You Don’t Want The Viva

Regular readers of the blog might know I am a huge fan of Seth Godin. I’m re-reading his most recent book, This Is Marketing, and I wanted to share a passage I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

The lesson is that the drill bit is merely a feature, a means to an end, but what people really want is the hole it makes.

But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. No one wants a hole.

What people want is the shelf that will go on the wall once they drill the hole.

Actually, what they want is how they’ll feel once they see how uncluttered everything is, when they put their stuff on the shelf that went on the wall, now that there’s a quarter-inch hole.

But wait…

They also want the satisfaction of knowing they did it themselves.

Or perhaps the increase in status they’ll get when their spouse admires their work.

Or the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the bedroom isn’t a mess, and that it feels safe and clean.

So: you need a viva, but you don’t want it.

You want what the viva will lead to – passing your PhD. But who just wants a PhD? The three letters don’t mean a lot by themselves: what do you want them for? A job in academia? An increase in status? Pride in something accomplished?

When we stop seeing the viva as the end, but a step – a means to an end maybe – then perhaps we can see it for what it is. A practical thing, not a mystical or terrible or unknowable thing. A necessary step and one that can be prepared for. It leads to something even more important and better.

You don’t want your viva – but since you’re going to have it anyway, why not aim to make it the best you can?

Two Days After

Being done is special, a real achievement. But the end of a PhD can feel quite abrupt.

So much time is spent building up. You build up your knowledge. You build up your ideas. You build up the picture of your work. You build a structure for your thesis. You build yourself up for submission, and then for the viva, and then…

…thousands and thousands of hours of work is weighed up in a few hundred minutes – if that!

The day of the viva might be happy, but it might be muted. The day after might find you still dazed. Was that it?

But I hope, at the latest, that two days after your viva, whenever it is, you could start to really feel that you’ve done something wonderful. Reach out to friends and family if it’s not sinking in. Finishing your PhD is a real achievement, even if you’re not feeling it immediately afterwards.

The End of the Viva

As with every aspect of the PhD and the viva, there is a variety of experiences for the end, but several common stories.

Candidates might be asked if they have any questions or comments. Then when all the talking is done, examiners most commonly ask the candidate to leave the room so that they can have a quick chat. While the candidate waits nearby, perhaps nervously, perhaps not, the examiners confer and make a firm decision. They check they’ve got satisfactory answers to all of the things they needed to raise, and talk about the viva and what they think of it all.

The length of the wait varies. One person told me they waited two minutes and were called back; another told me they waited half an hour, and while there were no problems they had really started to worry! Ten to twenty minutes is seen as a reasonable length of time for examiners to chat.

Typically, examiners give the result then. They tell the candidate what the outcome is and what that means. If corrections are involved they might say a little about them. Examiners might need time to put a full list together. While minor corrections is the most likely outcome, it’s important to know in advance what all the outcomes mean. How much time is given? What is the process for getting examiners to certify that corrections have been completed?

The viva is not the end of the PhD. The end of the viva is not the end of the PhD. It can seem like there’s always something to do. But you’re getting close. Compared to everything that’s come before, you’ve not got far to go.


If things work out during your PhD, that’s not simply luck. You have to work for it. If you get the most fantastic results or the brightest ideas they come to you only through effort.

Which means that when you get to submission and then the viva, it’s not simply luck. You HAVE worked for it. The end result of a good thesis and a good candidate for the viva is due to your effort.

You’re fortunate, not lucky. If your hard work has produced results this far then what would stop your fortune continuing to the viva?

Done or Finished?

Two words that people use a lot around the end of the PhD.

Finished makes me think that something is over. But there’s always more! More experiments, more words, more questions. So I don’t like finished for a thesis, a viva or a PhD. There’s always something more that could be added.

(could, not should)

Done doesn’t feel quite right either. It’s a bit too short, a bit final, a bit simple for the complex and messy nature of research.

The thesis, the viva, your PhD, they all mean something. Done and finished feel lacking.

The word I’m leaning towards is completed. Completed feels right. The thesis, the viva, your PhD can be completed. They have everything they need and it sounds like more of an achievement than simply being done.

If you’re on the path, I wish you all the best as you head to completion.

Not The Point

Sir Ken Robinson’s work on education and creativity has changed the world. His TED talks have been seen by hundreds of millions of people, and his words, ideas and humour have impacted so many more. His first TED Talk, “Do schools kill creativity?” was a revelation to me when I saw it for the first time, shortly after I finished my PhD. I’ve listened to it so many times since then that I think there are parts I could perform if I were of a mind to.

I was listening to it again the other day, when a passage jumped out at me. From the transcript:

If you were to visit education as an alien and say “What’s it for, public education?” I think you’d have to conclude, if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this, who does everything they should, who gets all the brownie points, who are the winners — I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it? They’re the people who come out the top. And I used to be one, so there.

And I like university professors, but, you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life. Another form of life.

And of course he’s right, the point of education isn’t to make university professors. There are important elements in any system or idea. They might be crucial, but they’re not the point. In many situations we often mistake something important for the point.

Yes, the viva is important, but it’s not the point of the PhD process.

A Haiku About Finishing

Not bad, good or strange…

P-h-Done! Or bittersweet?

How will you feel?


The viva and the end of the PhD can stir up a lot of emotions. You don’t have to feel one thing or another, there’s no right answer or way. But perhaps don’t just let it pass by. Take a minute or two to think about what the end of your PhD means, how you feel and what’s next.

My personal hope for PhD graduates is that they realise they’ve just reached the top of a mountain in finishing their PhD, in passing their viva…

…and when they look around they see higher peaks and greater challenges they might now go after… 🙂


(more occasional haiku here!)

Enough Is Enough

What if I hadn’t done enough? What if I needed more results? What if my examiners didn’t see what I saw in my work?

After years of work and months of writing up, as my page count crept towards 200, I started to think that maybe I needed more. A good friend showed me his thesis and it was like a tombstone. I worried until he showed me that the second half of his thesis was appendices of data. Then I worried when he told me that a colleague down the hall had passed her viva with a thesis that was less than sixty pages.

Oh no. What if my writing style is just really waffly and overlong? What if, like my italicised questions, they just go on and on and on and on…

My doubts faded. Of course, it dawned on me, that every thesis is different, naturally. It’s hard to quantify “significant” in the face of the variety of research that people do. There may be broad expectations in your discipline, in terms of style and structure and so on, and it’s worth learning as much as you can about those.

How do you know though? How do you know – or maybe a better word is believe – when you’ve done enough work? When you have enough results? How do you believe?

You have to look at it all. You have to get a sense both from others and yourself that the work you have done matters. You have to reflect on the fact that your thesis may be big or small, have five chapters or nine, and it is just different from everyone elses…

…and like everyone else who has come before, the reason you are here and you are going to pass your viva is because you can’t just be lucky. You can’t just show up and get the right answers or right ideas blindly. You have to be good. You have to do good work. And you have to have done that for a long time.

You have to have enough to be submitting.

You have to have enough to be preparing for the viva.

And that’s what can give you enough confidence that your work matters, you are good, and you will pass.

Enough is enough.


If your PhD is anything like mine – or, come to think of it, any PhD I know – it has been full of ups and downs, both at work and in your personal life. The viva marks the end of a great big part of your life. A PhD is made from triumphs and victories, mistakes and missteps, everything that has happened has either helped you get over the finish line or at least not thwarted your ambition.

You’re done! (or at least you will be once you’ve done your corrections and you’ve graduated, officially)

So: what will you take away from all of this? Not just in terms of the research contribution, but you, personally: what have you learned? How have you grown? How have you changed as a person?

By the end of my PhD I was confident that I could do big things. I believed in my talent as a mathematician and at being able to solve problems. I also knew that I didn’t want to be a mathematician any more. I’d enjoyed my PhD, but was pretty certain I’d gone as far as I could in my field. I was looking for my next challenge.

How about you?

As your PhD draws to a conclusion, make time to reflect on what it all means. You get a certificate to mark the success of your PhD. It’s up to you to debrief yourself. Figure out what you’ve learned from the endeavour, and what it means for your future.