Hard Limits

There are limits for everything related to your PhD journey.

There is a finite number of hours you could have spent on your PhD.

You can’t read everything that could be relevant. You would never have time to work towards your research in a practical way.

You can’t do everything that might advance your research goals. You would never have time to write up your thesis.

You have to make choices. You have to accept the limits, like them or not. You have to work within them, whether you want to or not. And, of course, the last eighteen months will have brought more limits.

Rather than rail against the limits and the maybes and the could-have-dones, reflect on how the limits of your PhD have had an impact. Explore the difficult limitations as you might have to talk about them in the viva. Remember that despite the limits – or in some cases, because of the limits – you have made it through.

Again & Again

I’ve been playing the video game Hades every day for about a month and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.

The son of the Greek god Hades fights to escape the Underworld. It’s fantastic, stylish, polished and deep. It is an absolute delight to play and experience – even though there’s a steep learning curve, lots of challenges and skillsets to juggle and bring together. Again and again you die and return to the start…

…and in a weird way it makes me think of my PhD journey!


Again and again I had to rise to the challenge. Sometimes I knew what I had to do. Sometimes I found what I was looking for. Sometimes I could just do what I needed to.

But again and again I faced setbacks. Things didn’t work. References couldn’t be found. Answers were not forthcoming.

Again and again I started again. I would have to go back to the beginning of a problem and try to look at it from a new perspective. I would need to find a new way forward.

Again and again I grew. I became more skilled, more knowledgeable, more sure that I could take on new challenges.

And again and again I was surprised, delighted and frustrated as I continued on my journey.


All of your agains – the repeated steps, the start-overs, the learning, the experience, the knowledge-building – all of the frustration and growth and joy – all of this is what you take with you to the viva.

No more agains. The final step, more or less, and the talent, work and time you’ve invested helps you through.

Done, finally… Until you take on your next challenge.

Comfort or Stretch

Comfort, Stretch and Panic are a helpful trio to consider when challenging yourself. The first two words are helpful to consider as springboards for reflection in your viva prep.

For Comfort, think about what skills or knowledge you’ve developed on your PhD journey. What do you know now? What is a comfortable challenge for you? What can you do that you couldn’t do before? How might you apply some of that thinking or skill in the viva?

For Stretch, think about how you have grown. When did you need to apply yourself more? What was it like in those times? Did you boost your confidence or determination? What parts of your research stretched you?

Comfort and Stretch can help you get ready for your viva. You can reflect on these areas by yourself – but if anything leads you to Panic – or to stress or to worry – then ask for help. Ask your supervisor, talk to friends and explore what the viva is really like.

Comfort and Stretch can help you get ready, but there’s really no need to Panic about your viva.

Numbers Matter

Since July 2010 I’ve delivered sessions about the viva to over 6000 postgraduate researchers. I have the 300th Viva Survivor session in my diary for early 2022. Shortly after that I’ll mark the five year anniversary of this daily blog.

I regularly remind myself of these numbers. I don’t write them to boost how I seem to you: I write them to help me see myself more clearly.

Like everyone I have doubts. I have anxieties. They come and go and can sometimes bring me down.

The numbers don’t lie though. The numbers help to tell my story back to me. I have done this work for a long time, I’ve worked with a lot of people, I’ve stayed determined with the blog. The numbers help me to show me the results of what I’ve done. They steer me towards my confidence and away from doubts.

What are your numbers? What measures could help you?

The number of days you worked on your PhD so far? The number of times you’ve shared your work? The number of chapters in your thesis or interesting things you found? The number of challenging situations you overcame?

You might have a bad day or a bad week near the end of your PhD. It may be you doubt yourself as you get closer to the viva. In those times look for your numbers. Your feelings might say one thing, but the numbers will tell you a far more helpful story.

It’s Not One Day

Hundreds and hundreds of days over the course of a PhD.

Thousands of hours of learning, discovering and knowledge-building.

So much personal development, growth and talent.

And, yes, you need to share all of this for a few hours of one day in order to pass your viva – but the test is not one day. It’s all the days you’ve invested; all the times you’ve stayed determined and kept going.

If you’re nervous, anxious or worried about your viva then consider how far you’ve come. Reflect on how you’ve made that progress and then find a way to keep going. Keep going until it’s done.

Fault & Responsibility

Examiners aren’t looking to find fault. They might have tough questions, they might think they see problems. Because of their experience they could have critical comments but these are never aimed at tearing work apart – or trying to tear a candidate apart.

In the viva, if something doesn’t seem right to them, instead of finding fault they could be looking for you to take responsibility. They don’t want to know who is to blame, but rather why something happened that way.

Sometimes mistakes are made. Sometimes, with good intentions, a plan of work doesn’t work out.

Taking responsibility doesn’t mean simply saying “It was me!” but rather exploring and explaining what happened, what you did and why things are the way they are.

You’re not at fault, you’re not to blame, but you have to take responsibility and then see what comes next.


When your viva is finished, after the celebrations and congratulations, when you can breathe, take a few minutes to reflect:

  • How did I succeed?
  • What can I build on?
  • What can I do now?

Your PhD might be over, more or less, but there’s still a way for you to go. So reflect, take time to explore how you got where you are, what you can do and what you could do.

When you finish a PhD you are necessarily talented: there’s no other way you could get this far by being lucky.

This chapter of the story is over. What’s next?


There’s no luck with the viva. No trick or superstition to rely on for success. Instead, it’s all on you.

What you did, what you know, what you can do.

None of that is due to luck either. There could be good fortune – when hard work pays off – and you achieve something that was uncertain, but there’s no simple luck.

There’s nothing that just gets you through – and nothing that simply, randomly, unluckily stops you.

You worked for your success. That work continues to help you through the viva.

What Would You Change?

It’s possible that your examiners would ask about changes to your research. Not what you could, would or might do to make things “better”, simply given your experience, what would you change?

It’s not a trick or a trap. The question is another way of exploring “what have you learned from the process of doing research?” They’re asking you to demonstrate how far you’ve come, not to showcase what is wrong with your work.

Reflecting on changes could be helpful in your preparation. It can help to make you more certain of what you did. You can be more confident of what you have learned. And before you meet your examiners in the viva it can help you to realise just how far you have come.

The Outtakes

I’m curious about outtakes in movies – the scenes that didn’t make it in or alternate versions of scenes that did.

Sometimes outtakes are shown as bloopers: the moments when things went wrong or when someone laughed. It’s helpful to see outtakes because it reminds you that however impressive something looks in a movie it’s taken time and effort to achieve that.

Your thesis will have outtakes too. Sections that aren’t included. Perhaps a whole chapter that just doesn’t fit. You’ll have loose threads you cut or ideas that had to be left out because of the space or time you had available.

As interesting as movie outtakes can be their existence also serves to remind us of something else: that there’s a reason that they were not in the finished film. They didn’t fit. They didn’t work. They were just people laughing, and as funny as that might be to see it doesn’t tell the story.

It’s the same with your thesis. You might second-guess yourself, or doubt if you have enough in your thesis at some point but remember: if you left something out of your thesis there is a good reason.

Remember what those reasons are and you can strengthen the reasons for including the work that you have.

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