Vague Wishes & Specific Asks

I’ve been a huge fan of Tim Ferriss for the best part of a decade. His books and podcast have been a great inspiration to me (as they are to many people). Recently, I put aside the time to annotate his two most recent books Tools Of Titans and Tribe Of Mentors, both of which are about asking others for their advice. In Tribe Of Mentors he asked hundreds of peak performers in many fields the same eleven questions, and gave them the freedom to answer in whatever form they wanted. As a result, the book is fascinating: full of really interesting ideas, patterns of behaviour and thought among successful people.

Tim outlines why he embarked on the project in this LinkedIn post, which is a copy of the main introduction to Tribe Of Mentors. There’s a lot of really useful ideas here too – just generally, never mind for the viva! – but one line stood out to me in particular:

Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.

This resonated with me in thinking about viva preparation. Viva preparation does not have to be a solo project. I imagine most people will spend most of their time getting ready alone, but there are really valuable things you can get from others – your supervisor, your colleagues, your friends and family.

All you have to do is ask, but you will get more if you are specific and clear.

Don’t just ask for a mock viva: be clear about when you might need it, if there is someone you’d like for a second mock examiner and if there are topics you really want questions on for specific practice.

Don’t just ask friends for advice: tell them what you want to know, ask them specific questions about their vivas or ask them to read a chapter and then ask questions over coffee.

Don’t just ask for support from loved ones: tell them how they could best help you, then ask them to do it!

Don’t be vague, be specific. There is a lot of help and support available before the viva, but you need to ask clearly for what you need.

Who Helped?

And how did they help?

You did the work for your PhD, but no-one does it completely alone. You have a supervisor or two, helpers, supporters, confidantes, sounding boards, friends, family and folk who want you to succeed. All of them would probably say good luck before the viva, but most of them have done more before then.

Most could do more still to help you prepare.

Who has helped you? How did they help? And what more could you ask for?

Everyone gets help from somewhere. That’s good.

Think about how you’ll be able to help others after you’re done too.

“Do It My Way”

Be cautious when someone tells you there’s only one way to get ready for the viva.

I think there are some really good principles in effective preparation. Read your thesis, annotate it, find opportunities to practise, and so on – but there are many ways you could do all of those things.

Some people will want a mock viva (and some candidates will feel they need one), while others will prefer simply talking with friends. I think it’s better for candidates to take their time to read their thesis, but because of preferences or other priorities that won’t be an option for some people.

Ask others about their experiences, ask for advice, but think twice when someone says, “Do it my way.” It will probably be well-intentioned, but it might not work for you. Think about how it fits your thesis, your preferences and the options you have at that time.

And be generous with your advice when sharing it, but understanding to know that what worked for you might not be appropriate for your friend.

Butter For Burns

“Don’t worry my lad, this will sort it out.”

My grandma was adamant that butter on a burn helped ease the pain. She’d always done it, had always known it was the thing to do. The afternoon passed and all I knew was my hand still hurt.

Come forward a few decades, and a Google search in 2018 will tell you that putting butter on a burn is not an advisable form of treatment. The notion persists as a kind of folk wisdom. People share it, true or not.

Handed down and passed on over time, like so many thoughts about the viva I’ve heard:

  • “They’re all random, you can’t do anything to get ready!”
  • “They’re out to get you, so you have to be prepared to defend!”
  • “Your viva will be an hour or less if you’ve got a publication!”

There are lots of people who will offer advice about the viva. Don’t just accept it, turn it over in your mind, does it make sense? Check another source. The following is some good viva advice…

  • A typical length for the viva is two to three hours, so don’t worry about rushing to an answer.
  • The most common outcome is minor corrections, nearly everyone gets some.
  • It’s essential you read your thesis in preparation for the viva.
  • It’s important to find opportunities to practise answering unexpected questions.

…but don’t just take my word for it!

Butter is not a good treatment for a burn. Fortunately, it’s easy to check that out. Advice about the viva is easy to check too.

Make sure you’re getting good advice.

Bad Viva Advice

Do none of these things.

  1. Ask your examiners, “Did you get the cheque?”
  2. Start with a joke: “Did you hear about the stupid examiners who missed the obvious plagiarism on page 25?”
  3. Shake a Magic 8-Ball after each question.
  4. Humblebrag.
  5. Plead ignorance: “I don’t know how it got in there!” When asked what you mean say, “Nothing! Nothing!”
  6. Preface every response with, “Well I’m no expert, but…”
  7. Sigh a lot.
  8. Ask if you can sit in-between your examiners. Before they answer, pick up a chair and say, “Come on, scooch.”
  9. Red Bull. Lots of Red Bull.

Candidates sometimes worry that they might do the wrong thing in the viva. Common sense rules. You’re going to have a great conversation with experienced academics about your long-term research project. Your instincts won’t lead you astray.

Thankfully there’s not a lot of bad viva advice out there. Listen for the good stuff, run it past your gut feeling. You’ll get it right.

It’s Not A Game Of Simon Says

There’s lots of advice about how to prepare for the viva. I’m personally responsible for sharing a lot. But none of it is beyond question. For a long time in workshops I shared a few approaches to making paper-based summaries, then realised that not everyone might like to write things longhand. That was simply my preference.

There are core areas to focus on for viva prep, but there is no right way to work on any of these areas. Your goal ahead of the viva, like any other PhD candidate, is to feel prepared. You have to figure out your own path to get there.

Listen to others, but don’t follow blindly.

Best of Viva Survivors 2017: Reflections

I’m rounding 2017 off with five days of link sharing for five different areas I’ve posted on this year. Reflections is the catch-all category I have for posts which are when I’m pondering and musing over the viva. I spend a lot of time thinking about the viva and how to help people prepare for it, so it’s not all that surprising that this shows up.

There will be many, many more reflections from me on the blog in 2018. I hope that some of these have helped you think about what your viva will be like. See you here in 2018: tomorrow! 😀

Found another post that you think is awesome? Let me know! And please share my best of 2017 posts with anyone who might need them. Retweets are always welcome!

Best of Viva Survivors 2017: Short Posts

I’m rounding 2017 off with five days of link sharing for five different areas I’ve posted on this year. Today I’m sharing some of my favourite short posts. Sometimes I’ll have a thought and realise it doesn’t take many words to explain it. Others, it’s the beginning of something else I’ll come back to another time. In any case, all of the posts below are brief but helpful. I’ve provided a tiny excerpt from each post to give a taste!

These aren’t the only short posts on the blog. In 2018 I’m hoping to make time to go through and tag shorter posts so they become more searchable. Good idea?

Found another post that you think is awesome? Let me know! And please share my best of 2017 posts with anyone who might need them. Retweets are always welcome!

Don’t Worry

This is one of the phrases that seems useful on the surface. An encouragement to steer someone away from nerves.

  • “Don’t worry, you’ve done the hard work…”
  • “Don’t worry, you’re the expert…”
  • “Don’t worry, they’re not there to interrogate you…”

Here’s the thing: “don’t worry” doesn’t stop people from worrying! I’ve been pondering this for a while, and I am trying to be really conscious about the words I use in the future. I know I’ve said it before but I’m trying to remove it from my “viva help vocabulary”.

All of the reasons above are true, as justifications for why someone doesn’t need to be worried. It’s difficult for an already worried or nervous person to hear those reasons when they hear “don’t worry” first.

Helping a friend prepare? Don’t say “don’t worry”. Simply try to help them focus on their achievements. Get them to talk to you about the work. Steer their perspective.

Get them to realise how talented they are to have submitted their thesis, and how well-placed they are to succeed in their viva.


Candidates joke about these terms to describe the viva, but I think the joke masks real fears. They worry that examiners will come in and speak harshly, treat them or their thesis with a lack of respect. They worry that they will come in with an agenda, a pre-determined outcome based on “the right way” to do research.

I can’t say this never happens. I can say that I’ve not heard of many viva experiences that match this fear. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about their vivas, and it’s not come up much. Talk to people from your field about their viva experiences. You’ll find that there are ways that examiners generally behave. They’ve generally prepared well, read your thesis carefully and have fair questions in mind to drive a discussion.

Listen to stories and get it settled in your head: if your examiners disagree with an idea, a method, a conclusion, they will treat you with respect and they will be open to your explanations. They’re not interrogators or inquisitors.