Peel an onion layer back carefully and there’s more underneath. Again and again, not infinitely but quite a way. It takes patience and effort to go down layer by layer.

The same’s true with your research. One can see the end result, but with patience and effort you can dig deep into what’s there. It’s built on a lot. You can ask why many times. So can your examiners. They can dig deep and explore motivations, assumptions, the fundamentals. It’s not for fun, it’s for their understanding and to show yours.

You can be ready for the viva by digging below the surface, prepare by examining the background. Test your assumptions. Remember why your work is valuable. You don’t need to go too deep though, going further and further, ad infinitum. That way lies a lot of tears.

Which brings us back to onions.

The Four Elements

There are four elements of practical viva preparation, four key modes of activity to pay attention to:

  • Thinking: specifically, reflecting on your work, how you did it, what it means.
  • Reading: your whole thesis, carefully, and any papers that you need to remind yourself about.
  • Writing: adding annotations to your thesis and creating summaries of your work.
  • Talking: making and using opportunities to practise answering questions about your thesis.

None of them requires you to learn radically new skills. Investing time in these areas will be rewarded by your increased confidence as the viva comes around. There are lots of things that you can do in each of these areas:

  • Thinking: use a questions list; explore your contribution; reflect on why your thesis matters.
  • Reading: don’t skim the first read-through; look for vague passages; target the good and bad.
  • Writing: make important parts stand out; write overviews of your chapters; find new ways to explain things.
  • Talking: talk to friends; have a mock viva; give a seminar and take questions.

You might not have done any of these things during your PhD, but you can do all of them. You only have to find expressions of the four elements to match your personal preferences: for example, not everyone will want a mock viva, but every candidate will benefit from practise through answering questions.

Find ways to think, read, write and talk that build confidence for your viva.


Nearly every person that I’ve spoken to about mock vivas had theirs about two weeks before the actual viva. For them it was a chance to explore their thesis, get questions about their work and see how they would feel responding in a viva-like situation. Most people want something like that from the mock.

A while back I spoke to someone who had their mock viva a month before they submitted their thesis. They wanted to see how well they were communicating, both through their thesis and through the answers they gave to questions. Their early mock viva gave them a chance for “pre-corrections”: based on questions and feedback they tried to improve their thesis as much as possible before submission. That didn’t mean that they weren’t expecting corrections later but they were using their mock to make their thesis the best it could be.

I’ve never interviewed anyone else who has had such an early mock viva. It might not be a terrible idea to do something like it though. Why not host a seminar or have a series of conversations to unpick how well you’re communicating your research? What could you do to improve?

One More Chapter

You’ve submitted your thesis. You’re done. The viva is coming up and it’s going to go well. You’re almost there.

But… If you could, what would you write for one more chapter of your thesis? Was there something that you did but didn’t write up? Why?

Would you need to start another little project? What ideas have you got? How much work would it really take to get it done?

I’m not suggesting that you go out and do this! Just reflect, have a think, see what ideas come to you. There’s probably plenty of good reasons why you’ve stopped where you have.

But… What would you do next?

Dreamer, Realist, Critic

I’m a big fan of creative thinking tools. The Disney Method is one I like a lot. It forces you to break creative thinking into stages by adopting three personas:

  • Dreamer: think of as many ideas as possible; encourage brainstorming; remove constraints and see where thoughts take you.
  • Realist: think about what would work practically; explore within resources and deadlines; see what can be achieved.
  • Critic: think about what won’t work in your ideas; test them to destruction; find problems to solve.

At the end of this kind of process, ideas are stronger and more clearly defined. You can see whether or not they will actually be useful.

Maybe something like this could be a useful framing when it comes to look back over one’s research too:

  • Dreamer: what did you want to do when you started? What were your big goals? How high were you aiming?
  • Realist: what did you actually do during your PhD? How did you tame your objectives? In what ways did you have to adjust the scale of your ambitions?
  • Critic: where are the problems with what you’ve done? What could people object to? What would you do differently, and why?

You might not get these exact questions in the viva, but they might not be a million miles away either. Tools like this can be useful to unpick and explore. They can boost your confidence at going over your research in the viva.

Bonus questions: Which are you most like in your day-to-day, a Dreamer, a Realist or a Critic? How well does that work for you?

Six Whys

Why questions are the root of reflection. You have to take a step back and ponder. Here are six for viva preparation:

  1. Why were you attracted to your field of study?
  2. Why was your particular focus worth pursuing?
  3. Why were the methods you used the best fit for what you did?
  4. Why are you certain of the results you’ve found?
  5. Why is your interpretation of those results correct?
  6. Why is your research a significant contribution to your field?

Big questions. Take some time to think about these, maybe journal them or make some notes. They get at the core of your research.

Who’s Who

For some time I’ve suggested that researchers make an edited bibliography as part of their viva prep. If you have 200 references, what are the 20 most important? Make a list and add a few details to each of them: which chapter they’re most important to, why, and so on.

Last month at a workshop in Leeds, a participant gave me a brilliant hack of this idea. Think about the main researchers you’ve included in your bibliography, or who are big names in your field. Make a list and write a couple of sentences for each to summarise their research or opinions. Creating the list helps you to think about your field, and afterwards you have a resource to refer to as you prepare for the viva.


It’s the General Election in the UK today. Today is a day for a decision – but then so is every day.

Every day is a series of decisions, some big, some small, some that don’t matter and many that do. There are decisions that only you care about, and decisions that you wish you didn’t have to make. There are decisions that will change things forever and some that are just one of many options that seem fairly similar – you have to pick something and so you do.

The PhD is a series of decisions. The viva might explore some of them. Which methodology did you pick and why? Why study this topic in this way? Why do X instead of Y? Why did you come to that conclusion? Why, why, why, why…

The PhD is a series of decisions that you make, and the viva is where you try to account for them. Some of them aren’t right or wrong – they just are. They need an explanation or an argument to support them. Your examiners may disagree or have a point of view that needs accounting for. “Why?” is a good place to start there too. Once it has been asked then there’s no place to hide: both parties need to listen, think and come to a conclusion.

Unpicking decisions can be a useful prep tool for the viva, both to strengthen arguments and prepare for answers.