thesis, submit it, then prepare for and pass your viva.

It’s the only way to get it done.

Three Part Success

There are three parts to a successful viva:

  • Effective preparation before the viva;
  • Full engagement during the viva;
  • Relieved celebration after the viva.

Before the viva you need to take steps to get ready. Plan your prep in advance so you don’t feel pressured for time. There’s a lot of generally good advice about kinds of activities help (and a lot of that on this blog). Make sure you don’t leave it too late, but remember you have done a lot already that puts you in a good position.

During the viva take your time. Breathe. Pause. Your examiners want you to engage with and respond to the discussion. They are not simply looking for rapid-fire responses or testing your memory. They need to have a conversation so that you can demonstrate what you did, what you know and what you can do. Take your time. Engage – and enjoy!

When the viva is finished do something to celebrate. Smile. You’ll probably have corrections to complete, but all in due course. On the day you can celebrate your achievement. You’re very likely to succeed, so perhaps have an idea or two in mind before the viva to help motivate you.

There are three parts to a successful viva – after, of course, a successful research journey and thesis submission.

Notice that at every stage the key factor is you.

A Happy Accident

I started the daily blog five years ago today by publishing No Accident.

It was a short post to start an ongoing daily blog! I wanted to begin by exploring what gets a postgraduate researcher from the start to the end of their PhD. In the last line I clumsily expressed a simple truth about nerves and the viva:

It’s understandable if you are nervous, but it’s no accident that you’ve got this far. Keep going.

I meant that it wasn’t only luck. The outcome of a viva and a PhD doesn’t depend on an accident of any kind. A person can have good fortune but only when they do the work and that works out for them.

I’m sure many postgraduate researchers, even given the last two years or so, feel fortunate at times. They do an uncertain experiment that works out. A resource arrives when it is most needed. An opportunity you just seem to thankfully stumble into. A happy accident, maybe you are the right person in the right place at the right time, but still you have worked to put yourself in that place and time.

Over the last five years I have been very grateful for everything that writing this daily blog has brought my way, for all the things that I have stumbled into! I’m thankful for the funny looks from people who don’t get it; strange looks from people who do get it but think it’s kind of weird to do; grateful emails from people who have been helped by one or more posts.

I’m very thankful to Nathan-in-2017 for following the idea of a daily blog and for all other iterations of me over the last five years who kept going.

If you find yourself encountering a happy accident situation, recognise and remember the work that you’ve done. Be grateful when your hard work pays off.

Use all of that to keep going.

Why You?

If 99.9% of PhD candidates succeed in defending their thesis, why would you be any different?

You’re not the exception, you’re exceptional: hard-working, talented, knowledgeable, determined and capable. You might be nervous or have doubts; explore what these really are and get help if you need it. You might need to know more about the viva. You could need encouragement from your supervisors or friends. You could need help to get ready.

If approximately one in one thousand candidates fail at the viva, why would it be you?

The Last Post

I had an idea to do an “April fool!”-style post about this being the last day of Viva Survivors, but couldn’t bring myself to do it! 🙂

The last ever post. What would that look like? A summary? A thank you? Goodbye? A big list of links?

I really don’t know. And I really don’t know why I would stop, how I would close things off tidily or, importantly, what I would do with myself if I did. So I guess it’s really good I’m not stopping!


I remember my last ever day as a PhD student. I had been trying to avoid thinking about it.

I turned up for one more cup of tea and to check nothing was left in my desk. There was no ceremony. No triumphant fanfare. My friends had to work, of course, but now I was done. It was odd. It was weird to have nothing else left to do, perhaps because for me, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do next.

For now, you might be busy getting your thesis finished, or working hard to get ready for the viva. Still, take a minute to look ahead: the day will come when you will no longer be a PhD student. No longer a postgraduate researcher.

You will be done. Being done is strange to adjust to. Take a little time to think ahead to see if there is anything you can do to make that transition easier for your future self.

1 2 3 6