Reading Allowed

It’s not a good idea to have a script for the viva. You can’t take such detailed notes in that you are effectively quoting pre-prepared responses. Besides, there are so many possible questions and variations of questions that to even attempt detailed notes would be foolish.

You can read in the viva though: your thesis is your companion in the exam, a faithful friend that has everything you need, right there for you to use.

  • Need to check a quote? Look in your thesis.
  • Got to find that exact number? Check your thesis.
  • Examiners asking something specific? It may be worth peeking at a page or two.

You might not have all the answers; your thesis might not either. But to help you respond you can read, check, quote and find things. Scripted answers won’t help you in your viva, but reading your thesis will.

Reading & Writing

It’s necessary to read your thesis in preparation for the viva. You don’t need to memorise your work, but it helps to have a good recall of the flow of your thesis to make using it in the viva easier.

Annotating your thesis or writing summaries are helpful for viva preparation, and have the added benefit that they have to be done actively. You can’t write a summary without being engaged with your work. You can’t annotate your thesis without being switched on and reviewing what’s there.

You can pass time skimming your thesis, but that won’t help your prep as much as reading actively or investing time in writing about your research. Reading and writing tasks are essential elements of getting ready. Find good ways to do both kinds of work.

Who Is It For?

Your thesis is not written for your examiners. You have to write it for your PhD and your examiners have to read it to examine you. It’s not written for them – the goal is to make a contribution to knowledge.

You don’t learn about viva expectations so you have a template you’re trying to complete. You’re learning more so that you can prepare well. You’re not trying to meet some ideal for your examiners.

Your prep is not done for your examiners. It’s for you. You want to be at your best, ready, refreshed, feeling confident – but that’s not for them. You want to to feel ready for you.

Remember to keep the focus where it needs to be for the viva.

Limits of Annotation

Annotating your thesis as part of viva prep can help create a more useful resource. Making things easier to find or easier to see can help your viva run smoothly.

There are so many options open to you: bookmarks, Post-it Notes, highlighter tabs, highlighter pens, pencil, ink, red pen, green pen, writing in the borders, the margins, the header and footer and between the lines…

And you can add short summaries, break down jargon, have sentences at the top and bottom of every page and colour code anything and everything you can think of…

But don’t.

There’s a limit of how much you can usefully add before your annotations become confusing. There’s a limit of how much you can add before it becomes a time-sink for you, rather than an effective use of your time.

So don’t do everything. Start with some limits. Explore what you might need. Make a list. Decide on how you will usefully add things.

Then do the work. Cross things off your list until you’re done.

Make a useful thesis by setting some limits on your annotation.

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.┬áSections 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.

Do Chapters Get Equal Focus?

Yes and no.

Every chapter in your thesis will be read by your examiners. Everything will be considered.

In reading it though, examiners may find things they particularly want to focus on in their thinking and then in the viva. There may be elements they need to spend more time on. You may have chapters about difficult, tangled-up topics. You could have results that rebut long-held beliefs. Some chapters might just mean more to your discipline, to the thesis or to you.

Yes, all your chapters will be considerd, but in the viva some may have more time spent on them than others.

And that’s OK!

What Have You Forgotten?

I believe it’s worth reflecting on this a little before the viva.

What have you forgotten?

Perhaps you can’t know for sure. You’ve had to edit out papers, ideas and references that didn’t fit. You forgot them, to concentrate on what mattered.

Perhaps there are details that elude you sometimes; if so, what can you do make them more memorable or to summarise them?

Perhaps you view the question as an almost-irrelevance, a nonsense. How could you remember what you’ve forgotten?

I think it’s useful to remember that however much you have forgotten, accidentally or so you could focus, there must be so much more that you remember by the end of your PhD. You have a lot of knowledge, which doesn’t mean simply knowing more: you know more of what you need.

What have you forgotten? What do you remember? What do you know?

Making An Impression

A question from a nervous candidate, “What should I wear for the viva? I want to make the right first impression on my examiners!”

Except that’s not the first impression. Your examiners’ first impression is your thesis. They get their first impression long before they meet you in the viva.

Wear something that helps you to feel confident: there are far more important questions to grapple with than what should you wear.

What have you written? What did you do? What does it mean and why does it matter?

And what impression do you hope your thesis will make?


Whatever else your thesis has – ideas, opinions, theories, hypotheses, results, conclusions – it has implications.

  • What might someone else do with your work?
  • How might they be inspired?
  • What questions do we now know to ask?
  • What questions do we know are foolish?
  • What does your thesis mean?

Thoughts in these areas could be rich for useful viva preparation – and relevant topics for conversation in the viva.

Gaps & Holes

At the start of your PhD you have gaps: the things your research seeks to address.

At the end of your PhD you have holes: the things you didn’t get to, couldn’t show or don’t know.

Both need some of your viva preparation time. Reflect on the research gap to better share it with your examiners. Explore the holes so you can talk about them confidently in the viva.

Your thesis and research are more than gaps and holes, of course, but both will matter in the viva.

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