Practice & Luck

The harder I practise, the luckier I get.

Quote Investigator explores the story of this little phrase, which I only encountered recently but which has clearly been around for a while. Long time readers of this blog will know I don’t believe in “luck” – but I appreciate the sentiment here. The more you invest in your research, your skill, your knowledge, your thesis, your practice – the more you invest in yourself – the “luckier” you are when you encounter tricky situations.

Preparation is needed for the viva, but don’t forget you’re drawing on years of practice when you meet your examiners. You make your own “luck”.

Where & When

The viva isn’t a huge surprise. Thankfully you don’t turn around one day and-

-tell us about your contribution to knowledge!

Online or on-campus, tomorrow or six months from now, you’ll know where and when your viva will take place. You’ll know for weeks beforehand.

Knowing where and when helps your preparation: of course, read your thesis, think about your work, rehearse – and think about what you will do to arrive at that place and time, on that day, in the best state possible.

If you’re at home, what will you do beforehand? How will you arrange your viva space? How can you make it great for you?

If you’re in your department, how will you get there? What do you need to check about the room in advance? What do you need for it to be good?

At some point you’ll know where and when. Then you can start a small but useful part of the preparations for your viva.


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.

Unanswered Questions

The lack of an answer in your thesis or in the viva doesn’t mean a problem for you.

Perhaps it tells you something about the question. There’s a reason you don’t know. What is it? That’s important.

Or maybe focus on why you can’t give an answer directly. What’s missing? Where’s the gap? That will be important too.

An unanswered question might not be unanswerable forever. Discussing “why you can’t give an answer now” could be the best response you could give in the viva.

Stack The Deck

I like lots of different kinds of games, and mention them occasionally on this blog. I’m very fond of deckbuilding games. There’s lots of kinds, but essentially they’re card games where your approach to play is trying to influence the cards you’ll probably have in your hand on your turn.

In Dominion and similar games you have to create your deck as you play. You play cards to give short term boosts that let you buy cards from communal piles. You increase the number of good cards you have in your deck, but the more cards you have overall the less likely you are to draw good ones. There’s a fine balance to try and find!

In games like Android: Netrunner you customise your deck in advance of sitting down to play. You try to give yourself as great a chance as possible of being able to beat the other player’s deck of cards. You have to plan and anticipate, then manage with what random draw gives you on the day.

Played really well, in all of these games, you’re trying to stack the deck – not cheating like a gambling hustler, but through clever strategy and tactics you’re trying to tip the odds in your favour. Some games are quick, some take patience, but with experience it’s possible to play very, very well.

And as with several blog posts I’ve written like this before on this blog, here’s where we come to the viva!

You can’t cheat your way to viva success, but you can stack the deck in your favour. You come to submission with thousands of hours of work behind you. Already you’re in a good position. Learn about your examiners, regulations and expectations and you’re even better. Prepare well and the “cards” in your deck are looking good.

Whatever move your examiners make, you’ll have something you can respond with. The journey of a PhD stacks the deck in your favour.

Spend just a little time getting ready for your viva and you’ll have truly impressive cards to draw on the day.

Find Three

Find three things that can help you feel ready on viva day.

Maybe your thesis, a notebook and a bottle of water.

Or a prompt card with keywords, your choice of clothes and a cup of coffee.

Perhaps your good day socks, a picture of your family and the most recent paper by your external.

Or your three things could be a mock viva, a lucky charm and a phone call to a friend.

More generally, find things to help you feel ready by considering work to help you prepare, things that help you feel confident and things that remind you of who are you (and what you can do).

Nurture, Cultivate

A plant won’t grow well if you simply throw water on it and hope the sun shines.

You have to take care of the soil. You have to keep a proactive eye out for pests. You have to know the right time of day to water it. If you want to really help, you might even consider the circumstances of the soil and time of year when you’re planting it.

If survive is a good verb for the viva, maybe nurture is a good verb for viva prep – or cultivate.

You can’t just cram your thesis into your brain the day before your viva. It makes a difference when you read, when you make notes, what questions you reflect on, what the situation is like around you.

So what can you do to make the most of your preparations? How can you cultivate a good set of circumstances?

Busy Times

Even before coronavirus, PhD candidates would ask me about what they should do to prepare for their vivas because they were busy.

  • “I have a full time job as well, what should I do?”
  • “I get home late, what should I prioritise?”
  • “How much time do I really need to spend?”

I shared a post a few months ago about the kinds of work to prioritise (here), but time is a hard thing to give an easy answer to. It really depends on circumstances.

Twenty to thirty hours of work at most would be enough. It can be spread out over weeks with a little planning. If you have a full time job or you get home late or you’re just stretched at the moment, it may feel really hard to find an hour in a week – nevermind an hour a day or even thirty minutes of peace.

But that’s what you need: peace, calm, quiet. An hour to breathe and read and think. Thirty minutes to add a few Post-its or make some notes.

If you’re busy you still have to find time to get the prep work you need to do done. I can’t help with finding time, but while you do have prepare for your viva – even if you’re busy – you have a greater duty to be kind to yourself. If you are exhausted, take a break. If you just cannot make time for a task, then rest. Effective viva prep doesn’t happen under pressure.

Two Lists For Viva Prep

Take a sheet of paper, divide it in two.

Down the left column write down problems for your viva. Anything you can think of that you’re worried about, or tricky questions, sticky situations, little worries and fears. Anything and everything.

Now in the right column, write at least one thing you could do for each problem. Ask a friend for help, read your thesis, learn something, do something. At least one thing – you may not know the solution for a problem, but you will definitely have ideas of where to start.

Cut the sheet in half, you now have a list of problems and a list of things that might help.

Which one do you want to focus on for your viva?

(inspired by this evergreen post of wonderful advice by Seth Godin)

SMART About Examiners

Your examiners are important elements of your viva. Whoever they are, however much influence you have over their selection, it’s worth spending a little of your viva preparation time exploring what they do. Build your confidence for the viva by knowing who is coming.

As with any task, potentially this could become all-consuming, particularly if there’s stress and worry bound up in thinking about them. Fortunately, we have our old acronym friend SMARTSpecific, Measurable, Advantages, Realistic, Time-bound – to help shape the task at hand.

  • Specific: What are you looking to find out? (general interests, specific details)
  • Measurable: How will you measure when you’re done? (reading three papers, writing a page of notes)
  • Advantages: Why is this going to help you? (better informed, more confident)
  • Realistic: Do you have the right resources to help you do this task? (access to literature, supervisor to talk to)
  • Time-bound: How much time are you going to spend? (a number of hours, a deadline place)

The five prompts from SMART can help shape any project or task into something achievable, rather than an overwhelming to-do list. Use it to help frame your preparations for the viva.