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.


In preparing for the viva you get to choose what to focus on. You get to choose what to avoid. Make the choice consciously. The list of advice and practical points is long. It’s unlikely that you can do everything that people advise. You don’t need to do everything.

Listen to advice, but decide for yourself what’s relevant.

(and if your viva is a long way off, this is true for the PhD too)


It will be like this. It will be like that. You need to do it this way. I did it that way.

Check this book. Listen to that podcast. My friend said this.

A friend of a friend had a nightmare experience. A friend of a friend of a friend FAILED.

My sister’s brother’s best friend’s dead dog’s former owner knew someone who had their viva and said it was no big deal, so what are you worried about?

Everyone has an opinion about the viva.

Ask a few questions. Listen to the answers. Decide for yourself. Keep doing good work.