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?”


A PhD takes a long time, and there can be periods where you feel like not much progress is being made. Weeks and months can pass with what feels like little to show for it. Taking a step back can help you to see the fantastic achievements you’ve accomplished. Here are some questions to reflect on as you get towards the end of your PhD:

  • When did you first show your supervisor something you were really proud of?
  • When did you give your first presentation about your work?
  • When did you first read a paper and think, “I can do this!”?
  • When did you get your first thrill at finding something that no-one else ever had?
  • When did you write the first draft of a chapter?
  • When did you realise that you were going to succeed?

Marking your achievements is a useful source of confidence, particularly if your viva is coming up. Go a step further: reflect on how you felt, what you did and think about what further achievements these milestones lead you to. You’ve come this far by hard work, not luck.

Seeds & Fruit

At the start of a PhD, seeds are planted. Ideas. Questions are asked. It takes time to see these seeds grow, flower, bear fruit.

Some won’t make it. Hunches and ideas don’t always lead to what you think. Some seeds are planted late in the season and still lead to something valuable.

As you get ready for your viva, think about the seeds of your research and the fruit. What seeds did you plant? How did they grow? What fruit did you harvest?

The Next Iteration

The end of the PhD looms. If you were to do it all again, what would you do differently?

Where would you send and spend your focus?

What would you drop from your task lists?

What would you keep exactly the same?

How would you develop yourself?

What would you read?

When would you do it?

How would you work?

And why – why would you make the changes you’d make and keep the same the things you wouldn’t?

You’re not going to do another PhD (probably!). You won’t get to go around again. Experience and hindsight really are great teachers though. It’s not pointless to think about how you would approach the PhD again even though you (probably!) never will.

It’s just one way of asking yourself, “What have I learned from all of this?”


The viva is often framed as the top of the mountain after an epic climb. It’s taken a long time, a lot of work, but finally you reach the summit of your PhD. Some people take the story even further, “it’s all downhill from here, hahaha…”

I think it’s more accurate to see your thesis submission as the summit. The viva comes a little later. The viva is talking about the climb, how you did it, what worked, what didn’t and maybe how it compares to other climbs.

While you’re up at the summit though, pause, look around. What’s on the other side of your PhD-mountain? Where are you going to go next?