Cast Your Mind Back

What did you not know at the start of your PhD that you know now?

What could you not do at the start of your PhD that you can do now?

You had to start somewhere. There had to be gaps you needed to bridge, things you needed to discover.

Reflecting on your progress should help with confidence for the viva, because you appreciate just how much you must have developed to get the work of your PhD done. You did it, and you must be good enough.

Still, when you look back it can raise the odd worried thought. Perhaps something is unfinished. Perhaps there are gaps in your knowledge. Perhaps there was more to do.

If you have unanswered questions or unpolished skills, it won’t be because you’re lazy. A PhD is long, but doesn’t give enough time to learn everything or become proficient in every method. Perfection is not the standard required for you, your thesis or your viva.

You did the work to get you this far, and you must be talented, you must be good enough. Look back to the start of your PhD to get a sense of just how far you have come.

Explaining Absences

If you had to pause your PhD – for medical reasons, for personal reasons, for pandemic-related reasons – then you can absolutely explain that to your examiners. I think it should be enough to say, “Oh, it was disrupted for personal reasons,” and you’re done. A PhD is important, the viva is important, but the work that goes into them shouldn’t be put on such a pedestal that day-to-day human life is overshadowed by them so completely. But you can say more if you want to.

Most of the time, when someone asks me about anything to do with the viva, my first thought is to direct them to think, “Why?” But absence, whatever the reason, was probably quite personal. I don’t think your examiners need to know “Why?” – so perhaps think “How?” instead.

Think concretely and clearly about the impact that the absence had. Did it pause things? There was a gap and then you had to start again. Did you have to change your plans? Explore the differences brought about by the delay. Did you have to leave things out? List what didn’t make it into your thesis.

For absences, reflect on how it had an impact over why it happened.

Scene Changes

I’m always fascinated by how movies switch perspective or place, or how they jump forward in time.

Sometimes they jump from one place to another, abruptly – you were here with these people, now you’re here with these people!

Sometimes a scene changes with a fade to black……………and then fade back up to the new place or time.

Star Wars is famous for the way it “wipes” to other scenes, a line moving across to take away the old and reveal somewhere new.

And there are movies that show somewhere new, but then also tell us something about where we are with a subtitle – a place or time, a year, a city, and so on.

All of these different techniques do different things. They direct attention, refocus, change expectations – and they make me think about the scene changes for a PhD.

  • How do you go from working perhaps every day to get a thesis finished to life post-submission?
  • How do you frame things now?
  • Is the change a gradual fade to black, or an abrupt stop?
  • Do you need subtitles, new information, a new framing?

Wherever you are in your journey towards thesis completion, or if you’re post-submission already and on the way to the viva, think about the scene changes around you. Unlike a movie, you’re in charge of them. They can be gradual changes, they can come with subtitles to help guide you; you might feel that you have to jump from one thing to another.

Remember that a lot of these things allow you to take some measure of control – maybe not a full Director’s Cut, but you have some authority!

It’s Never Just Luck

“Luck” during a PhD can only come from your working to be in a good space to begin with.

“Luck” with a result or an idea or the final state of your thesis is the result of work, not simple good fortune.

“Luck” in the viva’s outcome denies all you’ve done.

Don’t be so modest. Don’t downplay what you did, and what you can do. Yes, you may have been fortunate, but you still had to work for that opportunity or outcome!

Unanswered Questions

The lack of an answer in your thesis or in the viva doesn’t mean a problem for you.

Perhaps it tells you something about the question. There’s a reason you don’t know. What is it? That’s important.

Or maybe focus on why you can’t give an answer directly. What’s missing? Where’s the gap? That will be important too.

An unanswered question might not be unanswerable forever. Discussing “why you can’t give an answer now” could be the best response you could give in the viva.


Flashback to one of the earliest posts in this blog: “You’re fortunate, you’re not lucky.

A tricky question, a tough correction, a difficult discussion – none of these are unlucky. They happen for a reason. You missed something. You made a choice that didn’t come together. You had a lapse of concentration. Some of these things may or may not be beyond your control. But still, you’re not unlucky – that would mean that your PhD and viva were just random events.

You’re not simply lucky if you pass; you’re not simply unlucky if something doesn’t work quite right. And given that a massive majority of viva candidates pass the viva, it’s not likely that you would be unfortunate either.

Making Your Mark

Nathan Was ‘Ere!

That’s what I thought it might mean, doing a PhD. I did this! I made something, and the whole world will know!

…well. My thesis has helped others explore problems, but it didn’t make a huge impact.

If I went back to my old building there would be people who would remember me I think. But if I went to Room 524 there would be no trace of me at all. I would stand in the doorway and smile and say hello, I used to work here, that was my desk and I remember when

And someone would say, “That’s nice, but we’re trying to work. Can we help you with something?”

I don’t regret doing a PhD. I don’t regret not staying in my field. Doing a PhD is the only way I could have got to where I am now. There are times where I feel I want my thesis to mean more than it does. Sometimes I want having been a part of that university community to mean more than it feels like now.

But for the most part it is enough.

Regardless of a candidate’s plans, or their involvement with their community, or the impact of their research, I think that graffiti of “I Was ‘Ere!” has to be written across your self first. You have to make it matter to you. It could be that you go on to do more research, or not; you might change the world for a lot of people, or just for a few; but you have to make it matter.

You have to look and see what mark you’ve made on yourself over your PhD, I think, before you can decide what to do with it afterwards.

So if your viva is soon, what does your PhD mean to you? Why does it matter? And where are you going next?

Bloopers & Highlights

How often do you compare yourself to others?

I did this all the time during my PhD.

One office mate was determined to complete his PhD quickly. My friend at the next desk was a superstar, she had real talent. One of my best friends seemed so calm all the time. Compared to my friends, I was terrible.

What was I doing? How could I do a PhD if these people set the standard?

Of course, I only saw one side of their stories, and a distorted view of my own. Comparing “talent” and “progress” is a losing game during a PhD – if there’s even a game to be played! But so many people do it.

Is it any wonder candidates get to their viva and doubt themselves?

I spotted a really helpful YouTube video by one of the former podcast guests, Dr Pooky Knightsmith, and it resonated with me. The video is aimed at teachers comparing themselves to their colleagues, but a lot of the same ideas apply to postgraduate researchers too. Instead of comparing your bloopers – your mistakes – to your friends’ achievements, maybe try talking with them. Instead of dwelling on your slip-ups, focus on your own highlights. Think about how you can make them even higher!

Explore your highlights before your bloopers when it comes to your viva preparation.

Day By Day

Over the course of a full-time PhD in the UK, a candidate will probably show up on seven to eight hundred days. I can well imagine this number goes up for a part-time PhD. A candidate shows up when they come to get something done: work on their research practically, learn something, share something or write something.

They show up when they come to do something that matters.

On most days it might not feel like much. Stuck in the middle of second year, you could feel as if you’re stuck in a loop. Wake up, do work, sleep, wake up, do work, sleep, and so on. But it all helps. It adds up. Over hundreds of days, bit by bit, you build talent. Reflect on them and you can build confidence too.

You won’t have hundreds of days between submission and the viva, but this day by day perspective still helps through preparation time. Do a little every day, and build up how ready you feel. Build up your confidence day by day.

Pay attention to when you show up and confidence will follow.

Celebrate Your Thesis

I love World Book Day! Not the costumes and dressing-up, but the sheer love of books.

It’s… a celebration of authors, illustrators, books and (most importantly) it’s a celebration of reading.

I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, when I didn’t read for fun, for learning, for joy, for the thrill of it. Books are fantastic.

A PhD thesis is fantastic too, but, like the viva, I wonder if they tend to get dragged down a bit. Lots of questions about writing up and so on tend to be negatively tuned in tone, or get a less than positive response from the person being asked.

That would be nice to turn that around, don’t you think? We can’t dismiss the hard work, the long hours, the difficult effort that goes into a thesis, but we can do more to recognise that a thesis is amazing.

So this World Book Day, if you have a thesis and want to celebrate:

  • Tell others what’s so great about it!
  • Write summaries in preparation for your viva!
  • Explore what makes it great – which is what your examiners will be looking for too!

If your friend has their viva or submission coming up, help them to celebrate their thesis:

  • Ask them about it! Not “How’s it going?” but “What makes it special?!”
  • Ask to know more: go for coffee and ask for more details.
  • Celebrate when it is finished!

Books are fantastic. A thesis is fantastic. To write one, you’ve got to be fantastic too.