Exceptions To The Rule

There are always some. For the viva think of them as exceptions to the expectations

  • …the six hour vivas, out of the ordinary, but they do happen.
  • …the vivas done over video chat, which don’t happen that often, but often enough.
  • …the vivas where an examiner doesn’t have a PhD, or perhaps where there are two external examiners.
  • …the viva where the candidate is stood for four hours answering questions in front of a blackboard!

That last one was me. Totally unexpected, not unpleasant or terrible, just different. At the time I didn’t have either knowledge or experience to know it was out of the ordinary. I’ve never met anyone else who has stood for their whole viva.

There was a reason for why my viva happened that way: I was asked to give a presentation, and I stayed at the blackboard.

There are reasons for all of the exceptions; they don’t just happen, particular circumstances lead them that way. Not all exceptions to the rule can be seen in advance, but some – like the make-up of your examining group, or being asked to give a presentation, or doing the viva over videochat – can be. In all of those cases, there are rules and regulations for what happens.

Expectations for the exceptions.

Who Helped?

And how did they help?

You did the work for your PhD, but no-one does it completely alone. You have a supervisor or two, helpers, supporters, confidantes, sounding boards, friends, family and folk who want you to succeed. All of them would probably say good luck before the viva, but most of them have done more before then.

Most could do more still to help you prepare.

Who has helped you? How did they help? And what more could you ask for?

Everyone gets help from somewhere. That’s good.

Think about how you’ll be able to help others after you’re done too.

Prep Schedule Prep

If you’re busy and you need to get ready for your viva, don’t panic.

If you have a job, and/or family commitments, and/or are looking around for a job, and/or have 101 things to do, make a plan. Make a plan as soon as you can.

Take thirty minutes to look ahead:

  • How much time is there between today and the viva?
  • What are all the things you have to do besides the viva?
  • Sketch a calendar on paper and write them in (now you know what you have to plan around).
  • What are all the things you could do to get ready?
  • List them and how long they might take (now you have an idea of the time you need to find).
  • Schedule times to do them. Do it now. Don’t leave it until later.

The viva is not the most important thing ever, and preparing for it is not the most important thing ever…

…but both have to happen and both take a little time. Figure out when you’ll do it as soon as you can.

Even if you’re busy.

Manage To Keep Going In Difficult Circumstances

You can survive the viva, but you don’t just survive the viva.

Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” suggests someone has been doing this for a while.

“Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” tells you someone has experience.

“Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” is encouraging, not overwhelming.

“Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” is honest, but not the full story.

Surviving doesn’t just happen in the viva: you survive because of the knowledge, skill and experience you take to the viva.

Viva Dreams, Viva Goals

What are your viva dreams? What would you really love it to be like?

Two hours or less? Great, smiling faces as you walk into the room? Examiners gushing praise at you? No questions?! No corrections?!

Some of that sounds nice.

But what can you really do about it?

What are your viva goals? What are you practically going to work towards?

Being prepared for the day? Presenting a confident, capable researcher to your examiners? Being prepared to listen and engage with questions? Showing your examiners what you can do well?

All possible.

A dream can inspire and motivate, but could be difficult (or impossible) to work towards.

Set goals instead: figure out what you can do, then make it a reality.

No Strangers

There are lots of possible examiner qualities candidates might prefer – an expert, someone you’ve cited, someone relatively new – but all of these are just preferences. There’s no right or wrong preference: it’s just how you feel. Reflect on your preferences and make some suggestions to your supervisor. See which names surface in the discussion.

My only other piece of advice for candidates would be to aim for examiners who aren’t strangers.

Aim for an internal who you have spoken to before. Aim for an external you have met at conferences. Aim for people who aren’t big question marks when you think about them and their work. Knowing even a little about your examiners can boost your confidence a lot for the viva.

4 Ways To Reflect On Your PhD Journey

What have you done? Where has it lead you? How will it help with what comes next? Here are four ideas to help with reflecting on your journey:

  1. Check your records: explore your written plans and meeting logs to see what your progress has looked like over the last few years. See what stands out to you.
  2. Reflect on a single question: what can you do now that you couldn’t when you started your PhD?
  3. Break down your contribution: make a bullet point list of what you have achieved. Make sure to include reasons for why something is a contribution. What makes it valuable? How did you make it happen?
  4. Draw a timeline: create a visual display of your PhD story. Highlight the milestones. What are your big moments of discovery? When can you see huge signs of improvement? What were the key events?

Take time to take stock. How did you get to where you are now?

Ask Your Community

It’s your responsibility to do your research; your responsibility to prepare for the viva; your responsibility to engage with your examiners and pass the viva.

But look around: there are lots and lots of people who can support you. They can’t do the work, they can’t do your prep, they can’t answer the questions on the day. They can do a lot to help you through it.

Ask your community for help. Ask colleagues for advice and their time. Ask family for help to give you the space you need. Ask your supervisor for feedback and insight. Ask your institution for help with understanding the regulations and expectations for your viva.

You have to do a lot to get through a PhD, but you don’t have to do it all alone.

Why Not?

Make a quick list, five things you wanted to do during your PhD, but didn’t. Perhaps you had wanted to explore a certain topic, but didn’t, or maybe you wanted to attend a conference but couldn’t.

Why not?

Examine your list and ask yourself why you didn’t get to them. What stopped you?

  • Did you try but ultimately not succeed?
  • Were you busy and so had to pass on the opportunity?
  • Did you realise, upon exploring something, that there was more involved than you could realistically manage?
  • Were you given advice that perhaps it was not a good use of your time and efforts?

If your answer is yes for any of these then there’s no real issue, is there? Your examiners might be interested in knowing why you didn’t do something. It’s useful to unpick and have clear reasons.

Remember your examiners are more likely to be interested in what you did rather than what you didn’t do. You could spend a little time asking yourself “Why not?” but it’s more useful to spend time exploring what you did.


The viva at the end of the PhD is a unique set of circumstances in your doctoral journey – but there are other events like the viva.

Most candidates will have had to pass a transfer or upgrade viva at some point (for full time candidates this is often around the end of the first year). In some institutions and departments this might be like a mini-viva, testing everything that you’ve done to that point in a similar style to the end of the PhD viva. In some places, the transfer viva is more like a simple conversation.

(I remember two defining questions from mine: “What have you done?” and “Are you happy?”)

Your transfer viva might only have a superficial resemblance to the main viva, but you must have passed it to get to submission. That counts. You were upgraded.

And you must have answered difficult questions in meetings, after conference talks and while you were doing your research. You upgraded then too.

A lot of focus is given to your thesis and research, but it is worth remembering that a far greater output of your PhD journey is you.

A new you, a more talented, more knowledgeable, more capable you.