It Might Be Weird

After years of work it could feel odd to be talking about your research in your viva.

Perhaps if you’ve had a break between submission and the viva, things might feel a bit rusty when you think or talk about your work.

Or if your viva has to be over video it could feel awkward if there are delays, nervous moments waiting silently to get a response.

It might be weird to have unexpected questions, or be weird in advance trying to figure out what questions you might be asked by your examiners.

There’s plenty of space for weird around the viva, but remember: weird doesn’t mean bad.¬†Even if your viva is a little unexpected, a little strange or a bit weird, it will still most likely be absolutely fine.

Cloud on the Horizon

Off in the distance, on the edge of a clear blue sky is a single cloud. Something to be aware of, but not something that needs to be acted on. The wind may never blow it your way, and even if it does, how could one cloud spoil a beautiful day?

That’s one way you could think about viva worries.

  • There could be a particular question you’re worried about.
  • A piece of the viva process could make you feel unsure.
  • The uncertainty of whether or not you have done enough could make you doubt.

But what are the chances that one little worry is going to ruin everything? Like a single cloud on the horizon, it’s really not that likely.

If you feel worried then figure out the root of your concern, why you feel worried. Then see what, if anything, you need to do as a result.

Advice Isn’t Enough

You can read books about the viva. You can ask your supervisors for their advice. You can talk to friends and colleagues about their experiences. Get lots of recommendations.

And then you have to do something.

Take all the ideas and take action. Take everything you know about your research and thesis, factor in everyone’s advice, hints and helpful suggestions and take action.

Action that helps you remember what you need.

Action that helps you reflect on what you’ve done.

Action that helps get you one step close to where you need to be for talking to your viva.

At some point more knowledge and advice isn’t enough. You have to do something to help you get ready.

After The Viva

Thank your examiners.

Take some deep breaths.

Make a few notes about what just happened.

Make sure your supervisors know what just happened.

Call whoever you need to and let them know.

Take some more deep breaths.

Go find a way to celebrate.

And in and among all of those moments, have a minute for yourself to really take in what you’ve achieved in the viva. The almost-end of a long, long period of hard work and discovery. Don’t forget that it wouldn’t have been possible but for you.

You deserve every congratulation you receive.

A Contribution

You’ve not simply done¬†something for the last couple of years: you’ve made a contribution, made something different, made something that changes what came before. Made something that matters. You don’t need a model answer or script to hand to describe what you’ve done for your examiners, but it will help you in the viva to have reflected on how your work makes a difference.

So, quite simply, what’s your thesis contribution?

Before your viva make notes, reflect on your contribution and tell others about it. Then you’ll be more confident discussing what you’ve done with your examiners when you have to defend your thesis.

You Kept Going

A short reflection for today using my favourite thinking provocation, Why? How? What?

The last year or so has been hard – but if you’re reading this today (March 26th 2021) and your viva is soon, then you kept going despite it all. That means something. Reflect on the following:

  • Why did you keep going?
  • How did you keep going?
  • What did you accomplish as a result?

Take some pride. Take a sense of real achievement from all you’ve managed to do. Remind yourself that you kept going in such a strange time. You must have what you need to succeed in your viva too.

Made To Measure

Your viva is a unique exam, tailored just for you and your thesis. No-one else will have this one-of-a-kind experience.

But like made to measure clothes, there are patterns. There are ways that things are done. Jacket sleeves stop at a certain point so the jacket fits well. A skirt would be no good if it wasn’t stitched properly. Vivas are unique for the individual candidate, but there are expectations for what they should be like.

Find out about regulations and expectations for the viva, so that when yours comes around you can be sure it fits you well.

Not An Imposter

That’s not you. Whatever your misgivings, self-doubts or nerves: you could only have got through a PhD to submission and be preparing for your viva if you were good enough. That’s the only way.

If you have a specific concern about your research, talk with your supervisor or a trusted colleague and explore why you’re concerned. If you’re concerned about the process of the viva then find out more, learn about regulations and general expectations to get a full picture. If you’re not sure if you’re ready then learn what it takes to be ready (it doesn’t take much).

If you’re nervous, you’re not missing something. You’re right where you’re supposed to be. Feeling nervous is a way of recognising that something is important, not that something is wrong. You’re not fake, you’re not deficient: you’re human. Do what you can to build your confidence. Count your achievements. Reflect on your talents and how they’ve grown through the PhD. Don’t look for things that could be better, look for things that are already good enough.

You’ve got this far because you are good enough. Keep going.


Try not to overthink the viva.

It’s an exam, but just an exam. It’s an important conversation, but still just people discussing things. They’re asking questions, simply looking for honest responses.

Each question is a chance to add something to the viva, but is also just a question.

Preparation is about getting ready, not being perfect. Photographic recall and encyclopaedic knowledge are not required.

Overthinking won’t help you prepare for or get through the viva.

To Begin Again

What would you do differently if you were to start your PhD over?

Candidates have asked me about what they should say to this sort of question in the viva. It feels like it could be a trap: similar to interview questions asking people to talk about their failings or weaknesses.

Perhaps if you did something differently that’s the same as saying you got something wrong?

Maybe if you made a change you’re admitting there’s room for improvement?

I can understand the worry, but don’t think there is much to worry about. A question about starting again isn’t a trick or a trap: your examiners are trying to engage you. They want to know about what you’ve learned. There are many ways you could start to respond:

  • “Knowing what I know now, I’d start by exploring…”
  • “I’d save time as I wouldn’t have to learn how to…”
  • “I didn’t have the opportunity to research X; perhaps I’d start with that…”

You can’t start over. You can begin to explore just how far you’ve come – and what a difference that journey has made to you.