Creativity Through Constraints

I’ve been a huge fan of the concept of “creativity through constraints” since I first heard it a few months after my PhD.

I would beat myself up all the time for not coming up with ideas, or for finding it tricky to start projects. “Being creative” sometimes feels like you have to be wholly original, or think of something really big. Creativity through constraints forces ideas out by adding parameters or barriers:

  • You have a page to tell your story. What do you write?
  • You only have £10 to spend on a present. What could you get?
  • You have a hard deadline to be finished by, no exceptions! What do you do?

Constraints are limits, but they don’t have to be limiting. In preparation for the viva, consider how you could use constraints to your advantage.

  • You have a page to summarise your thesis. What do you write?
  • You have a limit – because of work and other obligations – of how much time you can invest on prep each day. What do you prioritise?
  • Your supervisor can only meet you one or two times before your viva. What do you ask of them?

Constraints can encourage you to think creatively. Pressures can be stressful, but they can also steer you into focussing – or find interesting solutions to things that seem like problems at first. What constraints do you find on you at the moment? And what constraints might actually be useful for your viva preparation?

Other Perspectives Help

I spent a long time indoors over the last six months or so. When I ventured back out again I decided I was going to explore my home town. Walk up and down roads I didn’t know. See every path of the lovely park I would normally walk through briskly. Me and my daughter would wander around making up stories about fairies and it was a lovely way to get back into the world.

One day a few weeks ago we were walking along when she called out, “Hello Little Pixie!” and then kept on walking.

“Who are you talking to?” I asked, and she pointed back to a tree stump next to the path, a tree stump I’d passed without a second glance.

There are little fairy houses all around the park. I must have walked past this tree stump a dozen times in the previous month and never noticed a little friend waving to us. I needed my daughter’s perspective to see it.

As you prepare for your viva, consider when you might need someone else’s perspective – not when you might benefit, but when you might need another point of view.


  • What questions could someone else ask to help you prepare?
  • What experiences could a PhD graduate share with you to help set your expectations?
  • What feedback from a friend could help you to communicate your research better?
  • What perspective could someone bring to help you see your work a little differently?

That last one could be really helpful. Your examiners might have nothing but praise for your work, but they will still see it differently to you. Find help from other perspectives to help you feel confident for your viva.

Efficient Paths

There are no shortcuts to being ready for the viva. You can’t cheat your way to being prepared, but you can follow the example of others. The work could be tricky at times, but viva preparation is – in most regards – a solved problem.

You need to read your thesis. You need to mark it up to help you, and create summaries that help you unpick and capture what you’ve done. You need to know broadly what to expect. You need to get some practise for the event itself. You need to have a sense of self-confidence.

There are no shortcuts for these, but there are efficient paths: steps you can take that will help get the necessary work done. Talk to colleagues, read back through this blog, get a sense of what actions help – and think about how you can apply all of this to your situation.

Then take the first step along a path to being ready.

Snacks For The Video Viva

So your viva is going to be over video. That could feel rough at times, but there are some interesting possibilities too.

Why have a chocolate bar in your bag, like an in-person viva, when you could have a freshly baked biscuit on stand-by? Why have a half-cold cup of coffee for a few hours, when a friend or family member could be poised by the kettle if you have a break?

A viva over video can present some small logistical challenges, but it also provides opportunities to meet your needs. Snacks can be a little fancier, your space can be a little nicer. If your viva is over video, why don’t you do what you can to make things as close to your preference as possible? What could you do to make the space lovely for you?

What could you do to help you feel great about the occasion?

7 Reasons Webinar, 10th September 2020

A bonus post for today! The short version: I’m running my 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva webinar this Thursday morning.

I love helping PhD candidates get ready for their viva. Earlier this year, during lockdown, I explored a few ways to reach out and help as much as I could. 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva resonated strongly with participants, and I’m delighted to be offering it again now.

A lot of candidates are told not to worry about their viva. They’re told that it will be fine. They don’t need to stress. And that isn’t helpful. It’s true, but it’s not helpful! Candidates need to know why they don’t need to worry. Candidates need to know what to do to help their concerns.

And that’s what 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva is all about.

If your viva is coming soon, or you’re curious about what you can do to help yourself, the webinar this Thursday, 10th September 2020, will probably help you. You’ll get a sense of what the viva is about, what you can do to prepare, realise what you’ve already done that helps you and more – plus have space to ask any questions that are particularly troubling you.

I think that every PhD candidate could benefit from this session. I’m really proud of what I’ve developed – of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I?! 🙂 Don’t just take my word for it:

7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva is running this Thursday, 10th September 2020 at 11am. It’s 1-hour, live, and there are only 40 places. Registration is £10, but until midnight today (Monday 7th) there is an earlybird registration of £5. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll sign-up or tell someone you know who could get some help from this session.

Thanks for your attention 🙂

(and if you have any questions about the session, or about anything really, do get in touch!)

There’s Always Next Time

Until there isn’t.

There’s another opportunity to get things right, another test you can re-run, another day to spend on writing and editing. Until you hit the deadline, the submission date, the limit of your resources.

A fear I’ve heard around the viva is that there’s no next time to make it right. I hear the worry, and I know for most people there is no cause for concern. Most vivas don’t need a second time, most candidates are exactly where they need to be – the overwhelming majority of candidates in fact.

But saying, “Don’t worry,” never helps.

From the small to the large, from worry over responding well to a question to worry about passing at all, there are actions you can take to help yourself.

Worry alone won’t help. You have to work past it.

What can you do to be more ready to respond to questions?

What practise could help convince you that your thesis is good enough?

What reminders could help convince you that you are good enough?

There’s no next time after the viva. You have one opportunity to show what you know and what you can do. One opportunity after thousands of others.

This one is enough.

Your Contribution, Simply

To reach submission you must have made a contribution: you must have done something. Reflecting before the viva and making notes, even using a simple question, can be quite powerful.

To begin with, three simple questions: Why did you do it? How did you do it? What did you do?

If you’re looking to dig a little deeper with simple questions, consider the following:

  • Why is your contribution valuable?
  • How do you know your contribution makes a difference?
  • What does your contribution mean for others?

These are simple to ask, but could have complex responses. Notice too that they are aiming at the same thing – your contribution – but from different perspectives.

By reaching submission you must have done something. Use questions in your preparation to help you explore that something and find useful ways to think about it and share it with others.

Weird Differences

I’ve found a lot of interesting ideas and wisdom from TED Talks since I finished my PhD. One of the shortest, and most helpful for me, is Derek Sivers‘ talk (embedded below) which starts by comparing the way we might distinguish streets and blocks for finding where we are:

I think it’s a nice reminder that people, by culture or personality, might just see things differently to you.

Your internal might see a different interpretation of your data for example, not because you’re wrong and they’re right, but because they see something you didn’t. Your external might think a different method is more appropriate for your research problem, only because they’ve never used your method. Again, they’re not wrong, they’re probably not weird either – they just see things differently.

Ahead of your viva, consider what you’ve done: where could your work be different? Why is it the way that it is? And if it’s “weird,” why is that valid for what you’ve done during your PhD?

Would You Rather?

Would you rather have a long viva or a short one?

Would you rather know at the start exactly what your examiners thought of your thesis, or wait to discover it during the conversation of the viva?

Would you rather give a presentation at the start of your viva, or be asked a question by your examiners to start the process?

Would you rather have a guarantee that you won’t go blank at all, or a guarantee that your examiners will be nice?

Candidates might have preferences about all of these sorts of things, and more, but no way to simply get their preference. Wondering about whether preferences will be met is not unreasonable, but it is space in your mind that could be taken up with confidence, knowledge, expectations and more.

Would you rather focus on things that you could do something about for your viva, or questions that distract you?

Find Your Reasons

While there are general reasons why a PhD candidate will have got to submission, and general reasons why that candidate would pass their viva, personal reasons will be much more powerful. What are yours?

  • What have you learned that has brought you to where you are?
  • What have you achieved?
  • What keeps you going – particularly in 2020?

Find your reasons for why you will pass, and you find a source of confidence that will keep you going.