The Value of Valuable Questions

I love finding valuable questions. I try to read as widely as possible in things like self-help books, coaching blogs and interviews with interesting people. The ideas and advice are often helpful, but a good question hooks my attention more than anything.

In a recent TEDx post I came across a really insightful question:

What’s the most important thing I can do today that would make tomorrow better?

The article is asking in the context of time management and organisation, but this makes me think more generally. Perhaps, what can I do today to make my future brighter? What can I start now to set up a better later?

It gives me two thoughts for the viva and viva prep particularly. First, what’s the most important thing you can do today for your prep that will make the rest of your viva preparations better?

Second, what important things have you done throughout your PhD that makes your current situation great?

Preparation and reflection both help as you get close to the viva.

What other valuable questions help you? And where could you get more from?

A Contentious Thesis?

Don’t worry. It means you have something interesting in your research. It means that in the viva your examiners have a lot to ask about.

And it means you’ve been working on your thesis for a long time. You will know how to engage with people who aren’t sure. With people who want to know more. With people who have their own ideas.

So read up, think, have a mock viva and conversations with friends, and get ready to explore your work.

It’s Not An Interview

The viva seems like a job interview from some perspectives. In both cases you might decide to dress smart. Both vivas and job interviews ask questions to explore, at least in part, how great you are.

That’s about all though. The purposes and outcomes are very different. Despite that, there are similar things you could do in both situations to get ready.

  • Explore what your panel will want to talk about: for both situations you can know aspects of this in advance.
  • Reflect and make notes on the great parts of yourself and your work: think about evidence and how you could explain things clearly.
  • Find opportunities to practise answering questions: there may be common questions in interviews to which you could practise answers, but for the viva you can prepare well by finding situations to practise with unexpected questions.

The viva is not really like a job interview, but there’s value in thinking in some of the same ways when it comes to preparation.

The Three Rs of Viva Prep

I have a new pet theory.

The work involved in preparing for the viva can be summarised with three Rs: refreshing, reframing and rehearsing.

  • Refreshing: getting your head clearer about what you’ve done. Checking your thesis and what helped shape it.
  • Reframing: looking differently at your work. Exploring what it means and trying to see it from different perspectives.
  • Rehearsing: finding opportunities to practise what’s required of the viva. Finding ways to engage with questions and have useful conversations.

To be ready for the viva means spending time on tasks that allow these three things. Effective viva preparation involves improving your mental picture of your research, examining it from other perspectives, and investing time in preparing for being in the viva itself. Different viva prep tasks might require a combination of the Rs. Annotating your thesis, for example, might bridge between refreshing and reframing; a mock viva is largely about rehearsing, but could involve refreshing or reframing as well.

I’ll write more about the three Rs in the future. I don’t have a fully worked out model yet, but I’m excited about this concept for exploring viva preparation tasks. I’m hopeful that it will help me to better communicate what viva prep is all about.

Email me if you have questions or thoughts about this – it might help me to explain the idea better!

Begin With The End In Mind

I love that expression, but find it hard a lot of the time to put it into effect. Very often I’m in the middle of something before I realise the end that I’m looking for; I’m working on something I find interesting and then see what it needs to be (or what I want it to be).

I think most PhDs don’t know what the end of their research or the end of the PhD will be like until they’re somewhere in the middle. That’s fine too. You don’t need to start preparing for the viva until you’ve submitted, but once you have a sense of what you’re aiming for you can begin to steer yourself in that destination.

  • You can think about how to make your thesis better. How can you communicate your research? How can you anticipate the needs of your audience? How can you structure your thesis well?
  • You can find out about the viva. What are realistic expectations? What are the regulations for your university? What are vivas really like?
  • You can think about what you need to be ready for the viva. What little steps can you take? What do you need to do? What would a confident you look like?

You don’t need everything all at once. You don’t need to start preparing for the viva until your thesis is done. But once you know where you’re going you can start to lay the foundations for the end of your PhD.

Begin, in the middle, with the end in mind…

Two Paths Away From Failure

Two ways to get away from failing.

You could just not try.

Failing seems like such an awful thing, best stop now and not go for it. Remove the possibility of failure. Forget all about this doctorate business. It wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t meant for you. Because if you try and you fail… Well, that would feel terrible, right?


You could look at the viva as one more success you need to get.

Count all of the times you’ve succeeded throughout your PhD. Make a list of all of the achievements you’ve racked up. The number of times you made a difference. All of the things you’ve written in your thesis that have added something to the world. You’ve already done something amazing. The viva is just one more thing you need to do. If you’ve got this far, what could stop you succeeding in the viva?

10 Opportunities For Sharing

Both before and after you submit your thesis, one of the best things you can do to prepare for the viva is find opportunities to share your work.

Telling others about what you’ve done helps you think about how you explain your work. It can give you space to practise structuring your research. It can lead to questions, which then help you to think again and fill in the blanks for your audience, whether it’s one person or one hundred.

There are lots of ways you could talk or write about your research. Here are ten opportunities for sharing just off the top of my head! You can probably think of more that would be relevant for you:

  1. Give a talk, big or small, in your department or at a conference.
  2. Share your work via outreach.
  3. Go for coffee with a friend.
  4. Have a meeting with your supervisor.
  5. Write a paper and submit it for publication or preprint comments.
  6. Write a blog post summarising your progress.
  7. Send an email to a contact at another institution.
  8. Tweet something short, sweet and simple! #awesome
  9. Be a guest on a podcast about research (@PlanetPhD is a new one I found recently!)
  10. Find some friendly first-years who want to hear from someone with experience.

None of these are free: they always cost something, particularly in terms of time. Coffee with a friend might be an hour, a blog post could be a few, but a paper or a talk could be days or weeks of work.

Think of it is an investment rather than a cost. Every time you share your work, the return on the investment will be greater than what you’ve “spent”. Every opportunity you find or make will give you a chance to improve.

A Few Sentences

Viva prep doesn’t always feel easy. If you find it tough to get going, or you feel stuck, or you only have a little time, you can still do something small that will make a difference. Writing a few sentences could be a good way to start.

  • Write a few sentences on key authors or papers you’ve used.
  • Write a few sentences to summarise your key contribution.
  • Write a few sentences to frame the challenge you’ve undertaken.
  • Write a few sentences to reflect on how far you’ve come.
  • Write a few sentences to unpick your methods.
  • Write a few sentences about your biggest achievement.

You can write a lot more if you want to, but you can get something nice, short and valuable from even a little reflection and writing.

Wants & Needs For The Viva

Wants and needs are two different things, but they can be easy to confuse.

  • You might want to submit a perfect thesis, but that’s impossible. So think, what does your thesis need to have?
  • You might want the best possible examiners, but they might be busy. What do you need in a good examiner?
  • You might want to be 100% free of nerves for the viva, but how likely is that? What do you need to do to be as ready as you can be?

As your PhD comes to a close, it’s not wrong to think through all the things you want – for your thesis, for your viva prep, for the viva itself – but make sure you ask yourself, “What do I really need to do this?”

Nerves Aren’t Nice…

…but they’re not a sign that something is wrong. Nerves are a signal you’re feeling stressed or excited or anxious about something. The physical and mental discomfort doesn’t mean you definitely have a problem.

There’s a strong correlation between recognising something as important and feeling nervous about it. If you experience nervousness around viva time, I think it’s because you recognise the viva is important.

I felt a bit nervous as my viva got close, not too bad thankfully. My coping strategy was to think about how I could make myself less nervous. I asked myself, “What could I do to feel better?” With hindsight, I wonder if a more useful question in situations might have been, “What can I do to do this important thing as well as I possibly can?”

You only have a finite amount of energy and attention to spend, and if you use it up trying to beat nerves you could miss the opportunity to focus on preparation.

My hunch is that investing time on prep – on doing the important thing well – will make you ready and less nervous.