A Long Way From Impossible

There’s lots about life that is difficult at the moment. Some aspects might even be practically impossible, compared to life in 2019, or even a few months ago. Thankfully, the viva isn’t one of those impossible things. There are difficult aspects to vivas, but none are impossible.

  • Knowing what to expect is not impossible. You can ask, you can explore, you can find out.
  • Knowing what to do to prepare is not impossible. It takes time – but not a lot – it could be tricky to manage if you’re social distancing and have limited space, but it can be done.
  • Knowing what to do on the day is not impossible. Ask others how they approached it, find out what’s involved with an online viva, decide how you want to approach the situation.
  • Building confidence for the viva is not impossible. Reflect on what you’ve done previously, see what you can do to remind yourself of all your talent. You must be talented to have got this far.

Some things in life will be beyond your control now. Some things will be impossible for you to do anything practical to change the situation, and that can feel really, really hard in so many ways.

Your viva is not one of those things.

Your viva, in all aspects, is a long way from impossible.

Keep going.

Mock Viva Dos and Don’ts

Do have a mock viva because they’re generally seen as a useful part of viva preparations, but…

  • …don’t have a mock viva if you want to go through a script.
  • …don’t have a mock viva if you’re not prepared.
  • …don’t have a mock viva and expect that your actual viva will mirror what happens in the mock.
  • …don’t have a mock viva at short notice.
  • …don’t have a mock viva without thinking about what you want to get from it.

Do have a mock viva! Rehearse the general situation of your viva – what to expect, how to respond – and most importantly, what it feels like to be in that situation.

Unique, Not Unknown

Your viva, in a nutshell.

A unique exam, arising in response to a unique thesis, written by a unique candidate. There has never been a viva the same as yours before; there will never be another the same again.

But there are regulations: the rules that frame how vivas have to happen. There are academic practices: ideas from research culture about what makes a viva good. There are expectations: built up from all of the stories of past candidates, relatively probable situations, structure and outcomes for the viva.

Your viva will be unique, but not totally unknown, not totally unexpected. You can never have total certainty for it, but the more light you can shine on the probable circumstances the better you will feel for your once-in-forever experience.

Is Survival Enough?

Every candidate needs to survive their viva, and given what is needed at the viva, every candidate can survive their viva.

You can want and have more though.

  • You can survive and enjoy your viva. It could even be fun!
  • You can survive your viva and learn from it. Pick up interesting ideas from your examiners or discovering something for yourself.
  • You can survive and thrive in the viva. Grow through it, be re-energised.

You can do more than survive, but survival could be enough. It may be all you get. As with so much about the viva, and life in general, it comes down to how you approach it. If you want to enjoy your viva, what could you do to tilt things in that direction? If you want to learn, what questions might you need to ask? If you want to thrive, how might you need to prepare?

Surviving is the default; is it enough for you?

Making Your Mark

Nathan Was ‘Ere!

That’s what I thought it might mean, doing a PhD. I did this! I made something, and the whole world will know!

…well. My thesis has helped others explore problems, but it didn’t make a huge impact.

If I went back to my old building there would be people who would remember me I think. But if I went to Room 524 there would be no trace of me at all. I would stand in the doorway and smile and say hello, I used to work here, that was my desk and I remember when

And someone would say, “That’s nice, but we’re trying to work. Can we help you with something?”

I don’t regret doing a PhD. I don’t regret not staying in my field. Doing a PhD is the only way I could have got to where I am now. There are times where I feel I want my thesis to mean more than it does. Sometimes I want having been a part of that university community to mean more than it feels like now.

But for the most part it is enough.

Regardless of a candidate’s plans, or their involvement with their community, or the impact of their research, I think that graffiti of “I Was ‘Ere!” has to be written across your self first. You have to make it matter to you. It could be that you go on to do more research, or not; you might change the world for a lot of people, or just for a few; but you have to make it matter.

You have to look and see what mark you’ve made on yourself over your PhD, I think, before you can decide what to do with it afterwards.

So if your viva is soon, what does your PhD mean to you? Why does it matter? And where are you going next?


Some parts of the viva’s expectations and experience are subjective. Is two hours a long viva or a short one? Is it better for an examiner to be an expert or not? Should you have a mock viva, yes or no? These can vary by circumstance, by preference, by perception even.

Some aspects just don’t have neat answers, but they invite questions that can help people to decide for themselves.

Is two hours a long viva or a short one?

  • What makes you feel that might be long?
  • Do you have needs that would require breaks over that sort of length?
  • What could you do to help your concentration?

Is it better for an examiner to be an expert or not?

  • What do you think you’d look for in an examiner?
  • Who have you cited, and how would you feel about them being an examiner?
  • Are there any experts in your particular field of research?

Should you have a mock viva?

  • Do you feel anxious at the thought of being in the viva?
  • Do you have time in your schedule to have a mock?
  • (actually, they’re generally regarded as helpful, so unless you either have lots of practice already or you are just too busy it will probably help!)

Lots about the viva comes down to individual circumstances, but there are objective elements.

You did the work. You can prepare. You’re there to pass.

If you get caught up in wondering about maybes or trying to decide on what could be best for you, then stop and try to find the solid ground underneath first.

The subjective elements of the viva come second.

9 Short Posts On A Break Day

Hopefully, as it’s a public holiday in the UK, you can have some downtime today. I hope you can rest. If your viva is coming soon and you want to think a little about it, here are nine little posts from the last three years that might help, and a micro-commentary on each:

But maybe just save them for tomorrow! Rest today if you can 🙂


The Spark

I’ve told this story before, but not, I think, on this blog. I share it to offer a short piece of a life, and to maybe spark reflection for you. I hope it entertains 🙂

I did an easy undergraduate degree, dominoed into a testing Masters, and before I knew it I was finishing my dissertation and wondering what to do next.

I was 22, nearly 23; I thought I knew so much about life and the world, but couldn’t make up my mind about doing a PhD. I had friends doing them in my department. They seemed to have it easy, but I was stressed out at the end of my Masters: almost stretched beyond my limits, so I decided to postpone deciding. I could always take a year out from studies and come back to it.

I started a small, safe job and started thinking.

Two weeks later I was missing maths, but still not convinced that a PhD would be right for me. Should I apply? Three or four years was a long time to invest in another degree. I might get funding, but what if I didn’t like it? I liked maths. I liked learning. I liked the department. I had friends there. I knew the way things worked, but what if…?

I was stuck.

By chance, one day over lunch, I got talking to an older person. A woman who had spent decades working as a missionary. She lived overseas fifty weeks of the year, and I happened to bump into her on one of her fourteen days visiting the UK. I don’t remember her name, just a little of what she did, but I have a lot to thank her for.

There were many, many good reasons I had carefully arranged into a pile that told me doing a PhD was a good idea, but it was her thoughts that sparked the decision to actually apply.

She told me of her work, how it helped people, the importance of mission. A life’s work. It was impressive. It was inspiring.

“And what are you doing young man? What are your plans?”

I told her of my new job as a study assistant, how I’d finished two degrees and loved learning, how I thought I might find something interesting in maths. Maybe I would be a lecturer after I’d learned more, or a teacher. I had ideas, but I was unsure which way to go. I told her this in the hope I would hear some wisdom.

Her response was not quite what I was expecting.

“What?! Another degree?! Wait. You’ve spent four years at university already, another committed to now for work, then maybe FOUR MORE for a PhD – that’s almost a decade at university!!! Oh! Oh! You’ll have no experience of the real world! What a waste!!!”

This, understandably, derailed our conversation. I made my excuses, left…

…and started my PhD application later that day.

The spark from her comments lit up all my reasons for doing a PhD and the fire caught. I realised, only when someone showed how strongly they disagreed with my ideas, just how strongly I was in favour of them.

“What a waste!!!” – but learning, discovering, hopefully making a contribution – that could never be a waste of time for me.

I knew for my viva that I had to be careful if asked about why I had started a PhD.

I chose my field because it sounded interesting. My supervisor and I chose the topic together because it suited my talents. I narrowed down my projects because I got results and built on them.

But I chose to do a PhD because an old lady told me it was going to be a waste of my time.

Why did you start your PhD? What were the reasons that pushed or nudged you? You don’t necessarily have to tell your examiners all of your reasons, but unpicking the threads of your own tale can help remind you of your beginnings – and how far you’ve come. What sparked your PhD journey?

Don’t Go For These Examiners

Examiners aren’t all equivalent. Some choices will be better than others – which means, naturally, that some are less desirable. For example:

  • The Egotist. Someone who just wants to talk about their work, how important they are, and make connections with what they’ve done.
  • The Pedant. Someone who can only see the flaws, the minor details that aren’t quite right, all at the expense of discussing what’s great in your research.
  • The Ignorant. An examiner who knows nothing at all about the kind of work you’ve done, who has no experience with your field.
  • The Unknown. A name on a page, a choice for reasons you don’t get, but a stranger to you and your supervisors.

There must be better choices for you. What criteria matter to you and your supervisor? What names do these preferences suggest?

Start with exploring your criteria before names are mentioned. See where they lead.

Steer discussion away from Egotists and Pedants, the Ignorant and the Unknown.

Better & Ready

Three ways I think about the same point of viva preparation.

Instead of pushing yourself to get better in advance of your viva, decide on what you can do to get ready.

Better is a never-ending chase for perfection. Ready is a destination you can reach.

You don’t need to get better for your viva, you need to get ready.

Pick whichever framing works for you – or make one of your own!