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.

Relatively Important

Was my viva important? Yes, but…

  • Have I had worse days before or since? Yes.
  • Have I had better days? Yes.
  • More stressful? Yes.
  • Have I worked harder? Yes.
  • Have I thought more deeply? Yes.
  • Have I felt more pressured? Yes.

Was my viva important? Yes, but it’s not in the top ten most important days of my life.

It’s not even in the top ten most important days of my PhD.

Your viva is important, of course it is, and it may feel like the most important thing ever. But are you framing it as too big of a deal? Are you making it more important than everything you’ve done? Are you attaching more stress to it than you need to?

Reflect a little for yourself. How you feel about your viva can be a tricky problem to solve. A guy on the internet saying that you’ll have better, worse and more stressful days doesn’t magically solve how you might feel…

…but it’s a start. Where do you go from there?

Time Flies

15th September 2017 marked nine years since I became self-employed. My PhD was all done and dusted, and after a few weeks thinking about the future and what to do, that was the day that I had my first meeting with a client.

In the blink of an eye, almost a decade has passed. My PhD was an important part of my life and continues to be an important part of my life, but I’m more proud of all of the other things I’ve done since then. All of the things I’ve written, the workshops I’ve delivered, the people I’ve helped – they’re worth more to me than my PhD is, but at the same time I wouldn’t have had these opportunities if it hadn’t done my PhD.

Be grateful for your PhD, but it will end at some point, and you’ll go on to other things. Before you know it, years and years will pass, you’ll accomplish more and better. Your PhD can’t be the apex of your life. I wasn’t stressed out too much by my viva, but it did seem like it was the most important thing in my life. I wasn’t thinking about the future. If I had, maybe I could have put things into perspective.

Per scientiam ad meliora

The Most Important Exams (Or Not)

It’s GCSE results day in the UK. My wife and I tutored someone this year. At sixteen she was told the GCSEs were the most important exams she would ever take. If she didn’t do well she could not do the courses she wanted to do next. She was told that she would have to retake exams until she passed. She would have fewer options, all of which would be awful.

Of course, all this did was stress her out.

I was told the same thing twenty years ago when I did my GCSEs. And two years later when I did my A Levels. During my undergrad degree I was told that I needed to get a First or else I would have few choices afterwards.

Every step of the way, “This exam is going to define your future!”

At the top of the exam pyramid: the viva. I ask people how they feel about their viva; a common response is stressed, for the same reasons as other exams. Of course, with hindsight, it is much easier to see past the trap of the “most important exams ever” stories. It’s difficult to see things with the right perspective in the moment. Take a step back. See if you can shift attention and energy or change the story. It’s far better to focus on what you can do rather than what might happen.

If your viva is past, what can you do to share a story to help someone? If your viva is coming up, how can you shift your focus back to doing good work?

Change The Story

Have you noticed there’s not a lot of love for the PhD process? Every stage seems to have some kind of negativity attached to how it’s described:

  • First Year Funk: realising that what you wanted to do is harder than you thought…
  • Second Year Blues: feeling down or bored with being stuck…
  • Final Year Fears: worrying about finishing on time or at all…

“Surviving the viva” is a theme that’s been around for a while. Negative associations with “defending your thesis” persist.

These things can’t be beaten with a throwaway line or a joke. We associate being a “viva survivor” with a story that the viva is a trial by fire, the equivalent of a planned natural disaster that can’t be avoided. But the dictionary also defines survive as “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” – not insurmountable, just difficult. Talking about all the aspects of research and being a researcher can be difficult. Answering tricky questions about your research can be difficult. But not impossible.

So reflecting on this today I have two requests:

  • If your viva is in the past: tell future PhDs what was difficult about your viva and prep, but be honest and talk about what you did to meet those difficulties. You survived!
  • If your viva is in the future: think about what challenges might come your way, but reflect on what difficult challenges you’ve already overcome. You can survive!

One positive story is not going to change the negative associations surrounding the PhD and the viva. But lots of them…

Who’s In The Room?

It’s your viva day. There’s you, your internal examiner, your external examiner. At some institutions there’s an independent chair too, someone making sure that the viva is fair. Many universities also allow a candidate’s supervisor to be present.

Did you hear that?! That was the sharp intake of breath of a thousand PhDs around the land.

My supervisor could be at my viva?! Noooooooo!!!

If your supervisor came to your viva they would be there only as an observer. If they came to your viva they couldn’t ask any questions or comment on your responses. If they came it would only be because you allowed it.

But if they came they would be able to make notes on your behalf. You’re free to make any notes you like, but that could be tricky. Your supervisor, if you wanted and if they were willing, could keep a record of interesting questions or observations. This information could be pretty useful after the viva. But it’s all up to you. If the thought of your supervisor coming adds pressure, then just say no.


I felt like I had done enough viva preparation when I went to bed on the evening of June 1st 2008. I’d read my thesis. I’d made notes. I’d dug out all of the papers I thought were useful. I had packed my bag – including two textbooks just in case – and rehearsed my slides for my presentation. I was ready. I had everything I needed. I’d had plenty of time to get to that point.

I’d even packed a bottle of water and two chocolate bars in my bag. Prepared.

The next morning, viva day, I got to the university and went straight to my supervisor’s office. Knock-knock, “Hugh, can I just check, when we talk about genus 2 handlebodies, they’re…”

If you keep thinking, if you keep going, you’ll always find more. More things to do. More questions to ask. More things to check up on with your supervisor.

Enough for me was being able to find things in my thesis, being sure of my proofs, being clear in my mind about the results I’d got – and having everything I thought I needed in my bag the night before.

What does enough look like for you? Think about it, make some decisions. Make a plan. Now you know what you have to do to get to “enough”.

Four Hours

My viva was four hours long. It was over in an eye-blink. I left my viva thinking, “What just happened?” I was tired because I had slept badly, and the viva was quite an involved discussion at times. Still, I was really surprised to find out four hours had gone by. I’ve heard similar stories from other PhD graduates: vivas that seemed to take no time at all despite clocks and watches clearly showing hours have passed.

Two/three/four hours at the end of years of research, learning and development – by comparison it really is an eye-blink. In the moment it could fly by, or there could be questions that drag on and on (I remember those too). But relative to all that you’ve done the viva is a tiny step in the PhD process: one of the final ones, but one at the end of a great deal of work by you. However long the viva is, you’re in a good place to meet the challenge.