Host A Mini-Viva

Message a friend with a viva coming up and offer to host a mini-viva for them over Zoom or Skype to give them some practice. There’s full instructions at this resource link for how you might use one of 7776 sets of questions, but simply – use the questions, have a little structure, listen, give your friend space to think and respond and extend discussions as you see fit.

To save a little time, here are two mini-viva question sets you could use, if you wanted to call someone up today and help them!

First Set:

  • Where did your research ideas come from?
  • What did you learn about doing research?
  • How did your supervisor help shape your research?
  • What questions would you like to ask your examiners?
  • What are you taking away from your PhD?

Second Set:

  • Why did you want to pursue your research?
  • Where did you find support in the existing research for your methods?
  • What are the core papers that have guided you?
  • How would you summarise your main results?
  • What do you hope others will take away from your thesis?

I often tell candidates there are plenty of people around them who can offer support; switch that up, be one of the people offering support. And if you need more mini-vivas to help more friends and don’t have dice to hand, here are four more from a previous post.


You’re in a bubble of research.

There’s a clear sphere around the space you occupy that lets others look in, see what’s there. As with a lot of bubbles, there could be some distortion – from how you present it, from how they perceive it – but any sufficiently knowledgeable person can see in.

Like, say, your examiners.

Who are also in bubbles. Their bubbles might be bigger, they could be far away from yours – showing the distance between what you do and what they do – but they have them. And they’re reasonably clear bubbles like yours, open to inspection.

It’s essential you take a look before the viva. Read their recent publications. Check out their research interests to get a sense of what they do and how they might see things. Perfection and expertise are not essential: you just need to be aware.

In the viva your bubbles might collide, but not destructively. They’ll come into contact, and perhaps you can get a greater sense of how they see things. You may get idea for what you could do to improve your thesis, or look into in the future.

Bubbles don’t tend to burst in the viva – thankfully that’s where the metaphor falls apart!

Two Reasons I Couldn’t Sleep

I couldn’t sleep the night before my viva because:

  1. I had no idea what my examiners were there to do, or what my viva might be like;
  2. I had little self-confidence in my ability to discuss or defend my research.

These are common problems for PhD candidates, and can be really stressing, though thankfully I’ve not met many people who’ve had insomnia the night before their viva!

I didn’t know why I was lying awake at the time, I wouldn’t have known what to do had I realised why I couldn’t sleep, but both problems have solutions.

The first is solved simply by asking and exploring. Check regulations, talk with academics about their approaches as examiners, talk with graduates about their experiences. Building a set of expectations for the viva is useful to shape how you think about it. Generally, vivas are fine, but you need to know more about them to really believe it.

The second problem has solutions, but they are not so quick. Building self-confidence takes time, but the rewards for time spent dramatically outweigh the investment. Of course, in preparation for your viva spend time reading your thesis, making notes, reading papers, having a mock viva and so on. All of these are necessary and can help with confidence. But what else will you do to confirm to yourself that you are an excellent researcher? That you are capable and accomplished? That you have done the work and have the talent to be at your viva?

It takes longer to solve the confidence problem, but every step you take will help.

Pick A Post, Any Post

With the help of a plugin and several hours of banging my head against the desk I came up with a little curiosity for the site: – a link that redirects to a random post from the 1000+ in the archive so far!

The first five it gave me were:

  1. Two Days After – a few thoughts about the end of the PhD.
  2. Your Greatest Hits – encouraging reflection on what you’ve done!
  3. Relatively Important – a post trying to put the viva in perspective.
  4. Interesting Challenges – another post encouraging a little reflection for viva prep.
  5. Ten Out Of Ten – how do you feel you measure up as you come close to finishing?

I’ve put a Randomly… section in the sidebar of the site, somewhere to click if you just want something else to read. With over three years of writing, I’m looking for interesting ways to curate older posts and present them. A random post link seemed like a simple way to start.

Click the link – – what did you find?

Remote Chances

Most vivas go well, but there’s always a chance that something could go wrong a little. With the move towards remote vivas, over Skype or Zoom, there’s that little extra room for doubt and worry that something might go wrong. Video vivas were less common, until now, and so there aren’t as many easy answers for what to do or how to solve something.

In the absence of general advice, whatever the worry or potential problem, there’s three questions that come to my mind:

  1. How can I reduce the likelihood or the impact? You might not be able to avoid something, but you could soften it somehow.
  2. What is Plan B? Say the tech fails, what could you have on standby? What’s your backup?
  3. Who could help? In the viva the answer might be no-one – and knowing that helps because you know you have to get it done. Before the viva there are lots of people who can help you – you have to think about who might be best to ask.

The chances of something going wrong are slim. A little bit of constructive thought, just in case, won’t hurt your preparation or confidence.

Important, Not Urgent

Whenever I start a big project I treat it as important – worth doing well – and not urgent – worth doing without time pressures that could compromise me, the work, or stress me out. I’ve seen similar sentiments in lots of planning and productivity literature and advice. It is a general attitude I would encourage when preparing for the viva. It’s important, and needs to be done well, but not something that should be stressful or adding to any burdens a candidate might already feel.

So make it not urgent, and plan for it.

  • Some people can take a leisurely month to get ready, thirty minutes to an hour per day. Great, plan for it.
  • Some candidates could be horribly stressed by work, family life or external conditions and only get a short period of time at the end of a busy working day. Which sounds rough, so they should plan for it.
  • Some will take time off to prepare, and only have that one opportunity to get it done. So plan for it!

A plan for viva prep doesn’t need to be broken down hour by hour; a little thought goes a long way. When do you need to start? What flow of activity will you follow? What will enough prep look like for you?

Take a little time to treat your viva prep as important, by making it not urgent.

A Little Mental Warm-up

Exploring what makes your research a significant, original contribution is an essential part of viva preparation. Taking different perspectives, finding alternative words, telling other people about your work – all helps strengthen your confidence about saying, “I did this and it’s good.”

I’ve been a fan of the Why-How-What general approach for explaining things for years now, and love to find ways to apply it. It seems like a neat fit to the “significant, original contribution” that needs to be communicated in the viva.

  • Significant: Why is your work valuable?
  • Original: How is it different from what has come before?
  • Contribution: What makes it “enough” for a PhD thesis?

Look for different ways to explore and explain your research. Every opportunity you take is one more little mental warm-up for your viva.

Take The First Step

You have to do this all the time for your viva.

Take the first step to the viva when you submit.

Take the first step with your prep by sitting down and getting your thesis out again; or by asking for help (plenty of people can help but you have to ask for their support).

If you find a mistake – more than a typo – you have to take the first step, however tricky or uncomfortable, to figuring out what makes it right.

If you want a mock viva, you probably have to email and ask when your supervisor might be free.

If, in the viva, you are stumped by a question, you have to take the first step to responding to it. That could be awkward, you might feel pressured, but you have to do it.

All of which is a long way of saying, that for all the puzzles, problems and challenges you find with your viva, you have to take the first step to resolving them.

There’s no-one else to do it, but also no-one else who could do it.

So take the first step.

(and if you don’t feel you’ve found any puzzles, problems or challenges, take the first step towards finding some, because they’re there…)

Rabbit Holes

Tread carefully when preparing for your viva, in case you find yourself tumbling down a rabbit hole.

  • Read one paper by your examiner, and find yourself lead to another, then another, then…
  • Spot one typo and you’ll wonder what else you’ve got wrong, and you’ll see something else, and…
  • Underline something to make it stand out and you’ll want to make something else stand out, then another sentence, and then…

You get the idea. There’s always more things you could do to get ready for the viva. And there’s so much you can do to help yourself that it can be tempting to do more and more. If you start your prep without a plan but just a goal (“get ready!”) then you can just keep going and going until all you can think about is doing more, and wondering have you done enough?

So start with some limits. A to-do list, finite and bounded. This, this and this, and no more. Decide before you turn to page 1 of your thesis, what are the things you have to get done. You can add to the list of course, but you have to have a good reason.

Don’t tumble down a prep rabbit hole! Tread carefully when you make your plans.

Check The Regulations

Three words that need to be on every candidate’s to-do list for the viva.

The Regulations page I put together – a list of every uni in the UK’s thesis examination regulations – might be a good starting point for some. Given the changes brought on in the last five or six weeks, it’s worth digging deeper with your institution. Check to see if there is anything substantially different. I don’t imagine there will be: the purpose of the viva hasn’t changed, it’s only the medium that’s altered.

There may be constraints that a remote viva forces or suggests, but you know why you’re there and what your examiners have to do. Check the regulations to see if there are any particular conditions that have to be met to satisfy your institution. Ask friends and colleagues about their experiences for a better idea of what to expect.