A Break Day

It’s not just a day off.

It’s an opportunity to tell yourself that you’re doing the right thing by having a day off.

It’s a time to tell yourself that you need to rest too.

It’s hopefully space to really get some rest and relaxation, in a period when there may have been fewer opportunities to do so.

Rest is an important part of life, never mind viva preparation – but if you are preparing, do take some time just to pause. Take breaks. Let your mind relax a little. Take some time to rest and help yourself be ready.

Take today, for a start.

No Fate

After posts about superheroes, Doctor Who and other science-fictiony things over the last few years, it’s probably no surprise that I’m an enormous fan of the movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s not an understatement to say that I LOVE the film: gripping story, satisfying sci-fi, special effects that really feel special and a script that has stuck in my mind for years.

Particularly the phrase, “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” – in a movie featuring time travel, a reminder that nothing is pre-determined. Your actions have consequences. If you steer your efforts towards a particular outcome you can achieve your goals.

At the viva you’re not trying to stop a shape-shifting killer from the future, or prevent the end of the world, but the stakes are high! Still, the outcome is not being imposed on you: you’ve worked to become good enough to get to submission, and your “fate” now – because of your actions, your knowledge, your talent – is that you’re on track to pass.

And thankfully, the viva is not at all a “judgment day” – more of a confirmation of the work, knowledge and talent that you’ve developed.

Blah Blah Blah

The viva is all about talking! You have to talk! You have to answer questions! You have to get your ideas across!

But you also have to listen, you have to think, you have to take your time, you might have to make notes or draw diagrams depending on your research.

You have to talk in the viva, but don’t forget everything else you have to do, and can do really well.

How Much Is Enough?

It’s a good question to ask about a thesis or a PhD, but a hard one to answer. There are lots of possible factors.

  • How much does your supervisor think you need to do?
  • How much time can you spend?
  • How many chapters or words are people telling you that need to write?
  • How many experiments/interviews/papers/tests/models/observations/questions are you being told that you need to complete?

At the start of a PhD you might struggle to respond to the question of how much is enough. All of these factors, and lots more, could make it tricky to consider.

Nearer the end you can give a response and reasons: “This much, and here’s why.”

And the sooner you decide how much is enough, the sooner you’ll be able to work towards that goal.

4 Ways To Engage In The Viva

A while back I published a post, The Fourth Option, which summarised how candidates could respond to tricky questions in the viva. This was specifically about situations where a question seems hard to respond to, or even perhaps seems unfair, but I think that some of the same thinking can be extended to the more general idea of responding to questions in the viva.

There’s so much narrative about the viva that describes it as an overly negative experience, that it’s no wonder candidates think it will be a struggle, some kind of conflict, some kind of ordeal. And then candidates believe the dialogue with their examiners will lead to them freezing, fleeing or fighting.

The fourth option, figuring things out, extends to the whole viva as well. If a candidate does away with narratives of conflicts and trials, if they instead focus on the viva as a chance to talk, a chance to defend their choices, an opportunity to discuss their work with their examiners, then the best way suggests itself. You can do the work, you can prepare, you can be ready, and then you can figure it out.

Far better than worrying you’ll freeze, or assume you’ll need to run away or fight. Like a lot of your PhD, you can figure out what to do in your viva when you find yourself there.

The Curio Viva

You wouldn’t buy your viva from a supermarket, assuming that the viva was a physical thing you could buy. You wouldn’t find it by wandering up and down aisles, past eighteen brands of pasta sauce and ten kinds of toilet paper. Supermarkets sell to everybody, and vivas aren’t for everybody.

You have to know where to look. You have to be a bit of an expert really.

You’d be more likely to find your viva in a specialist antique shop. These things take time to become what they are. They may be one-of-a-kind, expensive by now, and aren’t for everyone. They’re rarely looked for on a whim.

And your viva is certainly going to be one of a kind, a real curio.

Like my old salmon metaphor, there’s only so far you can go with this! Take away the idea that vivas are rare, and yours is just for you, and find your own metaphor to help you come to it with confidence.

Simple Expectations

It’s easy to tie oneself up in knots about what to expect in the viva. There are simple expectations to hold on to though. Listen to advice and stories from your peers. Appreciate the range of experiences and the common threads that tie them together.

A topic you know really well.

A matter of hours.

An examination with clear goals, and a clear focus for assessment.

Questions leading to discussion.

Two examiners in most cases.

Make it as simple as you can for yourself, and build your confidence and preparation on a few simple expectations.

Episode MCC

Or, Star Wars and the Viva…

I’ve loved Star Wars my whole life.

I ran around playgrounds as a child being a Jedi.

I grew up into a teenager who knew The Empire Strikes Back backwards.

I was a 20-something who would wait an hour for a two-minute trailer to download – remember dial-up modems?

The prequels were not as great as the originals but they were Star Wars.

Disney bought Lucasfilm and OH MY GOSH there were going to be more movies!!!

I became a parent and showed my toddling child trailers for the new movies, both gasping at far away planets and exciting spaceship chases.

And all through 2019 I was unbelievably excited: here it comes, Star Wars Episode IX… The final one, the last chapter, the end of a great story that had been spun since before I was born! Here it comes, here it comes and-

It was OK, I guess.

Not bad… No not bad. Good, yeah, it was good. Not great, not…

It was OK.


The story of many vivas is similar.

Your viva will be a long-time coming, a lot of work and anticipation leading up to a few hours with your examiners. I think it’s fair to expect the viva to go well, but also expect that it won’t be the life-changing event that might be promised by what the viva is for. Disbelieve the horror stories or urban legends, but don’t imagine it will be some crowning achievement or fitting swansong to the final months of your PhD.

It will be OK.

Not bad. I hope it feels good for you. A viva may be a clear success, a great thesis and a great candidate, and yet you could still be left feeling a little disappointed.

“Was that it?” was a question I asked myself after both my viva and Star Wars Episode IX. In both cases, how could the reality compete with years of anticipation?


(and yes, Roman numeral enthusiasts, the title of this post is accurate – this is daily blog post 1200!)

Fortunate Positions

At the end of one of the last seminars I delivered before social distancing and lockdown, a PhD candidate came up to me with a strange smile on his face. He was generous, thanked me for the session, told me how it had been useful – and then surprised me by saying, “I still don’t get how you did it though!!!”

“…I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t understand!”

“Well,” he said, with a sort-of-frustration, “You just stood and presented for nearly three hours! You didn’t have a script you read from – I didn’t even see you look at notes! And you responded to all of our questions! How did you do that???”

And I told him the simple truth: it was practice. That day was probably Viva Survivor 240-something! I’m in a fortunate position that I’ve been asked to share the same developing session many, many times. I get to publish and share this blog. And over time, through mistakes and mis-steps and finding what works I got good.

I wish that I had made the connection on the day, which only came a few months later, that this truth is also the simple truth for how candidates do well at the viva.

Yes, there’s a challenge – yes, there’s hard work to do – yes, someone could be nervous or worried, as I am when I present – but they’re in a fortunate position. Like me and my work, they must have become good by now. They’ve developed their talents, their research, their thesis, and now get to have a conversation with their examiners.

I like to imagine that the PhD candidate who spoke to me has had his viva by now. Perhaps, when describing his success to a friend they’ll stop him and say, “Wait wait, you talked with them for how long? And they asked you all about your research and your thesis! You didn’t have any long breaks, or any chance to confer with your supervisor – you didn’t take in a script or go away to check your files! You responded to all of their questions…

…how did you do that???”