Explore Your Thesis With VIVA

I’ve shared my VIVA tool a few times: an acronym for exploring your thesis chapter by chapter as a valuable viva preparation. My quick directions for someone to try this would be to divide a sheet into four sections, and then use a series of prompts to reflect:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about the research?
  • Vague (or unclear): what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask (your examiners): what would you like to ask your examiners?

I’ve mentioned before that this is a good starting point for reflection. One could dig quite deep using the tool. These four areas cover a lot of ground in preparation too. There are other necessary things a candidate would need to explore – who their examiners are, checking recent literature, exploring how their research connects to the wider field – but even that last point might be explored a little by considering what is Valuable (to others).

If you are preparing for your viva, I’d encourage you to try VIVA to start your reflections and summary creation.

Explore the content of your chapters with a little direction and see where that leads your preparations.

Start With Three Things

There’s a lot you can do to prepare for the viva – so much that at times it could feel overwhelming. Whatever you’re going to do, start with a limit of just three things to help you focus.

  • Ask your supervisor three questions to help you prepare – what would they be?
  • Put three bookmarks into your thesis – where would they go?
  • Check three papers you’ve referenced – which ones would they be?
  • Take three minutes to summarise your work – what would you say?
  • Think of three questions you would like to ask your examiners – what are they?

Three is just to start. You can invest more time, more questions, more effort after the first three, the most important three are done.


Don’t be. After years of research and months of writing, it could be hard for you to see someone else’s point of view.

But it’s easy to imagine your examiners will see things differently to you. Maybe they have a relevant question you’ve not considered. Maybe they don’t quite get what you mean. Maybe a section of your thesis that is perfectly clear to you is only clear because of everything else you know.

Get other perspectives before the viva. You don’t have to change your perspective on your work, but it is really useful to consider others. Get feedback from your supervisor to see if there are other approaches or considerations you’ve discarded. Get questions from friends to help explore around your topic. Write summaries of your work to draw out ideas and make your thoughts concrete.

Don’t expect your examiners to know more than you, but don’t expect that you know every possible question or idea either.

Must Read?

There’s probably hundreds of references in your bibliography. There are possibly dozens of papers written by your examiners. Many pages in your thesis. There are several books on viva preparation. There are thousands of posts and articles about the viva (almost a thousand on this site alone!).

Is everything must read? Do you have to read everything in order to get ready for the viva?

Of course not, but you have to find the balance right for you.

You need to read your thesis. You need to be familiar with your literature and what your examiners’ interests are. And it will help you feel confident knowing that your prep follows good ideas and principles. You have to see where the gaps are for you, and find good sources to bridge them.

It’s not all must read.

What Are You Missing?

A key question to ask during your viva preparation, not about your thesis but for yourself. What are you missing?

  • Do you find it difficult to remember key references?
  • Do you wish you could remember where things are in your thesis?
  • Do you need to know more about what to expect?
  • Do you know nothing about your examiners?
  • Do you feel unconfident?

All of these problems can be solved. There are posts on all of these topics on this blog, and lots of people around you will have helpful advice too. If you don’t know what you’re missing, ask a PhD graduate what they think was missing for them; tell them what you’re doing or plan to do to see if they see anything missing.

Whatever is missing can be figured out. Whatever the problem you can find a solution before your viva.

Record, Reflect and Review

You probably have a voice-recording app on your phone. Why not put it to good use to help your viva prep?

  1. Record your mock viva. Listen back and think about your responses and how you frame them. What else could you say?
  2. Have coffee with friends. Reflect on the questions and topics that come up. How do they match your expectations?
  3. Explore how you talk about your contribution. Record different ways of sharing this. How can you best communicate your research?
  4. Record a mini-viva! Have a mini-viva by yourself or with a friend asking the questions. Listen afterwards. How did you do?

Doing something helps. Reflecting afterwards helps you even more.

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.

Advice and Action

When I did my PhD there was very little help available for viva candidates. Now there is help everywhere.

There are scores of advice articles for the viva and probably hundreds of blog posts about personal experiences – you can find a link to some of them here!

Universities have staff who are there to answer questions, academics with experience who can tell you what’s what and resources to help get ready for the viva – it’s worth checking out what’s available at your institution!

And Viva Survivors has dozens of interviews with PhD graduates, lots of free resources – and over 850 daily posts of viva help!

There is a super-abundance of help for the viva out there. A wealth of information, ideas and advice that can be accessed by any PhD candidate who wants to know what the viva is about and what they can do to be ready.

So: what will you do to get ready?

Because now all of this help is out there, the only thing stopping you being ready is your decision about what you will do.

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.

The Decision

Before the viva, your examiners will have an idea of the outcome. They’ve read your thesis; they have thought about it; they have experience. They will have an outcome in mind before the viva based on what they think of the thesis.

But it’s not set in stone. It’s an outcome they think is likely, but you still have to show up and show them what you know, what you think, what you can do.

In very rare cases examiners tell candidates the result at the start of the viva. In those cases they are so sure of the viva outcome that they want to put the candidate at ease to then have a great discussion. But those cases really are rare. Don’t expect it for your viva.

Expect that your examiners will have an idea: they do their job in the preparation and come prepared to do their job on the day. They come with a decision that they look to see confirmed by your actions and your words.

You can make a decision too. You can decide to be ready for your viva. You can decide how you will show up on the day.

So decide.