The Humble To-Do List

Make a little list of things you have to do for your viva prep, things that you know will help. It might include:

  • Read all of my thesis;
  • Read two or three papers by my examiners;
  • Chat to friends about my research;
  • Check the regulations;
  • Find out how my video viva will be done;
  • Check my supervisor’s availability for helping me.

Just a little list – this example is by no means complete, but there shouldn’t be hundreds of things! Some examples can be crossed off neatly, others will take time. You might want to break those down, depending on your preferences.

It’s much easier to know when you’re ready if you plot out what you need to do to get ready.

A little to-do list could help a lot.

Know The Aims

Vivas don’t just happen as some kind of almost-full-stop on the PhD. They’re done for a reason. There are aims of the process. Find out what they are – this isn’t a great secret, explore around on this blog and you’ll find lots of discussion on the topic!

Examiners have aims with their research: topics they’re interested in, questions they want answers to. While the viva is about you and your work, your examiners bring their agendas and ideas. Find out their aims by looking at their recent work. See how that might connect (or not) with your work. Explore how that might impact your viva.

And remember your aims: you had them. Maybe they changed, perhaps in some cases they were unfulfilled, but you had them. What started you off on the process and where did it lead you? How important are those aims for the conclusions of your thesis?

And how could you communicate that if asked in the viva?


When I was a kid I used to love all-you-can-eat buffets. Some of this, some of that, pile the plate high and devour! And repeat! And repeat!

And then regret

Sore stomach, parched throat, and a fuzzy head from too much of everything.

As an adult, my preferences have changed. Far better to have things you really want, rather than consume everything because it’s there.

I think it’s similar in a way with viva prep.

Most candidates will have between six to twelve weeks after submission. There’s lots you could do. You could read your thesis a few times, make lots of notes, have lots of conversations with people, a mock viva or two, read all of your references, check to see if there’s any new good ones and just keep doing more and more work. There will always be more you could do, and there’s a big gap of time (leaving aside how busy you probably are) to prepare in.

But all that focus will probably leave you with a fuzzy head from too much of everything.

Far better to act with intention. Decide in advance what outcomes you’ll need to satisfy to consider yourself prepared. You really can’t do everything. You don’t need to use every hour of every day to get ready.

So what do you need to do? Who do you need to help you? When will you get it done?

Don’t treat prep as open-ended task. A little thought and a little plan will go a long way to helping you get the work done.

Thinking Caps

I’ve always liked the idea of putting a thinking cap on: doing something to particularly stimulate ideas or cleverness. There are times when I’ve worn a baseball cap as I sit down to write or work on something tough. I know it doesn’t make the ideas come any easier: it’s a reminder though, something to help signify what I want to be true, “I’m here to get this done, and I can do it.”

Let me be clear: in all the hundreds of viva stories I’ve heard of, I’ve never heard any where someone wore a hat to their viva!

But I have heard stories of musical playlists that help the candidate feel reassured.

I’ve heard of outfit choices that help people feel better.

I wore a pair of my good day socks for mine!

Thinking caps are probably out. But what else could you do reaffirm for yourself that you’re at your viva to pass? What else can help you feel confident?

A Thimbleful of Courage

A little bravery goes a long way. Yes, the unexpected question could scare you, or an honest mistake that seems huge, but you have talent, you have knowledge, you have your thesis.

This should lead to a confidence that you must be good. Good enough to meet with your examiners and defend your work. The tiniest amount of courage will see you through. The smallest reserve in the face of worry or fear. You can find it.

It’s normal to be nervous in anticipation of an important event like the viva. Find your courage. Be brave.

If you could get to submission, you can get through the viva.

Summary Focus

How small could you make your thesis?

It takes years to create, through research and writing, to make it what it is. But could your thesis be summarised in a few thousand words before your viva, to help you remember key points, important references and essential ideas?

Perhaps you could present the best ideas in, say, three minutes? A valuable and entertaining presentation for a general audience, not dumbing down, but not sharing all of the details.

Or could you capture everything essential for you in a single page? What would be essential? How would you decide on what to leave out and what to include?

You can’t walk into the viva having memorised tens of thousands of words and hundreds of references – and you don’t need to. A useful part of preparation is breaking down your work to find the most important details, to help your memory and make present the most valuable or necessary things that you might have to discuss in the viva.

You might want to explore several different scales of summaries, or ask yourself several different questions to help your preparation. To begin with, ask yourself what information you need to look over. What do you think would be useful to have almost at your fingertips? And what might others need to know or be interested in?

Do One Little Thing

It’s 2020. You’re tired, you’re pressured, you’ve got no focus, you have a million and one other things to do and you still have to get ready for your viva.

My viva was a long time ago, but I empathise with anyone who feels like they can’t get things done right now. And yet still, you have to.

If any or all of those things are true, then do one little thing and then rest.

  • Put one bookmark in your thesis.
  • Write down one interesting question that comes to mind.
  • Find one nice piece of stationery to use in your prep.
  • Make a note of one person you can ask for help.
  • Take one Post-it Note and write “I can do it!” on it.
  • Stick that Post-it somewhere prominent in your workspace.

You can do it. You will do it. Despite tiredness, pressure, everything else you need to do and everything else going on around you, you can do it. There are lots of big things you might have to do to get ready, but lots of little things add up.

Do one little thing if you’re tired. Then rest. There’s still time.

You Have To Get Better

Think of three things that you’ve got better at by doing a PhD.

  • First list them: how would you specify these skills, processes or knowledge areas?
  • Write a few sentences for each about how you started your PhD: how would you qualify your ability or awareness then?
  • Write a few sentences for each about where you are now: how good are you today?
  • Write a few sentences for each about what made the difference: how did you get from where you were to where you are?

You have to get better at lots of things during a PhD, but progress and change can be so small day-by-day that it’s hard to see. Look back now, reflect and convince yourself.

Your development can be one of the roots of your confidence for your viva.

You Can’t Fake It

And you don’t need to, in order to pass the viva.

You must have done something right to get to submission. You must be capable.

Feeling nervous or being anxious are general human conditions. If you feel them for your viva you’re either recognising the importance of the event, or have a specific concern. Both of these things can be addressed, perhaps not perfectly, but you can do something.

Rather than cross your fingers and fake your way through the viva, be honest with yourself. If you’re nervous, what are you nervous about? What can you do to genuinely build your confidence? If you have a specific concern, what is it? What can you do about it, or who could help you?

Trying to fake your way through a forced smile will hurt more than working to make the situation better. You can’t have faked it to get to submission. Don’t start now.

(also, literally: you can’t fake being as good as you are – you must actually be pretty great!)


How are you better now than when you started your PhD?

Because you must be: as talented as you were when you were accepted and began your programme, you must be even better now that you’re near the end. Progress and development can be hard to see without reflecting though, so I imagine there are times or situations where you still feel the same.

Here’s a short reflective exercise that I hope helps:

  • Make a list: five things that you can do now or know now that you didn’t when you started your PhD.
  • For each point: write a sentence for how this has helped you through your PhD (because it must have).
  • For each point: write a sentence to say something about how this helps you for the viva (because it will do).

What stands out to you? What helps you feel confident for your viva?

(that list can probably be much longer – start with five, and keep adding as more thoughts occur)