…or, I Went To The Zoo To Do Viva Survivor!

There’s a lot of nice things I get to do as part of my work. A few months ago I was asked to deliver my Viva Survivor session as part of a doctoral training programme’s away day. It’s not the first time that I’ve delivered the session outside of a university, I’ve been to a couple of other away days at hotels or conference centres.

This was the first time I’ve been to a zoo for work 🙂

I got to have a wander around, and then did the session after lunch. There was a special treat just before my session started. Going behind the scenes at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, to learn about how they care for their big cats and then feed a lion! I’ve sometimes done work as part of a larger programme, but never had to follow something quite as thrilling as feeding a lion…

It was a great day, and most of the time when I’m out working I’m fortunate enough that it feels like I’ve had a great day. This was a bit more special than usual though, a real highlight.

I hope that lots of researchers feel that their PhDs are filled with great days (even though, sadly, I know from talking to people that’s not always the reality). As your viva gets nearer I’d encourage you to reflect on what the highlights were, and why they stand out. Is it all emotional? Is it something you learned, a significant day in your research? Was it the first or only time you got to do something really special?

Over a thousand-and-more days, parts of the PhD can fade into the background. Sometimes it can feel like it’s all about the work. But when it’s done, you’re the PhD.

How did you get here? What were the highlights on the path that got you here?


Let’s make some assumptions about your PhD:

  • you didn’t plagiarise;
  • you didn’t falsify results;
  • you didn’t try to misrepresent anything in your work.

All fair? Then there can’t really be any skeletons in your research closet. Maybe there are realisations you feel you “should” have had sooner. Maybe there are questions or ideas that you groan at having considered. None of these are shameful secrets though. You might not feel like telling everyone about them, but they don’t disqualify you.

Fundamental question about your PhD: were you honest? Yes?

Good. Then everything else helped you learn. Your mistakes have helped you grow to be the talented researcher you most definitely are.

Origin Stories

Superheroes all have origin stories: the tales that show why they are the way they are. Some parts show their beginnings, or how they got their powers. Some chapters show why they’re driven to do what they do, but taken together this tells a story that defines who they are.

But origin stories change over time for superheroes. Times change, memories fade, new audiences come. Stories are remade, taken apart, cleaned and ideas added. Things are tweaked or re-emphasised in how they’re told.

So, PhD Superhero: what’s your story? How did you get to where you are now? What are the pivotal events that give you your powers and drive?

And do you need to revise your origin story? Is there a better story you can tell yourself about how you got those superpowers and how you got this far?

The Longcut

I like this term. The longcut is the anti-shortcut. The longcut doesn’t cut corners or take chances with success. It’s slow, patient and persistent.

You didn’t take shortcuts with your research. You didn’t take shortcuts with writing your thesis. When you come to get ready for the viva, you don’t want to take shortcuts, you want longcuts. You want to do good work that will help you be certain of being ready.

Don’t skim your thesis the day before. Don’t rely on the bare minimum. Don’t just think about what might happen.

If you’re busy, still make time. Think about what will make a difference, make a plan and do work to get yourself ready for success.

Take the longcut.


People sometimes think of The Hobbit as just the prologue to The Lord Of The Rings.

The story of The Hobbit is barely a footnote in the first Lord Of The Rings movie. They take a few seconds to say “Bilbo found a magic ring” – but there’s so much more to it than that! Dwarves and trolls and fantastic expeditions, elves and a dragon and incredible heroism…

The Hobbit is an epic adventure. It’s not only so Bilbo can find the One Ring.

…we now cut from Nathan’s Book & Movie Review Corner, back to the Viva Survivors blog…

I think candidates sometimes forget that the time spent doing the PhD is not just the prologue. And your thesis is for more than passing the viva. It isn’t just there to please your examiners and pass an exam. It stands as a separate, lasting contribution. It means something.

The ways you change, the things you learn, the things you can do by the end – it’s epic, not just the prologue.

I love The Hobbit, but The Lord Of The Rings is the grander story. Your life after the PhD probably will be too.