Little Reminders

On Thursday March 19th 2020 I was nervous. The next day I was going to deliver my first Viva Survivor webinar. Lockdown hadn’t started but you could tell it was coming. I knew I would need to move my work to Zoom, so decided to go early. Thankfully, my clients were happy to accept my proposal.

Still, the webinar had been rushed together in three days. I knew the material but had lots of worries about the tech, the pacing and so on. Would it all work? Were my slides OK? I didn’t do slides when I presented!

My daughter, who had just started home schooling, asked me what was wrong, and so I tried to explain. She listened and gave me a hug and wandered off.

The next morning, a few hours before I was to begin, I was nervous but practising my introduction when there was a knock at my office door. My daughter was stood there, with a smile and a gift:

My little friend!

“This is for you Daddy – this is you! You’re going to be fine today. He’s smiling and you can too.”

“Little Nathan,” as I’ve come to call him, has joined me on every webinar since. He makes me smile, and tends to make participants smile too, but more importantly he is a reminder of what I can do and how I want to be when working.

You can’t have Little Nathan, but you can make your own reminders. What will help you remember your talent? What could remind you of your confidence?

What could help you to smile on the day of your viva?

Green Screen

My computer won’t put a fancy background behind me when I Zoom. A friend has a green screen to help with their work, and I’ve been mulling over buying one for a few weeks now. I like the idea of having something really interesting behind me, or to play with video editing, changing the background for fun or to make a point.

Maybe “green screen thinking” could help with preparing for the viva too. How can you change your perspective on your work? How can you alter the background to what you’re doing?

  • Can you imagine yourself in the role of an examiner?
  • Can you change perspective to someone who has found a fault, or thinks the opposite of you?
  • What would it be like if you were new to your thesis? What would be tough?

With the metaphorical press of a button can you shift perspective? Maybe you would find something valuable for your preparation.

Factors For Prep

I mentioned yesterday that it’s ten years since I started doing work on the viva, but it’s nearly twelve years since I became an independent researcher-developer. That’s a lot of paperwork and notes, and when you sort through it you find things that you don’t need, things you might need, things you’d forgotten about and things that just might be useful…

Like a note on an old creative thinking workshop plan, not for top tips or processes, but for things that help creativity. Things that are personal to everyone, but which if you get right can really make a difference in outcomes. These four factors that help are Location, Atmosphere, Behaviour and Resources – and all of them can help viva prep too!

  • Location: where will you do your prep?
  • Atmosphere: will your prep space be silent or have a soundtrack?
  • Behaviour: how are you approaching your work?
  • Resources: what do you need to support you?

By themselves they aren’t viva prep – you still have to read your thesis, make notes, practise and so on. But how you do something can have as big an impact as what you do. How can you tailor your situation and strategy to help you prepare well?

Viva Survivor, Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, nervous, optimistic, uncertain but happy-to-help, I stood in front of a room of PGRs in Manchester and said, “Erm, hi, I’m Nathan, and today I want to help you explore getting ready for your viva…” I had no plans to do another one! Halfway through the session a colleague from the university said, “Oh, there was a big waiting list – when can you do another?”

I did a few for Manchester that year, then a few more the year after. Another university asked me to do one. Then a few more. All word of mouth. I started Viva Survivors as a podcast in 2012 so I could share stories and learn more for myself; I used the site as a platform to research and learn even more. More universities asked me to help. Then more!

In 2010 I did the session three or four times I think. In 2019 it was over fifty times!!!

The Viva Survivors blog has become a place for me to experiment, to share, to test ideas and refine how I express them. There’s been a lovely symbiosis between the blog and the Viva Survivor session. A question in a session becomes a new line of thinking for the blog; a neat idea on the blog becomes a cornerstone in the session.

On July 21st 2010 I was thinking, “Oh gosh, please let this go well, I hope this works, I hope people get what they need, phew this will help to pay for my wedding…” Today I’m thinking, “That went by fast! OK, how can I help candidates get what they need for their viva?”

(And, “Oh wow, it’s my tenth wedding anniversary in a few months!”)

If I’ve met you on the journey so far, thank you. Thank you to the nearly-5000 candidates I’ve met at a Viva Survivor session. Thank you to all the readers of the blog, to all the amazing people who shared their story on the podcast and to everyone who has helped me share this blog over the years.

Two Reflective Mini-Vivas

I’ve been playing around with my Mini-Vivas resource recently: I have ideas for other related game-like resources, and am thinking about how to adapt it for other purposes. I happened to roll some dice to get a few mini-viva sets and the following two struck me as being particularly reflective ahead of a viva…

First Set:

  • Where did your research ideas come from?
  • How did your process change as you did your PhD?
  • How did the existing literature in the field influence you?
  • What are your main conclusions?
  • What publications do you hope to produce?

Second Set:

  • Why did you want to pursue your research?
  • How did your process change as you did your PhD?
  • How does your work build on prior research?
  • What questions would you like to ask your examiners?
  • If you could start again, knowing what you know now, what would you keep the same?

While I think it’s more useful to ask a friend or colleague to prompt you with questions as practice, that’s not always possible. There are several suggestions on the mini-vivas page for how you could use questions by yourself. The sets in this post couple help you to summarise key aspects of your research and get you reflecting on the last few years of work.

A little reflection can go a long way to helping you be ready for your viva.

Hopes & Disappointments

There was a time, thankfully long ago now, when my background philosophy could probably be summed up by, “I’d better not hope for too much, then I won’t be disappointed.”

This was a time when I generally expected that I had to work hard and then hope I achieved what I was aiming for, rather than working hard and seeing confidence rising from my actions.

Hope is good, but hope is not the word you want to have hanging around your viva. Don’t only hope you will pass: know that you will. You won’t be disappointed.

Facing Fears

If you’re not just worried about your viva but afraid, to the point where it is having an impact, you need to stop and find help.

The right person could be your supervisor, a colleague, a friend or family member. You have to pass your viva on the day by yourself, but you don’t have to prepare for it alone. If you feel fear before your viva it won’t be removed by simply sweeping it to one side.

Tell someone who could help. Get them to gently help you see what the issue is. Make small steps towards resolving it. For example, being worried about answering questions won’t be overcome by jumping straight into a mock viva – a short, sharp shock is not what this doctor prescribes! But one question is a start. Maybe even writing something down rather than speaking first.

If you’re facing fear: Who could help? What steps could help? And when will you start to make them?

A Careful Candidate

I think this is the overall mindset I’m trying to encourage when I try to help people get ready for their viva.

Careful doesn’t mean cautious or pessimistic. Careful doesn’t mean trying to game the process or gain an advantage. Careful, in this sense, means someone taking their time to think things through – only a little – and trying not to leave themselves open to errors that could have been avoided.

For example, if you want to be a careful PhD candidate for your viva you could:

  • Discuss possible examiners with your supervisor and say what you would look for.
  • Plot out the weeks when you’re likely to be preparing for your viva to get a sense of what time you might have.
  • Decide on what you will wear for the viva to help you feel your best self.
  • Make opportunities to present and discuss your work to gain confidence.
  • Read your examiners’ work, both to show a little respect and to get a sense of their perspective.
  • Read the regulations for your institution and ask about anything that is unclear.
  • Ask recent graduates about their experiences to help set your expectations.

Be careful – full of care – to respect the moments you have coming up in the viva. Approach the viva confidently, having understood what it’s about, and what you can do to do it well.


A short viva prep exercise: make a list of five to ten concepts or ideas that are fundamental for your research.

Now spend a few minutes defining them, either recording yourself talking about them or writing a few notes. They could be hyper-specific – a genus 2 handlebody was important in my thesis, for example – or much more general:

  • What is an equation?
  • What is an interview?
  • Can you describe an essential piece of equipment for your research?
  • How do you define a good method?
  • What is “good” data?

Go back to fundamentals and definitions. In the viva you’re called on to explain how you did your research and to show that you’re a good researcher. Perfection is not a realistic state to attain, but do you feel confident about your understanding of basic definitions?

You can.

Discuss, Explain, Demonstrate

Examiners have three important things to do in your viva:

  • Explore your significant, original contribution;
  • Unpick the hows and whys of your research;
  • Examine your competence as a researcher.

They ask questions to motivate discussion. If they’re satisfied by your thesis and the discussion then you are awarded your PhD.

You have to assume at submission that your thesis is good enough. Then, in the viva, the three important things your examiners have to do prompt three important challenges for you. You have to…

  • …discuss your significant, original contribution;
  • …explain the hows and whys of your research;
  • …demonstrate your competence as a researcher.

Discuss, explain, demonstrate – the three core verbs to have in mind for your viva.

What could you do to better prepare yourself to discuss your contribution?

How well can you explain how and why you did your research?

And how can you demonstrate your competence – your talent – as a researcher?