Little Lists

Annotating your thesis as part of viva prep is useful: it creates a better resource to be consulted during the viva and also focusses your attention while getting ready. You have to engage again and again to add value by underlining, highlighting and making notes in the margin.¬†There’s plenty of space to add details but it helps to be concise and clear.

A specific, short idea for today then. Write a little list at the start of each chapter; five bullet points to capture something of the pages that follow:

  • A one-sentence summary.
  • The key takeaway of the chapter.
  • A reference that really supports the work.
  • A question to remember or reflect on.
  • Something you learned while doing the research.

A micro-review of each chapter will help sharpen your thinking while you get ready for the viva and continue to support you when you meet your examiners. Invest a little time in some little lists.


Rehearsal for the viva is essential because it simulates some of the aspects of being there. If you’re nervous about how you will respond, what will come up or what it will feel like to be there then you can’t do better than rehearse in some way.

A mock viva is the best way to simulate the viva experience. Questions from experienced academics in a relevant field or disciplines. Time to think and be in a viva-like environment. Facing uncertainty of what the next question or opinion will be. You can practise what you will do and get a sense of how you might feel.

A mock viva, a simulation, however polished, can’t be as accurate or as good as the real viva. How will it differ from the real thing? You can’t know beforehand. You can simply be better prepared for talking to your examiners.

How To Finish Well

Look back over the progress of your PhD journey. Your progress.

Realise that there is something new that now exists – and the only reason it does is because you made it happen.

Prepare for your viva carefully, invest time to make sure you are ready and confident.

Listen, think and respond to your examiners; make the most of your viva.

And when all of that is done, take a moment to think about what you take with you beyond your PhD. When it is finished it’s not the end for you and who you are now.

Good Viva Prep

At submission, if not before, take a little time to sketch a simple plan for getting ready for the viva.

When will you start? What do you need to do? Who do you need to ask for support?

As you ask and reflect on these questions you’ll realise changes or missing details. If you have a big thesis maybe you need to start reading it sooner. If you need more practise then you can make better arrangements with your supervisor or friends.

Sketch a plan, because it will help you to get organised – you can always make changes to it too! It can be hard to simply react if things change when your whole plan for prep is “just wing it”.

Good viva prep starts with a plan: you know what you need to do, when you need to do it and who will be there supporting you.

Side Quests

I love a good open world video game.

They often feature a big map to explore, an interesting story and characters to follow, missions to complete, a character to develop and more. What I like most of all is a world to fall into that’s different from our own.

Another common feature of these sorts of games is side quests: optional, shorter storylines that aren’t essential for completing the main game. If in the main story you’re hunting for clues or tracking down a villain, a side quest might involve simply helping someone out or collecting something you need.

Side quests also bestow rewards: more experience points to level up your character, a benefit that’s unobtainable somewhere else in the game or sometimes just a satisfying piece of the story or detail about the world.

Take some time to consider the side quests of your PhD journey as you prepare for your viva:

  • When have you productively diverted from the main path of your research?
  • How did that help you and what did you learn?
  • What have been the most rewarding times you’ve had during your PhD years?

The real world isn’t always like video games. We can’t see XP numbers. We can’t naturally apply stat boosts or perks. We have to reflect. We have to look back and see.

While you will have progressed through the main track of your PhD journey, you will have also benefitted from the side quests you’ve been on. In preparation for your viva, take some time to realise how you’ve got to where you are now.

What You Need

You need to feel prepared and confident for your viva.

What does that mean for you? I don’t know.

I can make some guesses:

  • You might feel you need to read your thesis a lot, so it sticks in your mind.
  • You might need to know about your examiners, to feel happy with who they are and what (you think) they might ask.
  • You might need to make a lot of notes, read a lot of papers or have a mock viva.
  • You might need to read the regulations or you might simply need to ask a few friends about their vivas.

You will need particular things to feel prepared and confident for your viva. You are the only person who can figure out what practical things will help you feel that way.

Disrupted & Different

We’re in our third year of the pandemic changing our lives. After all this time it’s reasonable to assume, at least for the next few years, that it’s a topic that might come up in the viva. Your examiners will expect that your PhD journey will have been impacted in some way; it may be useful for them to ask about this in the viva to explore and explain aspects of your research or thesis.

In preparation, perhaps consider the following three questions and make some notes to clear your head on the topic:

  • Why was your research disrupted by the pandemic?
  • How did this have an impact?
  • What changes did you need to make to your plans?

Reflecting and writing can help prepare for possible questions. It can lessen worries by helping you see that your work is not diminished, just different as a result.

Everyone’s daily life has changed over the last few years. We’ll feel the impacts for some time to come. But in preparation for the viva you can clarify things so that you can talk more easily to your examiners about how the pandemic changed your PhD.

Details Matter

Details matter in the viva but you don’t need to have perfect recall of everything you’ve ever read, done or written.

Details matter but you can take your time to think about how to explain them.

Details matter but you have lots of time to focus in advance of the viva on the details that matter more.

Details matter but your examiners want more than the facts.

Details matter but you need to be able to talk about them, not simply know them.

Presenting Helps

Two words I wish someone had shared with me over my PhD journey.

Presenting helps in so many ways to build someone up – both for the challenges of doing a PhD, succeeding in the viva and being more ready for life afterwards.

Presenting helps because it makes you think of your audience. To communicate you have to think about who they are, what they want and what they need from you.

Presenting helps because it encourages you to be clear. You have to really think about your message, how you express it, how you structure it and so on. This can be a real benefit for writing, for thinking and for asking questions.

Presenting helps because it makes the presenter nervous – of course, that’s not always a comfortable thing! It helps because, if you take some time, you realise that nervousness is related to the importance of what you’re saying. You have something valuable to share.

Presenting helps because it’s an iterative learning process: there’s always something to learn, something you can take away for the next time.

Presenting throughout the PhD can help you a lot. Presenting as part of viva preparation can be really useful to help explore the words you use to explain your research – and to clarify what makes your work valuable.

Pace Your Prep

Viva prep is not the kind of work that has to be compacted into a short period of time. It can be done that way, but is probably far better to give yourself space and time to think.

Explore your situation and consider: when will you do the work? How will you do it? Where will you do it? How often will you sit down to read your thesis and when will you begin?

You can pace yourself. An hour a day. Five days a week. Four weeks. That could be enough to be ready.

Of course, you might want to take an afternoon off to do a big concentrated burst of work; you might need a few hours in a row to take advantage of a mock viva opportunity.

Pace yourself in a way that works for you. Find the space in your schedule when you can do the work and not stress yourself. Do the work in a way that doesn’t add too much to an already busy schedule.

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