You Don’t Want The Viva

Regular readers of the blog might know I am a huge fan of Seth Godin. I’m re-reading his most recent book, This Is Marketing, and I wanted to share a passage I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

The lesson is that the drill bit is merely a feature, a means to an end, but what people really want is the hole it makes.

But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. No one wants a hole.

What people want is the shelf that will go on the wall once they drill the hole.

Actually, what they want is how they’ll feel once they see how uncluttered everything is, when they put their stuff on the shelf that went on the wall, now that there’s a quarter-inch hole.

But wait…

They also want the satisfaction of knowing they did it themselves.

Or perhaps the increase in status they’ll get when their spouse admires their work.

Or the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the bedroom isn’t a mess, and that it feels safe and clean.

So: you need a viva, but you don’t want it.

You want what the viva will lead to – passing your PhD. But who just wants a PhD? The three letters don’t mean a lot by themselves: what do you want them for? A job in academia? An increase in status? Pride in something accomplished?

When we stop seeing the viva as the end, but a step – a means to an end maybe – then perhaps we can see it for what it is. A practical thing, not a mystical or terrible or unknowable thing. A necessary step and one that can be prepared for. It leads to something even more important and better.

You don’t want your viva – but since you’re going to have it anyway, why not aim to make it the best you can?

Happy and Unhappy Vivas

I’ve never read Anna Karenina. I get stuck about twenty pages in and change to something else on my Kindle. As I’ve read the start many times, the opening line remains with me, often translated as:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

There’s a nice poetry in that statement, and I think it’s relevant to the viva too. In my decade of becoming fascinated by the viva, I hear more stories that mirror Tolstoy’s sentiment: I’ve heard of plenty of happy viva stories that sound quite similar. The few unhappy viva stories are memorable because they are distinct.

Happy vivas are happy because they go well. They’re the majority of vivas; there are general expectations being met; most candidates get minor corrections; most examiners approach their role in the right way; most candidates, even if they are nervous, realise it’s not an insurmountable task. They can prepare and they can continue to do well.

Unhappy vivas always have particular stories. The candidate who didn’t get on with their supervisor. The supervisor who didn’t do their job. The examiners who weren’t right. The regulations that weren’t followed. The candidate who felt rushed. The candidate who didn’t know what to expect. It only takes a few of these little details to make a viva thoroughly unhappy.

Don’t expect an unhappy viva. If you have concerns, do something as soon as possible. Don’t just let it go and hope for the best. Do something.

Do expect a happy viva. You’ve got this far for a reason. You’ve done the work. You are good at what you do. You are where you’re meant to be.

Hands On Hips

I really like Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk: the highlight is that there is evidence that adopting a pose of confidence can improve your confidence. Something as simple as setting your posture can have an effect on how you feel. Standing like a superhero can give you a real boost…


Only maybe, because science isn’t as simple as that. Anecdotally, I’ve had feedback from PhD candidates who have tried this and found it’s worked for them. Researcher developers tell me it has helped their confidence before big presentations or meetings. I can’t guarantee it will work for you, but you won’t know either way until you try it.

Confidence doesn’t begin and end with putting your hands on your hips. Confidence is action. What will you do to build and maintain your confidence? Big and small things help, long term practice and short term boosts.

Surprise Questions

Surprise questions might not be critical, they could simply be unexpected. By your viva you have plenty of talent for responding to questions, but a surprise question might still stun you.

If you are worried about surprise questions:

  • Decide on how you will respond to questions in the viva: will you make a quick note? Will you pause and take a breath to think?
  • Practise answering unexpected questions: will you have a mock viva? Could you give a presentation and take questions?
  • Write down a list of when you’ve answered questions in difficult circumstances: what conference talks have you given? When have you been in seminars and engaged with tricky discussions?

Preparation and reflection can help you to see that surprise questions can be manageable. They could surprise you, but the surprise doesn’t have to be bad.

Ten Quick Top Fives

Viva preparation is not about speed, but sometimes a quick task is useful to break the inertia. I’ve shared a few “top fives” posts before, but here are ten quick tasks to get things moving.

  1. Top Five Places To Bookmark In Your Thesis!
  2. Top Five Useful References For You!
  3. Top Five Academics Who Could Be A Good Examiner!
  4. Top Five Questions To Ask Your Supervisor!
  5. Top Five Friends Who Could Help Your Preparation!
  6. Top Five Definitions To Remember!
  7. Top Five Expectations For Your Viva!
  8. Top Five Details To Check!
  9. Top Five Things To Boost Your Self Confidence!
  10. Top Five Preparation Tasks!

Little lists, quick tasks, quick questions – they won’t be the most useful things you could do in preparation. Sometimes you’re not in a position to do the most effective task. Sometimes you’re not building a wall, you’re placing a brick: little by little, adding to your sense of being ready for your viva.

Ask The Experts

Look around you. There are lots of experts, able to share ideas, advice, experience. All you have to do is ask.

Ask specific questions about viva experiences to learn what they’re like.

Ask your supervisor and other academics how they approach being examiners.

Ask your graduate school about regulations and expectations.

Ask friends and colleagues for helpful questions to practise.

And ask yourself who the real expert on your thesis must be.

Who knows more about your research than anyone else?

A Short Viva

I’m asked about short vivas in almost every Viva Survivor session:

  • What can I do to have a short viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour?

They’re not from a place of not wanting to be in the viva. It’s just simple worry. Nerves and anxiety running wild. I don’t blame people for these questions, but they are the wrong questions to ask about the viva experience. There really isn’t much one could do to dictate the length of the viva, or steer examiners away from questions.

But what could you do?

You could prepare. You could practise. You could decide to engage with your examiners and do your best.

Maybe we could simply change our questions:

  • What can I do to have a short viva? What can I do to have a good viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions? How can I best engage with my examiners’ questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour? How can I prepare to be at my best however long the viva is?

So what will you do?


Explore Your Thesis With VIVA

I’ve shared my VIVA tool a few times: an acronym for exploring your thesis chapter by chapter as a valuable viva preparation. My quick directions for someone to try this would be to divide a sheet into four sections, and then use a series of prompts to reflect:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about the research?
  • Vague (or unclear): what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask (your examiners): what would you like to ask your examiners?

I’ve mentioned before that this is a good starting point for reflection. One could dig quite deep using the tool. These four areas cover a lot of ground in preparation too. There are other necessary things a candidate would need to explore – who their examiners are, checking recent literature, exploring how their research connects to the wider field – but even that last point might be explored a little by considering what is Valuable (to others).

If you are preparing for your viva, I’d encourage you to try VIVA to start your reflections and summary creation.

Explore the content of your chapters with a little direction and see where that leads your preparations.

Magic 8-Ball

There are plenty of people you can ask for advice and help about the viva – but there’s plenty of other ways you get help too.

Even a Magic 8-Ball could help! Here’s a partial transcript from a recent conversation that a PhD candidate had with theirs…

Magic 8-Ball, do you know a lot about the PhD viva? Without a doubt.

You have a doctorate?! Yes.

And you can answer pretty much any question I have about the viva too? Most likely.

OK, do you know what the outcome of my viva will be? Better not tell you now.

That’s fair I guess… But my examiners will have an idea, right? Yes – definitely.

Will they tell me if I’ve passed at the start of my viva? My sources say no.

I’ve heard they prepare quite thoroughly in general, is that right? You may rely on it.

Do you think my viva will be easy? Cannot predict now.

OK, but could I fail? Very doubtful.

I’ve heard that most people pass. Outlook good.

I’m just worried I’ll go blank. What could I do? Concentrate and ask again.

The questions won’t be too tough, right? My reply is no.

Will I get corrections though? It is certain.

I’ve heard that some people get no corrections though- Don’t count on it.

Hmmm. Is it possible for me to get ready for the viva even if I’m busy? As I see it, yes.

My examiners want to explore what I’ve done and what I can do, is that the short of it? It is decidedly so.

And if I’ve got this far through my PhD, I can do the viva too? Signs point to yes.

Start With Three Things

There’s a lot you can do to prepare for the viva – so much that at times it could feel overwhelming. Whatever you’re going to do, start with a limit of just three things to help you focus.

  • Ask your supervisor three questions to help you prepare – what would they be?
  • Put three bookmarks into your thesis – where would they go?
  • Check three papers you’ve referenced – which ones would they be?
  • Take three minutes to summarise your work – what would you say?
  • Think of three questions you would like to ask your examiners – what are they?

Three is just to start. You can invest more time, more questions, more effort after the first three, the most important three are done.