There are lots of general expectations for the viva. Common lengths. Typical structures. Regulations that determine process. But whatever the expectation, there are always exceptions:

  • Really short vivas or really long vivas.
  • Vivas with more than two examiners.
  • An examiner without a doctorate.
  • A viva that comes after a long period since submission.

And there are many more circumstances that either can’t be anticipated in advance of the viva, or are incredibly rare when they occur.

Exceptions are often worrying. They’re not part of the pattern, so there might not be a quick and simple response for what someone should do or how they should behave. Still, with a little thought there’s a way to find solid ground beneath the shifting sands of exceptions.

Look at the difference between the exception and the expectation (assuming it’s something you can know in advance).

How big is it? How can you measure that difference? What does it really mean?

For example, if you had three examiners, one more than “typical” – what would you really need to do differently to be ready?

  • Read a little of the research of the third examiner, as you would for the other two (it takes a little longer, so your prep needs a little more time).
  • Perhaps build your confidence at being part of an exam with more people.
  • Perhaps ask around on Twitter or in your department to see if others have had a similar experience (you won’t be the first!).
  • Reflect on how much of a difference it really makes, and see if there’s anything else you need to do.

Earlier this year, I panicked slightly at the thought of helping people prepare to have vivas over video: what strange new situations would people find themselves in? How could I help candidates with this big shift? What could I do, and what would they need to do???

It was a big shift, there were a lot of people suddenly needing to have the viva over Zoom or Meet or Skype – but they weren’t the first. It might have been their expectation to have their viva in a seminar room, but the rare exception of vivas taking place over video were already quite numerous. One question asked on Twitter lead to lots of generous responses that helped many people. Because whatever the expectations there are always exceptions.

Whatever your exceptional situation, however rare, you’re probably not the first. Ask your community, look for support and I’m pretty sure you’ll find what you need.