Contribution Matters

Not which papers you didn’t read, or which things you got stuck on. Not the title of your supervisor or the uni you did your undergrad at.

Your significant, original contribution matters. What did you do? How did you do it? Why did you do it?

Be prepared to have a conversation in your viva that explores this new, valuable something that you have. Consider what you could do in your preparation to help you explain, explore and share this contribution that you have made.

Nervous Correlates

If you feel nervous before your viva there is typically a simple explanation: you’re recognising that the viva is important.

You need to pass, you’ve invested a lot of work to this point, and even though the vast majority of candidates pass, there’s still that little quiet voice saying, “Come on, you’ve got to do this!”

You will. It’s important, so you feel nervous. You can choose what you put your attention on. Let your actions focus on doing the viva well, rather than on beating away your nerves.

Six Half-Hours Of Prep

Thirty minutes is a meaningful block of time to move you closer to being ready for your viva. There’s lots you could do. Set a timer and then:

  1. Read your thesis. Focus on a particular section to help you think and remember, or just go gently through your big book of good stuff to help you remember the flow of your work.
  2. Bookmark important passages. Take a dozen Post-it Notes or sticky tabs and go exploring. Find the best bits and make them stand out.
  3. List ten important references. Capture the papers that have helped your work the most. Write down title, author, journal and year of publication – as well as a few sentences for why each reference has helped you.
  4. Explore your examiners. Check who they are. Check their interests and make notes. Check their recent papers and make notes. Look for common threads or ideas.
  5. Write a 1-paragraph summary of your research. Condense it down to a few sentences. Can you think of three keywords that you would have to use in any conversation to describe it?
  6. Zoom with a friend. Give them a 5-minute overview of your research, then ask them if they have questions.

Half an hour might not be long, but it’s enough to make a difference to how ready you are for your viva.

One Month

For a reduced-pressure, easy-going period of viva preparation you might need a month.

Between thirty minutes and an hour of work each day will cover you.

Read your thesis at least once. Make notes and additions to help your thesis be even more useful in the viva. Write a summary or two. Check references and useful literature. Simple, deliberate, scholarly work that builds on the thousands of hours you’ve invested already.

Rehearsing for the viva itself – with a mock or having conversations with friends – might take a little longer than an hour, but for the most part you need only a month of short work periods.

Sketch a plan. Gather your supplies. Build your confidence with thirty days of small differences, small improvements on the great place you’ve already arrived at.


The viva process could perhaps best be described as non-obvious.

It’s not obvious what the process is like because viva experiences haven’t traditionally been shared all that much. It’s not obvious what to expect because regulations only tell one aspect of what goes on. Your examiners’ questions won’t all be obvious; it’s not possible to second-guess what they might latch on to or want to dig into. And there’s no way to find out everything that will get rid of the sense of not knowing what to expect.

But if you want to get rid of uncertainty you don’t need to find out everything. Read the regulations to get the big picture, and ask a few friends for their experiences to fill in the details. Learn about general viva questions and formats, and find out about your examiners’ research and interests to explore where their particular questions might come from.

Explore a little and you’ll see that a lot of what was odd or unknown about the viva is obvious with hindsight.

Like Your Viva

Because even on Valentines Day it might be a bit much to hope that people love their viva!

You could like your viva because…

  • …you’re almost done!
  • …you get to talk with two academics about your work!
  • …you know you’re good enough and it’s going to work out just fine!
  • …you’ve prepared and know you’re ready!

Or you could have another reason. It’s reasonable to hope and expect a candidate would like their viva. Whatever happens, tell your story afterwards. If you liked it, say why. If you didn’t, say why.

Share your experiences to help others hopefully like their vivas in the future.

Save Points

Video games have been a big part of my pandemic coping strategies. Interactive stories, complex challenges, puzzle solving and sometimes great big emotional experiences to distract me from the background of life right now.

Save points have featured a lot too: either specific locations within a game where I have to pause and record my progress or a menu option that takes me out of the moment so I can make sure my journey through the game’s experience is recorded.

Save points are useful in viva prep too for keeping you on target. Rather than simply record your state for the next time, a prep save point could act as a very quick review – a growing record to look at and know that you are getting closer to being ready.

Any time that you take time to get ready, as you finish, just ask yourself:

  • How long did I invest in my future success?
  • What did I do?
  • How did it help?
  • What could I do to keep building on this progress?
  • What will I do when I next do some viva prep?

Each time you finish some prep task respond to these, quickly, a few words or sentences for each. Two minutes to capture something that helps prove to yourself that you are getting ready.

You are getting closer to that big achievement of passing your viva.

The Unmysterious Viva

The viva experience might be sometimes unclear, but it’s not mysterious.

There’s a variety of experiences, but a clear range of common expectations.

There’s structure from regulations, academic practice and norms from departmental procedures.

Every viva is necessarily unique, but it’s simple enough to find a useful set of expectations to work towards.

Learn a little to take away any idea that your viva is a mysterious event in your future.

No Peeking

You can’t somehow look ahead and know the outcome of your viva.

You can take a good guess that it will be a pass and minor corrections. You can’t grab hold like a birthday present and give it a squeeze – it’s a book/DVD/socks/chocolates!! – and know for sure what it will be like. You might have a sense that a chapter has a few typos that need fixing, or that a section will need rewriting in some way, but the details will be beyond your reach.

Rather than guess and wonder exactly what will happen, focus on doing what you can to be ready. Get your thesis done, prepare well, find your confidence, be ready to engage with your examiners’ questions. Leave the outcome and the corrections for later. Save your focus for what’s right in front of you.

No peeking!

The Next Normal

We’ve not quite found the new form of the viva. In the UK, they’re all over video for now, but it’s too soon to say if that’s going to be normal from now on.

There’s definite benefits: potentially greater choice for examiners; more opportunity for making your own space a confidence-boosting environment for the viva; perhaps even new opportunities for participating in the viva itself that wouldn’t have been possible in a small seminar room. But reading body language and making small talk might suffer in the viva. I wonder if vivas-over-video will remain popular as people head back into the world.

I can recall telling seminar rooms not that long ago – very confidently – that any changes to the viva would come slowly. Academic culture was a ship that takes a long time to change course; the viva would continue to slowly evolve and change. I was so sure!

Wherever things go with the viva, the purpose will remain the same.

Examiners will want to explore your research contribution, be sure that you did the work and be certain that you’re a good researcher. They don’t have to do that in person though. As change comes, perhaps the viva will be broken into specific sections. Maybe formal presentations will become much more common as a start to the viva.

Our current situation is not normal, it’s different. The next normal is still coming.

It’ll take time, but it will get here. Underneath any differences though will be the same questions: What have you done and why? How did you do it? And can you show us how talented you are?