Long Term Prep

Viva preparation is a short term project. You don’t need to start getting ready before you submit. You don’t need to focus your final year on building up for the viva. If you have a long time to go before submission you need to focus on finishing your research and your thesis. That has to be the priority.

You do not have to do anything to prepare for your viva until after submission. However, confidence plays such a big part in feeling ready for the viva it feels right to suggest a few things you could do over a long period of time. If in your final year you want to build your confidence then try some of the following:

  • Make opportunities to present your work.
  • Reflect on your progress once per week.
  • Record your successes as they happen.
  • Write down any tasks, activities or situations where you feel confident.

As you get closer to the viva, reflect on all of these. Presenting and discussing work gets better with practice. The more experience you have the better you will feel. Reflecting and recording your PhD journey will help to highlight that you are doing well; you’re building a firm foundation for confidence. Finally, if you know the times when you feel confident you can use that to your advantage in your viva preparations.

Short term prep is the work of weeks. Read your thesis, write a summary or two, have a mock viva. Long term prep is the work of your life. Pause, reflect and realise that you are a lot better than your worst moments.

You have done well, you can do well, you will succeed in the viva – and beyond.

Summary Values

Summaries are not scripts. You don’t write an overview of your results to be able to read them out. You don’t make a list of helpful references to simply parrot them back on the day.

The value of a summary is that it helps to highlight what matters. It’s a practical task that gives you an opportunity to draw your thinking together. It helps you to find the words you need to express yourself.

If you invest a little time in writing one or two summaries before your viva then you prime yourself to respond well in the viva.

Little Things

If you’ve submitted your thesis but don’t yet have a date for the viva then it might feel early to prepare for meeting your examiners. Before you have a date it could feel like you’re aiming at a target that is vague or not quite real.

Viva prep is not so tightly timed, usually, that one has to wait for a date. At some point after submission you could simply start – but if you have other responsibilities or are worried that starting soon will mean you forget things, then you could do some of the following while you wait:

  • Read the thesis examination regulations for your institution.
  • Explore papers by your examiners to get a sense of their work.
  • Write one or two short summaries of some aspect of your work.
  • Have coffee with a friend and have a gentle conversation about your research.
  • Plan how you will do your prep once you know the date.
  • Read a couple of posts each day from a daily blog all about the viva…!

You could do lots of little things to help begin your preparation. You don’t have to wait for a date to start getting ready. Reflect and explore how you could use your time wisely.

Right Summaries

I’ve shared a lot of thoughts on the importance of writing summaries as part of viva prep. They can be a useful way to explore an aspect of your work. They can help to focus attention and simplify complicated ideas. They can give you greater certainty that you know what you need to know.

I believe writing a summary is a valuable use of your time when getting ready for the viva, but:

  • Don’t write summaries to give yourself a script to read from.
  • Don’t write summaries to just do something while you’re getting ready for the viva.
  • Don’t write a certain kind of summary if you can’t see the point.

You’re not expected to simply read things out in the viva. Your prep should be purposeful and directed. Not every idea of a “good summary” is going to be relevant for every candidate and thesis.

The right summary for you to write is something that frees up your thinking, rather than finding the only words for sharing something. Write a summary that’s right for you.

Easy Wins

Viva prep can sometimes seem like a huge project. Existing pressure, personal responsibilities and fatigue can all add to overwhelm. There are no shortcuts to getting ready, but you can start the process by completing tasks that take very little time.

  • Search for and bookmark your examiners’ staff pages to consult later.
  • Download a copy of the viva regulations for your university.
  • Stick Post-it Notes at the start of each chapter of your thesis to make it easier to navigate.
  • Send a short email to a friend asking them to give you a mini-viva soon.
  • Gather together stationery you could use to annotate your thesis.
  • Decide on whether or not you want a mock viva with your supervisor – and let them know.

Small tasks can provide real benefit to viva prep or help to set up greater success. If you’re daunted by the scale of what you need to do then get some easy wins. Get small tasks done and then start to break down the bigger project of viva prep into smaller pieces.

Writing A Thesis Blurb

I’m not a fan of the abstract in my thesis:

This thesis uses Kauffman skein theory to give several new results. We show a correspondence between Kauffman and Homfly satellite invariants with coefficients modulo 2, when we take certain patterns from the respective skeins of the annulus. Using stacked tangles we construct a polynomial time algorithm…

And I’ll stop there before I lose every reader of this blog for ever! I look at my thesis now and again, and whenever I read my abstract I think, “What does it all mean? Why would anyone care? Why did I care?”

Of course, abstracts are needed to share what a thesis is about. They have a place. I think it would have been helpful for me, to boost how I thought about my thesis, if I also wrote a blurb – the kind of thing you read on the back of a book or a DVD box that’s there to draw someone in.

Maybe instead of using lots of big words to say very little at all I could have said something like:

Do you like knots but don’t know how to tell them apart? I can help with that! This book describes my explorations of several ideas that explained some unsolved maths mysteries. I went further than anyone else had gone before! I didn’t quite get everything I wanted, but I got more than I thought possible when I started. Read on to find out more!

Perhaps it wouldn’t have what my examiners needed, but it could have done something to help me.

What could you write about your thesis to excite yourself? If your abstract needs a little oomph to boost your confidence, what kind of blurb could you write?

Ask Yourself Why

When you’re getting ready for your viva it could help to ask yourself why a lot.

  • If something is particularly strong in your research: why is this good?
  • If you find a typo or a part that needs changing: why will that change make things better?
  • If you find yourself unsure about something: why are you unsure and what could you do?
  • If you feel nervous, confident, uncertain or amazing: why do you feel that way and what does that mean for you?

Whatever happens, whatever you find, what you feel – if you ask yourself why you can go a little deeper. Ask yourself why and you can uncover more.

Ask yourself why and you can find a way to become even more ready for your viva.

Push Yourself

In preparation for the viva it might help to push yourself, to make that extra effort even if it’s hard. You don’t have to do a lot, push yourself, just a little.

  • Push yourself to read your thesis, even if you’re bored!
  • Push yourself to find out more about what to expect.
  • Push yourself to read your examiners’ recent papers.
  • Push yourself to practise being in the viva.
  • Push yourself to believe that you can be confident of your success.

Push yourself before the viva; then when you meet your examiners the experience won’t be a surprise or a great stretch for you.

Can You Hear Me?

I’ve said those four words probably hundreds of times since the start of the pandemic and my shift to working from home.

For any webinar that I deliver I have to produce joining instructions way in advance. Then I check my slides and notes the day before (and on the day) to see what needs updating. I draft follow-up emails beforehand, do a quick run-through of key points, check all of the tech is working well and make sure I have my water bottle filled. I check I have my notes, I check if my wife is going to be home while I’m delivering the session. Then I get things going and finally I ask,

“Can you hear me?”

There’s a lot of really practical steps to delivering one of my sessions.

And I also write out an overview each time even though my notes are onscreen for me to see. I write out a five-point list of things to remember and focus me that is the same for every session. I listen to a short playlist of music that gives me energy and helps me to feel confident. I have a picture on my desk that my daughter made for me, and a small paperweight that is comforting to hold at times while I talk to everyone through the camera.

There’s a lot of really personal steps to delivering one of my sessions.

The practical steps are necessary because I couldn’t do the work at all without them. The personal steps are necessary because I wouldn’t feel like me and I couldn’t do the work as well without them.

Over the course of a PhD, a postgraduate researcher has to do the work. They have to do the research and practical steps that lead them to completion. But to feel right they also have to pay attention to the personal work that can help them feel confident about their ability.


For your viva, you have to have done the practical steps for your research and the personal steps for you and your confidence, just like I do for delivering a webinar.

Does that make sense? Can you hear me?

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Viva Prep

It’s an established tradition at Viva Survivors that I finish each year by sharing a selection of posts before the New Year. Over the coming days I’ll share long posts, short posts and posts on confidence; today we start with the important topic of viva prep. In many ways viva prep isn’t complicated, but there are lots of ways someone could get ready for their viva. Here are some ideas:

Getting ready for the viva involves doing the work – but it doesn’t have to be a burden. Sketch a plan before prep time comes, spend time with your thesis, spend time on practice and you’ll be ready.

Tomorrow: a selection of some of my favourite long posts from this year!

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