Where’s Your Focus?

Focus on perfection for the viva and you’ll be disappointed.

Having a focus for your preparations is useful. You can see gaps in your confidence, and set goals to bridge those gaps. There’s a lot you could do.

Pick a focus that helps.

You can focus on reading your thesis to learn it. You can focus on your examiners and their research. You can focus on getting feedback from your supervisor. You can focus on trying to answer questions well. You can focus on making your thesis useful by annotating it. You can focus on refreshing your memory of your bibliography. You can focus on asking your friends for help. You can focus on finding out as much as you can about viva experiences. You can focus on building your confidence for the day.

Pick a focus that helps.

Why Would I Be OK?

This is a question I didn’t realise I was asking myself before my viva.

All of my friends told me I would be fine. They’d passed their vivas, they told me I would pass mine. It would be OK.

Why? Why would it all be fine? Why would I be OK? I didn’t know.

I didn’t know that most candidates pass – and pass with minor corrections. I had no idea.

I didn’t know what examiners did in the viva. I didn’t know if there was a format. Were there expectations for vivas? I didn’t know.

I didn’t know what I might be asked about. I had a good understanding of everything I’d done, but I didn’t know if that would be enough. Would that match what my examiners wanted to know? I had no clue.

Everyone told me I would be OK. If I’d been a little more self-aware at the time I would have known to ask, “Why?”

Your viva can be fine. Find out more about what they’re like, find out what you can do to be ready. Then go and be fine.

You’ll be OK.

Finding Next Steps

At some point you have to finish. No more reading papers, no more ideas. Your thesis has to be complete. Enough, done!

In preparation for the viva, checking recent publications shows you are a capable researcher. Thinking of how you might develop your work also shows your talent. It could be you don’t want to pursue any of these ideas because you have other plans for your life. That’s fine. Still spend a little time exploring what could be done with your research.

If you have trouble imagining future next steps, ask some of these questions. Reflect and write down your ideas:

  • What are some easy ways to go further with your results?
  • In what other areas might your approach be useful?
  • What does your work mean for other researchers?
  • What does your work mean for the theory of your discipline?
  • What does you work mean for the practical applications?
  • What would you love to do with your research?

Remember: you don’t have to do any of this. You can be clear about that.

Thinking about it could not only lead to some interesting ideas, but perhaps a different appreciation for the work you’ve already done.

Nervous & Important

People tend to get a bit nervous about important events in their lives.

Sometimes they’re nervous because of the circumstances around it, sometimes because of the outcome, and sometimes for no real reason they can pin down. People are nervous on their wedding day because of the huge occasion. People are nervous when they take a driving test because they want to pass (or want to not fail) and then be free to drive. People are nervous sometimes before concerts or movies because they’re desperate to know if the thing they’re going to matches their expectations.

Being nervous doesn’t mean the event is a bad thing. It’s important, it means something. Humans are told to deal with the nervousness, find a way to make it go away perhaps, find a way to feel better. That’s one strategy, but I’ve become convinced that a better approach is to focus on the important event or task: focus on that and find a way to do it as well you possibly can. Not only will you be working towards the success of the event – in the process you’ll probably do something to help your lower your nervousness too.

What tactics might this suggest for the viva? How could you focus on the event and not your nerves?

  • Read your thesis to have a good mental picture of your work.
  • Check expectations for the day; think about how you could meet them.
  • Find opportunities to talk about your research.
  • Be honest about how you’re feeling; do what you can to feel confident.

Don’t try to distract yourself or not be nervous: have your focus be this important moment, finishing your PhD. Focus on that rather than the worry that comes from pushing away what ifs and maybes and hypotheticals.

Experiencing Pushback

Your examiner can not like something in your thesis. Maybe they don’t get it. Maybe they believe there was a better approach, or a different way to understand something. They’re allowed to have a different opinion; if they share it with you, you can respond.

Perhaps you’re certain you’re right; maybe you’re sure they’re wrong; possibly your pride is wounded. You could feel you have to say something. And you can.

That doesn’t mean you have to. Ask yourself:

  • Is this a big deal?
  • Are they asking for significant corrections?
  • Are they saying there’s a problem?
  • Why are they saying what they’re saying?

The last question is particularly important to answer. If you don’t know why they think something then you can’t be sure that you can adequately respond to them. You need to know what’s at the root of their comments before you can push against them.

Again, that’s if you feel you really need to. You probably need to acknowledge a critical comment; you don’t necessarily have to spend much time replying to it.

What did they say? How do you feel? Why? Why have they said that? How do you feel about that? What do you need to say? Why?

The Problem With Pass Or Fail

“Pass or fail” is too simple a story for the viva. Two outcomes plants the idea that both have equal likelihood. Even when a candidate knows that’s not the case, having a binary outcome allows for one (the negative one, of course!) to rest heavily in the mind.

There are many outcomes – minor corrections, major corrections, resubmission, no corrections… If we tell the story that the viva is pass or fail, the real outcomes confuses the matter. I’ve had many candidates ask me “Is major corrections a pass or not?” because they think the viva is only pass or fail.

Check the outcomes at your institution. Check what they mean. Focus on the fact that most people get some corrections to do, and that’s not a problem. They’ve not failed.

“Pass or fail” is a nice, simple story, but it’s not accurate. There are many outcomes, not just two, and most of them are a pass. There are conditions to the pass, and there are reasons why candidates get those outcomes. Find out why. Learn more. Understand the situation.

Not “pass or fail” but “pass and why”

Why Examiners Ask

No questions, no viva, no PhD. That’s fundamental, but there are many reasons for particular questions in the viva.

Your examiners might ask you that question because they need you to make something clearer. Maybe there is a typo and they want to check what you meant. A question may be exploratory, there’s something interesting to discuss. They might want to check a detail is correct or that you understand something.

A question might be asked because they think something is wrong; they’re asking to give you a chance to explain it more. A question could be an invitation, a way to start a conversation. A question could be used to change topic or pause. A question could be an opportunity for you to get excited and talk about something you love.

Particular questions have reasons. You might not be able to see those reasons in the moment, of course, but they are there. Your examiners use them to drive the discussion, to help you speak, to address their concerns and demonstrate that you did the work.

Questions give you the chance to show your talent.


The viva is important. Passing is important. Lots of things in life are important.

Getting your dream job.

Passing your driving test.

Publishing a book.

Being on TV.

Finding true love.

Living a long and happy life.

Going around the world.

Seeing falling stars on a summer’s evening in the middle of the French countryside.

Watching a dust devil swirl and twirl.

Seeing night turn to day in the middle of an intense electrical storm.

(seeing the previous three things on one holiday!)

Finding a problem.

Finding a solution.

Being reliable.

Being a parent.

Sharing things.

The viva is not the most important thing you will ever do. Wouldn’t it be a bit sad if it was? That would mean everything that came before, especially the research you did, would be a bit blah in comparison. And the same for everything that comes afterwards!

Let go of your viva being the most important thing ever. Then you can find and focus on what really is important about the viva, and get past it to whatever important things come next.


It’s only recently, when reflecting on my PhD, that I realised my research niche wasn’t my topic.

It wasn’t skein invariants of knots, or two-variable polynomial properties of three-dimensional links; that was my topic, but my niche was edge cases and little results. During my PhD I looked for small problems; I searched for opportunities to apply methods to specific restricted cases. I proved a couple of open theorems, but I really loved finding processes for calculating things. My niche was algorithms, not knot theory. My niche was the questions I was asking, not the part of my field that I was exploring.

So what is your niche? How would you describe it? What does it mean to you? Do you have a neat way of telling others about it?

And do you have a useful way of describing it in the viva, if your examiners should ask?