First & Final

My work – the sessions I run, the things I write and do – is focussed on the final year viva. The last big milestone of the PhD journey. But earlier in a postgraduate researcher’s story there might be another viva.

It’s sometimes called a first-year viva, a transfer review or some other set of words that means we’re checking in that you’re on track now that you’ve been doing this for a while.

I don’t know a lot about them.

A lot of what motivates the final viva is comparable to the first-year viva. My knowledge is limited though and I can’t offer the same certainties: I don’t know about expectations for lengths or questions. I can make educated guesses; the best people to talk to are the people you know already. Your supervisors and your friends who have been through the process. Local knowledge is going to beat anything that the person on the internet can say.


A participant at a webinar last year asked me, “What do I do about my final viva if I had a bad experience at my first-year viva?”

It was a brave and generous question. Brave because even in a webinar it can be hard to share something like that. Generous because they were probably not the only person to have a bad experience during their PhD, at their first-year viva or otherwise, and their question allowed a space to talk about that issue.

I didn’t know a lot about that person. I knew nothing about their first-year viva. I felt confident saying this though:

“You don’t have to be defined by that one experience. That happened. But that doesn’t have to be what you take forward. That doesn’t have to be the thing you keep in mind for your final viva. It was probably hard, but you can move past that. Despite that you kept going. Focus on that instead. Your first-year viva and your final viva are two completely different events, with different people involved. And now you are a different person to who you were then. Focus on everything you’ve achieved over the course of your PhD, and not one day that didn’t go to plan. Keep going.”

Well, I said something like that! I wish I had had this set of particular words arranged just so on that day a few months ago.

I offer them here instead, in case they can help anyone else.

If your first-year viva was tough, or if you had another difficult meeting or conversation during your PhD, remember: that was then and now you’re not the same person.

You’ve done more, know more and can do more. You’ve done enough to prove yourself. Keep going and succeed in the viva.

End Of Year Blues

It’s a lovely time of year, but looking back I felt a little blue reflecting on my work of the last twelve months.

The projects that stalled. The work that never went ahead. I had to cancel some sessions because of lockdown. The contacts that never followed up.


Then I reminded myself to reflect some more.

On all the sessions that did run – and there were lots of them. All the people I shared them with – and there were lots of them! I didn’t develop my new zine project, but I did share another year of daily blog posts. And I was asked to deliver a keynote talk for a conference, something that I was thrilled by and still smile about now!

If you aim high with your PhD then there will undoubtedly be times when you feel blue. When you prepare for your viva you will probably be reminded of things that could have gone better. The answer isn’t to set your aim lower, but to remember that for all the things that don’t work out as well as you hope there will be plenty that does. There could even be things that have greater results or impact than you imagined possible.

Beat end of year blues by focussing on the things that worked out well.

Beat end of PhD blues by preparing for your viva with a focus on your successes.

Change of Plans

I’m thinking back to this time last year. In the UK there were various permissions extended to allow families and friends to meet over Christmastime-

-and then there weren’t.

Very quickly plans were changed, compromises were reached and make-do decisions were made.

That was hopefully just for one year. If you’ve had to make a similar change of plans for your PhD since March 2020 then that could have had a big and continuing impact on your PhD journey. Everything from a lack of access to equipment or materials and reduced meeting opportunities with your supervisors, all the way to a fundamental change of direction to your research.

It’s natural to be concerned about the questions that could be asked about this at the viva. It’s natural to worry. Not just common viva nervousness from anticipation of the event, but concern for communicating the practical changes and the impact – perhaps even wondering about what might have been.

It’s also natural to expect your examiners to be understanding about how the pandemic has had an impact on your PhD. They will know the changing situation of the last two years will have been difficult: in whatever way it comes up in the viva they will simply want you to be clear. Be clear about the impact. Be clear about how you changed your plans. Be clear about how you navigated the work despite the situation.

Be clear. They will understand.

The PhD Is A Journey

A long journey.

Tiring and stressful perhaps. At times the destination might have seemed uncertain – or perhaps even changed! But if your viva is somewhere in your near future then you’ve almost reached your journey’s end.

As you get closer, pause and take some time to reflect:

  • When has the journey been most joyful?
  • When has it been hard?
  • When have you been lonely?
  • When have you been supported?
  • When have you made the quickest progress?
  • When have you struggled the hardest?
  • When have you had to make difficult choices? (and how did you make them?)

And most importantly, what’s kept you going?

Reflecting on the PhD journey can bring up sensitive or upsetting memories sometimes. It can also help to show your progress, your success, your development.

You got this far. Now keep going. Your journey’s final destination isn’t too far away.

Count Down, Count Up

It’s not wrong to hold your viva date in your mind and count down towards it.

Two weeks to go. Ten days. Seven days. Two days. Ten hours!

We do this with all sorts of events, like Christmas and the advent season. It can be a good way to focus. You have a deadline to steer your preparation.

Counting down can also bring stress and anxiety depending on the situation if you start to feel pressure.

Counting down is a tool: you can use it or not.

You could also count up.

Count up all your work. Count up all of your achievements. Count up all you have written. Count up all you’ve finished. Count up all the talent you have developed.

Counting down can focus you on the event and what you need to do.

Counting up can show you that you have what you need for the event when it arrives.

Two tools. Both can be useful. Use one or both as you see fit.

On Thanksgiving

I don’t have much to add to the post I shared about a year ago on Thanksgiving.

Simply: Being thankful really helps.

Like last year, being thankful has really helped me and my family throughout 2021. The special occasion of Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in the UK, but the act of giving thanks is a valuable one.

What are you thankful for about your PhD journey?

If you’re getting ready for your viva what are you thankful for in your prep?

Being thankful for things that have gone well or worked out, for the resources and means to do well, for supporters big and small – all of these can help with feeling good for the viva. Being thankful helps to put things into perspective and can help remind you that things do go well – when things are hard, there are still good things happening.

Defining Viva Success

You have to define what it means for you.

Having a good conversation?


Passing with a certain outcome?

Feeling happy on the day?

Not feeling nervous?

Remember that your definition of viva success can be a motivation to you, so it’s helpful to have something in mind.

Remember also that not every aspect of the viva is within your control. If your definition of success is not something you can directly influence it might be worth rethinking how you frame it.

What does viva success mean to you? And how does that help you work towards a good outcome?

In Case You’ve Forgotten

If you’re working towards your viva now you are so close to being finished. And to get this far you’ve already successfully completed many major milestones. Some you will share with other candidates, they’re part of the general PhD journey; some will be your own, and no-one else will have had to rise to the challenges that you have.

If you’re nervous, concerned or afraid then at least remember that you are good. You can do this. Don’t forget how far you have come. Don’t forget how you have succeeded despite living through strange and challenging times. You’re so close. You can do this. Keep going.

Understanding The Odds

If you work hard at your research then you increase the chance that you get useful outputs for your PhD.

If you write the best thesis you can then it’s more likely it will be read well by someone else (like an examiner!).

If you prepare for your viva then odds are you’ll be better off than if you had done nothing in particular.

And if you do all of these, as most PhD candidates do, then you’re very likely to succeed.

Learning & Growing

It’s not wrong to reflect on what you might do differently if you started your PhD again.

No thesis is perfect. No PhD journey can be completed without encountering problems or making mistakes. The PhD process is one of learning, so it’s natural to complete it and realise you might do things differently.

Some things could be because you realise a choice was made in error. Or perhaps you know that something went wrong. Maybe now, with the benefit of hindsight and greater knowledge, you know you would take another course of action or understand something with more clarity.

Considering what you would do differently is a great way to remind yourself that you’ve learned more than you knew at the start of the PhD. Don’t think about differences as a way to give yourself more problems and doubts. Reflect and see that your talent, knowledge and skills have grown.

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