Viva Prep & Focus

Viva preparation helps you to change focus from the kind of work needed to get you to submission to the work needed to get you through the viva.

Is it ready, how much more, did I tweak that change that get it right…

Rush and overtime, a few more days, got to get it done get it done get it done done done

Prep, and the viva, require a slower pace. Nerves or anxiety come from the viva being important: rushing, continuing to try and get everything “right” is only going to compound nerves.

Use your viva prep time to change your focus. Slow down. Take your time. Read your thesis, make some notes, practise a little, remind yourself of your accomplishments and abilities.

Change your focus from rush to ready.

The Viva Is Not…

The viva is not a rite of passage.

The viva is not an academic ritual.

The viva is not a Q&A session.

The viva is not an interview.

The viva is not a mystery.

The viva is not trivial.

The viva is not impossible.

It’s an exam. A unique oral exam based on the particular research you’ve done. Given that it’s based on your work, you can prepare for it.

Given that there are regulations and a culture of examination, you can learn reasonable expectations and build those into your preparations too.

The viva is important, but the viva is not more important than your PhD.

More More More

I don’t remember a lot of the day-to-day life of my pure maths PhD now. I remember little sparks, breakthroughs, and the feeling of being “in the zone” while trying to figure something out.

I also remember, as my PhD went on, the growing feeling that there was always more I could do.

There were more ways to apply the ideas I had developed.

There were more papers to read to find more methods for exploring my field.

There were more questions to ask, and more answers to be found – more to explore.

Even though of course there was a limit to how much I could accomplish throughout my PhD, there would always be more things I could do. And in preparation for my viva, while I invested a lot of time, I could have done even more. I could have spent thirty minutes more each day, an extra day of reading papers or an afternoon checking over the details of a chapter.

I think this generalises further: even with time pressures, life pressures and so on, candidates have to recognise that there will be more things they could explore or do than they have done; however much time they spend getting ready there will be more that they could do which would help them.

And we all have to take a deep breath at some point and say “No. This is enough.” You have to find a way to do that for your research and your thesis. For your viva prep, making a list in advance of what needs to be done could be helpful. Break down what will be enough for getting ready, then work towards it.

There is always going to be more, and there also has to be enough.

Thoughts on Sustainable Prep

Getting ready for the viva is far more productive and beneficial if it’s done in a sustainable way.

  • Don’t sit down to get ready when you’re already tired.
  • Don’t sit down in a space that isn’t right for you, where prep is going to be a struggle.
  • Don’t leave it all to the last minute so that you have extra pressures.

You can’t exhaust your personal resources and work well in an environment that adds pressures to you. That’s no way to get ready.

  • How can you get ready at a time that works well for you? When might that be?
  • Where can you prepare well? What might you need to do to prepare that space?
  • How do you need to plan your preparation so that it’s not a rush? When do you need to start?

Prep will take anywhere from a few weeks to a month. Invest a little thought into how you are going to do that to look after yourself, as well as considering what exactly you will do to get ready.

The Control Room

You can’t control how long your viva will be. Or what question you’ll be asked first. Or what parts your examiners do or don’t like. Or how they express themselves or pose their questions to you.

You can’t control the flow of the viva. Knowing which questions commonly come up won’t mean you can control if they’ll be asked to you. You can’t control whether or not a response to a question will be satisfactory. You can’t control if your examiners agree with you on a methodological point. You can’t control whether or not they are going to ask that one question which you dread being asked.

But you can control how you prepare.

You can control what you do to get ready.

You can control how you start your viva day.

You can make choices to help lead you in the direction of confidence for your viva.


There are lots of general expectations for the viva. Common lengths. Typical structures. Regulations that determine process. But whatever the expectation, there are always exceptions:

  • Really short vivas or really long vivas.
  • Vivas with more than two examiners.
  • An examiner without a doctorate.
  • A viva that comes after a long period since submission.

And there are many more circumstances that either can’t be anticipated in advance of the viva, or are incredibly rare when they occur.

Exceptions are often worrying. They’re not part of the pattern, so there might not be a quick and simple response for what someone should do or how they should behave. Still, with a little thought there’s a way to find solid ground beneath the shifting sands of exceptions.

Look at the difference between the exception and the expectation (assuming it’s something you can know in advance).

How big is it? How can you measure that difference? What does it really mean?

For example, if you had three examiners, one more than “typical” – what would you really need to do differently to be ready?

  • Read a little of the research of the third examiner, as you would for the other two (it takes a little longer, so your prep needs a little more time).
  • Perhaps build your confidence at being part of an exam with more people.
  • Perhaps ask around on Twitter or in your department to see if others have had a similar experience (you won’t be the first!).
  • Reflect on how much of a difference it really makes, and see if there’s anything else you need to do.

Earlier this year, I panicked slightly at the thought of helping people prepare to have vivas over video: what strange new situations would people find themselves in? How could I help candidates with this big shift? What could I do, and what would they need to do???

It was a big shift, there were a lot of people suddenly needing to have the viva over Zoom or Meet or Skype – but they weren’t the first. It might have been their expectation to have their viva in a seminar room, but the rare exception of vivas taking place over video were already quite numerous. One question asked on Twitter lead to lots of generous responses that helped many people. Because whatever the expectations there are always exceptions.

Whatever your exceptional situation, however rare, you’re probably not the first. Ask your community, look for support and I’m pretty sure you’ll find what you need.

One More Day

Another chance to show up, do good work, show and share your knowledge, your ability, your insight.

By the viva you will have had hundreds and hundreds of days where you have done this. So while it’s an important day, and it’s essential that you do show up with your knowledge, your ability and your insight, it’s overwhelmingly likely that that’s exactly what you will do.

Because it’s an important day, you might show up with some nervousness or worries too. That’s fine. You can handle them for your viva day, for one more day. Draw confidence from the fact that you couldn’t have got this far without doing something well (whatever that particular something might be for you, your research and your thesis).

One more day. You can do it.

Aspects Of The Viva

There are lots of elements to the viva:

  • There is what’s presented in your thesis, the pre-requisite to being in the viva at all.
  • There is why you did it in the first place, a subject that often comes up in some form.
  • There is who you are, and to a lesser extent who your examiners are.
  • There is why you are there and what you have planned afterwards perhaps.
  • There is the logistics – how, when, where – and the expectations – the things that tend to happen and influence how people feel about the viva.
  • There is the beginning, middle, end and afterwards.
  • There is the dance between feeling excited and feeling worried.
  • There is the preparation, the support, the help – and then just you and your examiners.

There’s a lot to the viva. Focussing only on one element means you will miss something important in all the other aspects. But trying to focus on everything means you’ll also probably miss something.

Another aspect worth mentioning: they almost always result in success for the candidate. Whatever else you need to explore or reflect on for yourself, remember the most likely outcome for all your work.


Because cheatsheet sounds a bit wrong, how about you make a keysheet for your PhD? One page capturing all the things you need to know.

Success in the viva is more than rote memorisation of details, but there are some that are worth seeking out and listing. A little search before the viva, either through your thesis or through your memory, can give you a helpful boost. You can be confident the important facts are filed away where they need to be. Facts like:

  • a short list of the most important references in your bibliography;
  • a one-paragraph summary of what your thesis is about;
  • a few details about each of your examiners’ interests;
  • several key questions you’ve explored in your work;
  • a list of the contribution(s) that your research makes to your field;
  • the talents you have developed over the course of your PhD.

Don’t forget the last one, whatever else you add to this single page. It’s important to remind yourself of how you’ve been able to achieve everything.

It’s not a cheatsheet, because you didn’t cheat. A keysheet captures the essential components of your thesis and research.

Like you.

Three Questions To Reflect On

First: What question do you hope your examiners don’t ask in the viva?

Second: …whatever the question was that you thought of in response to the question above!

Third: Since you can’t do anything to prevent the question from potentially being asked in the viva, what can you do before the viva to help you be in a better position to respond?


And a fourth bonus question: more generally, what can you do to put yourself in a good position for your viva?