The Path To The Viva

There is a weird disconnect for some people around submission. They imagine submission is like jumping over a ravine between here and there, between almost- and now-submitted. They take a breath and jump and hope it will all work out, hope they’ll land on the other side.

It’s really not a leap of faith though. It’s the same path to the viva they’ve been on for years.

At submission, you’re striding over a bridge, not jumping and hoping.

Memory Box

My daughter’s just finished nursery and starts “Big School” in September. It seems only like yesterday that she was starting, but it was nearly two years. Time flies…

We’re helping her make a memory box of her time at nursery. Pictures and projects, toys and books, the keepsakes and mementoes that she wants to have, and it’s got me thinking about what I would put in my PhD memory box. It’s ten years since I finished my PhD and I have fond memories but I know there are lots I will have forgotten now. I wish I had kept more of a diary or memory box, but I was too busy thinking “I’m done, what do I do next???”

For the end of the PhD I think it’s important to reinforce the idea that you haven’t just arrived at a destination as a passenger: you’ve worked to get there. What have you collected in your memory box along the way? What has helped? What helped you realise something new? What helped you get better? What do you just want to remember?

Time flies… Your story so far can help the story that’s coming, whether that’s your viva, your next job or whatever life has to throw at you. Find memories that help you and make them part of the story you remember.

A Local Maximum

A term from maths: sometimes a peak in a graph is not the topmost point, but just the highest one for now. A downward slope afterwards might not run down forever. The curve may rise again, higher, further and faster.

Your PhD is a local maximum. Not the biggest and best thing ever. It might be the best thing so far, and it is important, but it has to be put into perspective.

The best is yet to come.


…you’re talented.

…your thesis is done.

…you only have a little way to go.

…is not like your first year.

…you’re at the end of the journey.

…you’re able to think clearly.

…you have experience.

Whatever first year, second year, third year was like, now is not then. Now you’re on the final approach to being done. Now you’re the expert.

Now you can be ready for your viva.

One Step Closer

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by research, by writing up, by getting ready for the viva and the day itself. There are lots of things you could do to advance any one of those goals. Sometimes the problem is that there are lots of things you could do alongside many things you already have to do just to be a part of the world.

Start small then.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed then find one small thing you can do (not could, can), and do it. Move yourself one step closer to the finish line of submitting your thesis, or getting ready for the viva. It might not feel like much, but lots of small steps will bring you to your goal.

So what’s your first step going to be?

Dos & Don’ts For The End Of The PhD

Do the work you’re supposed to do…

…but don’t worry if you don’t get every answer to all the questions you had.

Do your thesis as well as you can…

…but don’t stress about the odd typo (you can fix that later).

Do explore who might be a good examiner for you…

…but don’t forget that you don’t get to pick them formally.

Do think about how you’ll manage to prepare before you submit…

…but don’t start preparing until you’ve got the thesis done.

Do take a break after you submit…

…but don’t leave preparation until the day before the viva.

Do read your thesis carefully…

…but don’t feel that you have to memorise it.

Do check out your examiners’ recent publications…

…but don’t stress about the literature in general (there’s only so much time to read papers).

Do find ways to practise answering unexpected questions about your work…

…but don’t have a mock viva if it doesn’t sound useful to you.

Do reflect on your work in as many ways as you can…

…but don’t forget to take breaks while you prepare.

Do go to the viva fixed on the thought that you’ve only got this far through talent and work…

…but don’t forget that there’s a little more work to do, a little more talent to show.

Devil’s Advocate

Exploring how your research could be better while you prepare for the viva can be interesting. You’re not looking for fatal flaws, just inspecting your work and asking some critical questions. You’re not trying to anticipate criticisms in the viva, just think clearly about what you’ve done and what you could have done.

For example, thinking back, how could my PhD research have been better?

  • I could have learned C++ to make a good computer program for an algorithm I created.
  • I could have applied my results to other cases to see what was interesting.
  • I could have completed the big table of results that no-one else had done.
  • I could have finished those three other chapters.

Make sure you couple any critique with reasons why you didn’t do something different. So why didn’t I do any of these things that might have made my research better? Respectively:

  • I didn’t have time.
  • I didn’t think of some of those cases until I was writing up.
  • I wasn’t sure it was worth the effort.
  • I didn’t have time and wasn’t sure if there was something thesis-worthy in the ideas.

It could feel awkward to ask yourself how to make your work better, or ask yourself what’s wrong with it. Really, you’re just giving another check. It can also help to spot little things that need support with more ideas. Looking at your thesis with a different mindset is valuable. You’ve done a lot of good work by the time you submit.

Playing Devil’s Advocate is just taking a step back. You’re not thinking “This is rubbish, what’s wrong?” but “This is great, could it be even better?”