The Viva Is…?

…just one day, after lots of days.

…important, for now.

…stressful for some, for many reasons.

…survivable for many more reasons!

…unique, but not unknowable.

…something you can prepare for.

…something you could be challenged by.

…ultimately, a life event you might find difficult, or tricky, or simple, or an anticlimax.


The viva is personal. Deeply personal. There’s lots to explore, lots to say about it, lots of help to find for it, lots you can do to be ready for it.

The starting point – one you might have to return to several times – is simply to ask yourself, “What is the viva to me?”

Practice & Luck

The harder I practise, the luckier I get.

Quote Investigator explores the story of this little phrase, which I only encountered recently but which has clearly been around for a while. Long time readers of this blog will know I don’t believe in “luck” – but I appreciate the sentiment here. The more you invest in your research, your skill, your knowledge, your thesis, your practice – the more you invest in yourself – the “luckier” you are when you encounter tricky situations.

Preparation is needed for the viva, but don’t forget you’re drawing on years of practice when you meet your examiners. You make your own “luck”.

Where & When

The viva isn’t a huge surprise. Thankfully you don’t turn around one day and-

-tell us about your contribution to knowledge!

Online or on-campus, tomorrow or six months from now, you’ll know where and when your viva will take place. You’ll know for weeks beforehand.

Knowing where and when helps your preparation: of course, read your thesis, think about your work, rehearse – and think about what you will do to arrive at that place and time, on that day, in the best state possible.

If you’re at home, what will you do beforehand? How will you arrange your viva space? How can you make it great for you?

If you’re in your department, how will you get there? What do you need to check about the room in advance? What do you need for it to be good?

At some point you’ll know where and when. Then you can start a small but useful part of the preparations for your viva.


Your viva happens at the right time, after you’ve had plenty of opportunities to do good work and become talented.

It happens in the right place – in a seminar room or online – but private, with space and time to fully engage.

It has the right process, rigorous expectations and fluid structure to allow for a valuable discussion.

The right people are involved, knowledgeable and experienced and who know what’s expected of them.

And the right person is there to be the focus, the only person who could be there.

A singular event like the viva is important, which tends to make those involved nervous, but that’s not bad. It’s just recognising the importance.

In short: right person, right place, right time.



A short viva prep exercise: make a list of five to ten concepts or ideas that are fundamental for your research.

Now spend a few minutes defining them, either recording yourself talking about them or writing a few notes. They could be hyper-specific – a genus 2 handlebody was important in my thesis, for example – or much more general:

  • What is an equation?
  • What is an interview?
  • Can you describe an essential piece of equipment for your research?
  • How do you define a good method?
  • What is “good” data?

Go back to fundamentals and definitions. In the viva you’re called on to explain how you did your research and to show that you’re a good researcher. Perfection is not a realistic state to attain, but do you feel confident about your understanding of basic definitions?

You can.

Unanswered Questions

The lack of an answer in your thesis or in the viva doesn’t mean a problem for you.

Perhaps it tells you something about the question. There’s a reason you don’t know. What is it? That’s important.

Or maybe focus on why you can’t give an answer directly. What’s missing? Where’s the gap? That will be important too.

An unanswered question might not be unanswerable forever. Discussing “why you can’t give an answer now” could be the best response you could give in the viva.

The First Viva

The first viva must have been really awkward.

What questions would the examiners ask? How might the candidate know what to expect? How would the examiners know what to expect?!

Who decided what made a good thesis? Or if the candidate had done enough? Or if they did enough in the viva?!

Why were they even having a viva???

Of course, the viva as we know it today is an evolution of former practices. Structure given to culture, rules to rhythms. That’s not a bad thing: it may be tricky to pinpoint exactly when and where PhD vivas started, but we know where they are now.

For your viva you can know what to expect. There are regulations, expectations and experiences to frame your understanding. Your viva might feel a little awkward and uncomfortable, but I’m sure it will be much better than the experience of the candidate at the first viva!

Discuss, Explain, Demonstrate

Examiners have three important things to do in your viva:

  • Explore your significant, original contribution;
  • Unpick the hows and whys of your research;
  • Examine your competence as a researcher.

They ask questions to motivate discussion. If they’re satisfied by your thesis and the discussion then you are awarded your PhD.

You have to assume at submission that your thesis is good enough. Then, in the viva, the three important things your examiners have to do prompt three important challenges for you. You have to…

  • …discuss your significant, original contribution;
  • …explain the hows and whys of your research;
  • …demonstrate your competence as a researcher.

Discuss, explain, demonstrate – the three core verbs to have in mind for your viva.

What could you do to better prepare yourself to discuss your contribution?

How well can you explain how and why you did your research?

And how can you demonstrate your competence – your talent – as a researcher?

Video Viva Checklist

When you submit, you’ve done a lot already that helps you in the viva. After submission you have an opportunity to do a little more work to help you get ready. If your viva is over video, you can do a little extra to help you be ready for that particular situation. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that could help.

  • Practise with the technology. Ask friends to do rehearsal calls. Find the location of basic on-screen buttons and prompts. Don’t assume that it will simply run fine on the day.
  • Find a space and setup that works well for you. What do you want to have behind you? Do you need to elevate the camera that you’re using? For all my webinars I have to put my laptop on top of a boxfile so that I’m not looking down at the camera!
  • Check your connection. See if you have a stable connection over wifi. Explore whether or not you need to use an ethernet cable.
  • Be certain of the plan for your viva. Know which software, what time and so on. Know what the backup plan is or how to get in touch if something unexpected happens.
  • Decide how you might support your verbal responses. Will you use an onscreen shared whiteboard? Or use a small whiteboard at your desk and then display to the camera? Or perhaps even use a second camera to show sketches?

Like most in-person vivas, video vivas are typically fine. They’re not meant to be ordeals. Preparation can ensure yours won’t be.

Stack The Deck

I like lots of different kinds of games, and mention them occasionally on this blog. I’m very fond of deckbuilding games. There’s lots of kinds, but essentially they’re card games where your approach to play is trying to influence the cards you’ll probably have in your hand on your turn.

In Dominion and similar games you have to create your deck as you play. You play cards to give short term boosts that let you buy cards from communal piles. You increase the number of good cards you have in your deck, but the more cards you have overall the less likely you are to draw good ones. There’s a fine balance to try and find!

In games like Android: Netrunner you customise your deck in advance of sitting down to play. You try to give yourself as great a chance as possible of being able to beat the other player’s deck of cards. You have to plan and anticipate, then manage with what random draw gives you on the day.

Played really well, in all of these games, you’re trying to stack the deck – not cheating like a gambling hustler, but through clever strategy and tactics you’re trying to tip the odds in your favour. Some games are quick, some take patience, but with experience it’s possible to play very, very well.

And as with several blog posts I’ve written like this before on this blog, here’s where we come to the viva!

You can’t cheat your way to viva success, but you can stack the deck in your favour. You come to submission with thousands of hours of work behind you. Already you’re in a good position. Learn about your examiners, regulations and expectations and you’re even better. Prepare well and the “cards” in your deck are looking good.

Whatever move your examiners make, you’ll have something you can respond with. The journey of a PhD stacks the deck in your favour.

Spend just a little time getting ready for your viva and you’ll have truly impressive cards to draw on the day.