Viva Horror Stories

The internal examiner dabbed the red away from his lips and paused before settling his stone-grey eyes on the shivering candidate.

“How,” he began, his voice like the echo of a whisper, “How… Hmm… How did you arrive at this choice of methodology?”

A look of pain passed the candidate’s face, a long-held fear finally realised! A moment of sheer terror, a buried tension risen to the surface like a zombie erupting from a grave. No choice, no alternative, but to state with quivering voice:

“I…! I did it… Because my supervisor told me to!”

And with that they fainted.

“Pity,” said the internal, taking another red sip from their chalice, “I had such high hopes for this one.”

A snarling from the external examiner’s secure crate reverberated around the seminar room.

“Well, quite,” said the internal, “A perfectly acceptable answer. And I really wanted to know why they had settled on Magnusson’s ‘Treatise on Ancient Awakenings’ as well…”

It’s possible you’ve heard of a real viva horror story. I know people have negative experiences, but it’s not the majority of experiences, not even close. And they don’t “just happen”. There are always reasons why: problems with the thesis, a research issue that was overlooked, a breakdown between supervisor and candidate.

Good horror stories, the really scary ones, have no reasons.

The Thing is just there in the ice, waiting.

The zombies march, and we don’t know how they came to be.

Dracula is.

There are reasons why you did a PhD. Reasons why you’ve got this far. Reasons why your thesis is done. Reasons why you’ll pass your viva. You can be scared by viva horror stories, but you can always unpick why they happened that way. You can be nervous in advance of your own viva, but it’s possible to unpick where that fear comes from. What drives it, what makes it worse, and maybe what could make it better.

Decode Your Thesis

My thesis was full of codewords: technical terms and jargon that would have been tough for the uninitiated to break.

Genus 2 manifold. Unoriented link. Plait presentation.

How coded is your thesis? Jargon can save on words and be a shorthand for precision. It can also keep people out – maybe even you!

Check your codewords during your viva preparation. Make a short glossary to be sure of your definitions. Decode tricky terms in the margins. Stick in Post-it Notes with concise explanations.

Unpicking the meaning of words can help you think about how to explain them even better.

20 Small Steps To A Better Viva

Your viva can’t be the best, but there are many steps you could take to make yours better.

  1. Proofread your thesis before submission.
  2. Read your institution’s thesis examination regulations.
  3. Take a break after submission.
  4. Put Post-it Notes in your thesis to mark the start of chapters.
  5. Do a little research on your examiners
  6. Plan how you will get to the viva on the day.
  7. Have a mock viva.
  8. Talk to PhD graduates about their viva experiences.
  9. Talk to your supervisors about the choice of examiners.
  10. Annotate your thesis.
  11. Read your thesis carefully at least once between submission and the viva.
  12. Take steps to boost and maintain your confidence.
  13. Reflect on your research contribution.
  14. Explore your bibliography a little.
  15. Re-read any sections of your thesis that are conceptually difficult or tricky to explain.
  16. Figure out why you’re stressed (if you are).
  17. Help your friends and family to understand what the viva is all about.
  18. Take a bottle of water to the viva.
  19. Remember how much work you’ve done to get this far.
  20. Plan how you will celebrate passing your viva.

How you feel in your viva is not down to luck. Do everything you can to make your viva better.

Little things add up.

Failure Is (Not) An Option

If every outcome was a pass with various conditions then the viva wouldn’t be an exam. Failing is possible but not likely. A rare outcome, not one you should expect.

Failure is an option for the PhD viva, but one that comes at the end of a generally long list of possible outcomes: no corrections, minor corrections, major corrections, resubmission without a viva, resubmission with a viva, awarded an MPhil, no award. Failure is the exceptionally rare last option that makes the viva an exam and not some kind of confirmation process.

Don’t expect it for your viva. Given everything you’ve done and how far you’ve come, it’s not an option for you and your thesis.


It’s important to read your thesis as part of your viva prep to refresh your memory: a valuable check against mistaken impressions and details gone astray.

It’s useful in another sense of the word too: the modern, computing sense where you refresh a webpage to see what has changed. You read your thesis but it’s you who is refreshed. You spot something, a new thought occurs or a previously unrealised connection is seen.

And a possible third sense: after so long spent bringing your thesis to life, it could be refreshing to read it and be happy that it is done!

7 Questions For Selecting Examiners

Need some help thinking of who could examine you? Start with these six questions to get a list of names:

  1. Whose work have you built on in a meaningful way?
  2. Who have you met at conferences?
  3. Who has a good reputation?
  4. Who is an expert in your field?
  5. Who have you cited a few times?
  6. Who do you think you can trust to do a good job?

With these six questions you can get a long or short list quite quickly. Then you have to figure out how you narrow it down so that you can have a chat with your supervisors.

A more useful question perhaps: what are you really looking for in an examiner?

Once you know the answer to this, you can have a more meaningful conversation with your supervisors about who might be a good choice.

Beginning, Middle & End

You could be enthusiastic but untalented at the start of a PhD, and unsure but hardworking in the middle.

The only explanation for getting to the end is that you’ve done the work and done it well. It’s not an accident you’ve made it this far: you’ve done something that’s valuable, and you can only do it by being good at what you do.

The viva’s not a formality, it’s just one more challenge – a challenge you are fully capable of making a success.

The Problems

What will they ask?

What will they think?

What will they say?

How long will it take?

What corrections will I get?

What if I freeze?

What if I don’t know?

What if they don’t like it?

You can’t answer any of these questions before the viva. For some of them, there might not be an answer at all as circumstances don’t go that way. You can definitely spend your time thinking, maybe worrying about these problems, trying to anticipate different outcomes. That’s one approach.

Another approach would be to disregard these problems entirely. Instead, spend your time preparing for the viva and reminding yourself how you got this far.

Ask Your Examiners

Consider your examiners. Two people sat across the table from you and they’re interested. They’ve read your thesis, thought about it and now have questions for you. You’ve got to answer their questions to pass, but maybe you can get some answers to questions of your own. You might ask:

  • What did you think of this?
  • I haven’t published a paper about Chapter 3; what journals might be good for that?
  • I was thinking of extending my work in this way – what do you think?
  • What next steps might I take?

You don’t have to ask them questions, but there’s an opportunity in the viva to get ideas and insights from two experienced researchers who’ve read your thesis.

What do you most want to know?