Alternative Routes

Things happen during a PhD. Deadlines slip, feedback is delayed or a promising idea reveals a sticky situation that has to be avoided. Plans change and alternatives must be found.

One way or another you get the research done. You get your thesis written and finally your viva is close at hand. While getting ready it can be useful to reflect on the paths not taken. Reflecting on alternatives can show why they were not taken, how your route was the right one or give you a fuller picture of the situation.

  • Some routes will not have worked and would never work. A poor idea or lack of time perhaps, or an idea that just wasn’t quite developed enough.
  • Some routes could have been perfect – but there were reasons why you didn’t take them. In preparation for potential questions in the viva, what were those reasons?
  • Some routes are only visible with hindsight. With the benefit of experience you know a less treacherous path or a shortcut to avoid obstacles.

Looking back at possibilities is helpful in preparation for the viva. It shows learning, it highlights your progress and helps you to demonstrate your ability as a researcher.

You’re near the end now. You can’t go back and take a different route. You can be aware of the alternatives and what they mean.

Five Flavours Of Viva Prep

I’m an extremely amateur cook and baker. I like to make nice things for my family and I like to experiment. I love to learn about how ingredients are transformed, how to combine them better and how to improve the process and outcome of something.

In my reading a few years ago I learned there are five basic flavours – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami – that make up the flavour of all the things that we eat and drink.

This formulation appealed to me a lot: I love to express things simply. Having three of this or five of that as a foundation for a topic makes my brain very happy!

Flavour is a nice metaphor for lots of things as well. Perhaps we can apply it to viva prep too?

Sweet viva prep describes the fundamental tasks that you have to get done: reading your thesis, making notes, adding bookmarks and so on. It’s work to do but you know what you have to do.

Sour viva prep is tougher; it makes you think more and tilt your head to one side: reflecting on questions, revisiting tricky concepts and checking old references.

Salty viva prep needs a break afterwards to refresh yourself: a mock viva, writing a summary or giving a presentation. All helpful, but all demanding.

Try to avoid bitter viva prep as much as possible. It can help to explore what ifs and maybes when reflecting on your PhD journey and your contribution, but not as much as being certain of the success you’ve found. Don’t go looking for problems now.

All viva prep should have a satisfying umami flavour to it! When completing any task – sweet, sour, salty or bitter – you should feel satisfied by the effort, like you have added to your readiness. You are closer to the viva, nearer to completion and more ready for the challenge.

Ten 2-Minute Viva Prep Tasks

A simple post! Here’s a list of ten things you can do in two minutes or less that will make a difference to your viva preparations.

  1. Find and download the regulations for thesis examination for your university.
  2. Check and make a note of a member of staff you could contact – in your Graduate School or Doctoral College – in case you need help with arrangements for the viva.
  3. Gather together a suitable assortment of stationery to support annotating your thesis.
  4. Write and send a short email to three friends who could help you have a mini-viva.
  5. Find and bookmark the webpages of your examiners for later reading.
  6. Write a short email to your supervisor(s) asking about their availability in the coming weeks.
  7. Contact two or three people you know who have recently had a viva in your department and ask them a few questions about the experience.
  8. Write “YOU CAN DO THIS” at the top of the first page of your thesis.
  9. Stick a Post-it Note at the start of each chapter in your thesis to help you navigate it well.
  10. Write down one thing that you know is a valuable contribution in your research.

Viva prep takes time, but there are lots of little things that can make a big difference. Whenever you have a spare moment, think about what you can do to help yourself get ready.


Bonus 11th suggestion! Read this blog post about the book I published a few months ago! Ordering in print or ebook will also take less than two minutes and will help! 😉

Time To Prep

The time to prepare for the viva is after submission. There are many things you could do before submission that could help – and a lot you do while finishing your thesis will build you up for the viva – but your focus has to be on getting your thesis submitted.

The time to prepare for the viva is not a fixed period for everyone. Work and other responsibilities could mean a shorter time span for some or force activity to be spaced out over a long period than others. Preparing over the course of two to four weeks seems typical for most candidates.

The time to prepare will be better if you plan it: decide in advance how and when you will do the work. Sketch out a schedule that seems suitable and doesn’t leave you feeling stressed.

The time to prepare is getting ready for the particular challenge of the viva. It’s reading, note-making, practice and a chance to remind yourself: I can do this.

A Problem Shared

You’re the only person who can pass your viva, but there are many, many people who can support you before you get that far.

It may be that you just need a little encouragement, but if you have a problem then consider how others could do something practical to help:

  • Your supervisors can help you understand the role of examiners. They can help you unpick how you express your research. They can help you by hosting a mock viva. They can’t solve your problems for you, but if you share them they will do their best.
  • Friends and colleagues can help by understanding what you’re going through. They can share viva expectations or perhaps simply listen while you explain your research and ask questions. If you have a problem they can signpost you towards something that will make a difference.
  • Your family and loved ones may not understand your research! But if you have a problem then they will listen. If you can share the root cause they might have a suggestion that could help. More than anything, if you have a problem, they will want to be there to help.

With the viva, as with many things in life generally, there are problems and there are Problems. There are little things and Big Things. You are not alone. You don’t have to solve every pre-viva problem or Problem by yourself.

You are good, you are skilled, you are capable and knowledgeable – and you are not alone.


I always make sure I have a plan for Monday before I stop work for the weekend. It helps me to motivate myself at the start of the week.

Whenever I’m about to wash the dishes I check to see if there’s any leftover hot water in the kettle from the last cup of tea. Even a small amount can save some water and gas from running our boiler.

I use a piece of software called TextExpander to help with regular writing tasks. Simple keyboard shortcuts create strings of social media tags, my email signature – even whole emails for sending to university finance departments! It saves a lot of time.


I love life hacks and little things that save time or effort. I don’t have anything like that to offer for the viva. Everything you need to do for the viva takes exactly the time or effort needed. You can’t shortcut reading or annotating. You can’t write a summary using an easy method. A mock viva can’t be halved with one weird trick – and neither can the real viva!

There are small viva prep tasks – sticking in bookmarks to your thesis, making lists and the like – but these aren’t hacks. There’s no room for shortcuts – and no need for them either.

Take your time. There’s no need to rush. There’s no need to work smarter or harder.

Use the opportunity of the submission period to get ready for the viva, and use the viva to succeed.

Old & New

In preparation for your viva consider the old and the new.

The old:

  • What had been done in your area before your research?
  • What were the most useful papers/references that helped your work?
  • What were your hopes or plans when you started your PhD?

The new:

  • What have you shown through your research?
  • What do you consider the main achievements in your thesis?
  • How have you changed as a result of your PhD?

Reflect and draw out valuable ideas about your research; explore for yourself how you have grown as a researcher. There’s a lot to unpick about your journey, your research and how you have got it done. Take time to reflect and prepare before your viva.


Help Yourself

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

I’ve had that question stuck on the wall at eye-height next to my desk for as long as I can remember. I saw it in a book or a blog post years ago, liked the provocation, and have used it as a reminder ever since.

Focussing on the most important aspect of the prompt sometimes leaves me trying to do great, big things. Most of the time I think about little tasks, any small things I can do, that will make tomorrow better for me.

  • Maybe I can make a to-do list to be more organised.
  • Maybe I can tidy my desk.
  • Maybe I can make time for a break or a walk.
  • Maybe I can read something small to prepare myself.

I look ahead and think, “What would help Future-Me? What would make my tomorrow better?”

There are lots of big, important things you have to do to be ready for your viva. There’s a lot that goes into finishing your PhD journey. But within a busy day, as an act of kindness for Future-You, consider what you could to do help your tomorrow.

  • Maybe you could email a friend to ask for help.
  • Maybe you could make a list of tasks to do.
  • Maybe you could take care of yourself, take a break or go for a walk!
  • Maybe you could bring together some resources you’ll use.

Look ahead and think, “On the path to my viva, what could I do today to make tomorrow better?”

One Size Does Not Fit All

There’s no single way for someone to get ready for the viva. I wish I could say there was a specific sequence of tasks that would help every candidate get ready. If only it were as simple as saying, “Sit down at 3pm every day and do 45 minutes of…”

Every candidate’s life and circumstances present opportunities. In your situation, find the pockets of time and quiet; use them to get ready. Look at what you’ve done and how you feel, and figure out for yourself how much you have to give now to be prepared.

To get ready a candidate needs to read their thesis. When it’s your time you have to find the best occasions to do the work: an afternoon off or an hour per day for a week? A chapter per night or when you’re on the train? You have to decide.

Every candidate will benefit from annotating their thesis. For your research and your thesis you have to understand what’s there and decide what might help you before you add notes, bookmarks and highlights. There are hundreds of things you might do to annotate your thesis: you have to decide on the handful of things that will help you.

All candidates need to rehearse for their viva. You’ll know whether what’s best for you is a mock viva or lots of conversations with friends. If you have a mock viva you’ll figure out what the best time is for you and what you need to get from that experience.

There is no single way for every candidate to get ready for their viva. There’s a set of tasks and activities that generally help with preparation; take these onboard and then figure out for your situation the right times, places and specifics you need to help you be ready.

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