Behind The Scenes

I love movies. I sometimes go through periods where I watch a movie every day. A couple of hours of story, tension, excitement, wonder, hopefully interesting dialogue, emotions, and occasionally incredible special effects.

I love learning about the making of movies too: how were the actors cast? How did the script develop? Where did that cool idea come from? And how did they get that amazing shot to look so good? It’s rare that finding out these things breaks the magic for me. It’s possible, for me at least, to appreciate a movie and marvel at all of the hard work that went into it.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the viva too, but it’s easy to forget that, easy to focus on just that one person on the day, hoping to pass. We have to remember…

  • …all of the hours spent by the candidates doing the work.
  • …all of the time spent organising thoughts and ideas into words on the page.
  • …all of the work invested by many others (supervisors, academics, universities) to get things to this point.
  • …the work of the examiners to get ready to give a good viva.
  • …the preparation work that a candidate can do to get ready and feel ready.

The viva is a couple of hours of dialogue, tension, excitement, maybe wonder, emotions – maybe few special effects, but it is certainly a special event! And it doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot that has to happen behind the scenes first.

Making A Fuss

It’s not making a fuss if you ask your supervisor for help before the viva.

It’s not making a fuss if you think something is wrong with your viva or the outcome and believe you need to appeal something.

It’s not making a fuss to make a complaint about your viva.

It’s not making a fuss if you feel nervous or worried and need to share that with someone to try and get some help.

I often say the viva is not the most important thing ever in a person’s life, but that doesn’t mean you need to just trivialise it. It’s right to not just dismiss any concerns or worries. Make the most of your viva. Make it the best it can be. And if you need to ask questions, ask for help, make a complaint, appeal or whatever to do that then that’s what you need to do.

It’s not making a fuss to do what you need to do for your viva.

Burning Questions

Most PhD candidates have real burning questions about the viva.

There’s something they want to know about the process.

They don’t know something about their examiners.

They’re unsure whether something in their thesis is relevant or a problem.

And they hold on to these questions for too long and get burn. They begin to fret. They begin to worry. They get hurt by them!

Have a question? Find someone to ask. Ask your supervisor. Ask your friends. Ask your graduate school! Ask me!

Don’t let your questions burn you. Ask for answers.

Predictions For The Future Of The Viva

Virtual Vivas: Have your viva from the comfort of your home, while you can have the best external from ANYWHERE in the world!

AI Examiners: Profess0R V.Iva will read your thesis and optimise a set of question trees for discussion routines. Genetic algorithms will simulate instances of responses to produce a fair set of questions. And your viva will take place within three hours of submission of your thesis to the V.Iva Cloud!

The Honour System: “You did it? And it’s good? Fair enough then, here’s your certificate…”

Bonus Round: For every question you give a good answer to from the Super-Hard Questions List you get ten points! Get fifty or more and you could qualify to spin the Wheel Of Doctorateness and maybe win bonus doctoral endorsements!

Refreshments Will Be Provided: A water cooler and a hot water urn with several tea and coffee options. This would be nice if it was relatively common!

Predictions for change are tough. Predictions based on regular, common experiences are much more straight-forward. There are regulations for vivas in the UK. There are common patterns of experience. Within all the variety from what is essentially a unique exam every time we can see ideals to work towards, and so you can be prepared.

Who knows what the future will hold, in the short or long term? You can decide what you will do now.

Don’t wait for your viva future: work for it.


Your mileage may vary.

That prep tip from a friend might not help you as much as it helped them.

The regulations might say to expect X, but you experience Y.

While others get a lot of help from a mock viva, you find it makes you worry.

But while your friends are nervous, you feel confident.

While someone else got minor corrections, you get none!

And the advice you heard didn’t just make a small difference, it made the difference to your viva.

Experiences vary. Preferences matter. Not everyone will have the same needs, the same circumstances, the same viva. We can hope for minimum standards, work hard towards preferred outcomes, and still some things won’t be quite as we might like. Some experiences will be better; some tips or techniques will be very helpful for some.

My advice is to share honestly, share openly, share positively. I hope it all helps, but your mileage may vary.

Unclear or Wrong

You can’t – and shouldn’t – assume there are problems in your thesis. It’s worth checking through it carefully after submission. Read your thesis well to make sure that it holds up, that nothing has slipped through.

Find something unclear? What would make it clearer? Add a note of what you might say differently.

Find something wrong? Why is it wrong? What could you do to address it?

You can’t be perfect; you can be prepared.

Descriptions Are Relative

Long viva, short viva. Good viva, bad viva.

Discussion or conversation? Chat or challenge?

Ready or prepared?

Words change how we feel about things.

Some people are tired by their viva, but I was exhausted.

Confident or nervous, nervous or anxious, anxious or worried, worried or terrified?

The descriptions for your viva are relative. A three hour or longer viva might feel intimidating now, a really stressful idea. Compare it to the thousands of hours of work you’ve done before. Compare it to how you might feel afterwards. Maybe, like some researchers, you’ll just think, “Was that it?”

Words really, really matter. Choose them carefully.


Whatever else your thesis has – ideas, opinions, theories, hypotheses, results, conclusions – it has implications.

  • What might someone else do with your work?
  • How might they be inspired?
  • What questions do we now know to ask?
  • What questions do we know are foolish?
  • What does your thesis mean?

Thoughts in these areas could be rich for useful viva preparation – and relevant topics for conversation in the viva.

Choose Confidence As A Goal

Confidence is not a destination. It’s not a permanent state you can arrive at, but a goal to be pursued.

You can’t flick a switch. You can’t simply hack or trick yourself.

But you can make a choice: what do you want to feel? What do you want to be?

Once you’ve made a choice, you have to act. For your viva, what would a confident version of you be like? If they’re not much different than where you are now, then you don’t have much work to do. If you feel that you could be more confident then choose to go for it. That doesn’t just make it so, but you’ll then see paths before you, steps you can take that lead you to your goal.

Choose confidence.