A day off in the weeks leading up to your viva is not going to detract from your viva performance.

A day off in the week leading up to your viva doesn’t mean that you’re not taking it seriously.

A day off the day before your viva is possibly the best thing you can do, assuming you’ve already invested time in getting ready.

Rest helps. Unless you can’t sit still, unless you just have to do something, then taking some time to relax, recover, rest, destress and focus on being well is perhaps the most helpful thing you can do to help yourself before the viva.

Take today to rest, if you can.


Take breaks, make breakthroughs!

Starting With A Presentation

Examiners sometimes ask a candidate to prepare a short presentation to open the viva. They’re always clear about whether or not this is something they want: regulations might mention them, your department might have them often, but your examiners will be specific about whether or not they want one, and if they do, help set some expectations for what you could do.

“Ten to fifteen minutes summarising your thesis.”

“A short overview of each of your chapters and their key points.”

If your examiners ask for a presentation then prepare one in a style that works for you. Break your work down as best you can. Practise doing it so that you know you’ve got your points covered in the time you have, then go and start your viva in a good way.

If your examiners don’t ask for a presentation, there could still be a lot of value in preparing for one.

Summarise your work, connect ideas clearly and concisely, then practise delivering it with an audience of friends who can ask you questions and offer thoughts. There may be a little more work involved with this than with a lot of general viva prep ideas, but it can be a really useful way to help convince yourself you’re ready for your viva.

Vivas and Prime Numbers

“Anything could happen!”

I’ve heard academics and PhD candidates say that about the viva, and while there’s a sort of truth to it, the statement also misses a lot. Anything could happen, but it rarely does. The vast majority of vivas are completed within three hours, most vivas have two examiners and there are common opening questions. While there’s no way you could expect a particular script of questions they might ask you, you can reasonably expect certain areas to come up.

Going back to my pure maths days, the topic of viva expectations reminds of prime numbers. There are infinite prime numbers – 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 and so on – numbers which can only be divided by themselves and 1 without leaving a remainder. There is no end to them. And yet there are many, many ways we can categorise them.

There’s one even prime, and infinitely many odd ones. There are primes that form little pairs, twin primes, which are separated by adding 2, for example, 3 and 5, 5 and 7, 11 and 13. There are primes like 23 and 37 that aren’t twin and don’t form little couples. After the number 2 we could group together all primes according to whether or not they are 1 modulo 4 or 3 modulo 4 – but really we’re getting away from the topic here!

There are infinitely many primes, they go on for ever – and yet there are many useful ways we can group them, categorise them and learn from them.

There are countless different vivas, anything could happen, but also patterns and structures that we can see and even expect.

Again: anything could happen in the viva, but “anything” very rarely does. It’s far more useful for you to find out about common expectations and learn from them than to try and prepare for infinite possibilities.

Closing Moments

How will your viva end?

Will your examiners simply say something like, “I think we’ve talked enough,” and then request a short break?

Will they ask you if you have any questions or anything else you want to say?

It’s hard to say how your viva will finish. It won’t hurt you to reflect on what you might say in advance.

A question about developing your work further could make for a short, interesting conversation. Asking about publications or funding opportunities might help you gain the benefit of your examiners’ experience. Or coming back to a point from your research could help you to say one more good thing about what you’ve done.

Reflect a little in advance, then see what happens on the day. The closing moments won’t make or break anything, but they could help you to feel a little bit better or gain a little more knowledge.

In The Chair

An independent chairperson for the viva can be really valuable. They act as an impartial observer, recording what happens. They can be a navigator carefully steering examiner or candidate away from fruitless discussions. They don’t decide the outcome but they can help set the tone for a good viva.

And not every viva has one. If you don’t, then your internal examiner takes on some of these responsibilities. They’ll make sure your viva is fair.

Is there a chair or not for your viva? Find out. One situation isn’t better than the other – they’re just different. Knowing as much as you can about what to expect can help settle your mind that your viva really is going to be fine.

A Little Pause, Here And There

A few seconds to make sure you’ve heard and understood something.

A few seconds to make a note.

A few seconds to check a detail.

A few seconds to be sure your examiner has stopped talking.

A few seconds that are a little awkward over Zoom.

A few seconds that feel like a lot more than a few seconds.

Or a few seconds that might need to be a moment or two, to really check something over.

A few seconds pause here and there are needed in the viva. Pauses are essential for getting your thoughts in order, for determining what’s next, for checking that everything is OK, or for just thinking and appreciating what’s going on.

And you’re not the only person who might need to pause in the viva.

When you take all those little pauses together they’re still just a small part of the viva.

Maybe one way to help you be fine with pauses in your viva is to think of them as a lot of little things that help the big things go well.

Tomorrow’s Story

Tomorrow is the best time to start building your confidence for the viva – assuming you didn’t do it yesterday and you’re busy today.

Tomorrow, take five minutes to write down a few thoughts about something that you’ve achieved in the course of your PhD. Capture a result, an idea, a paper, a chapter, a skill that you’ve developed, a knowledge-based competence – something you’ve done that has helped you get to where you are.

And keep going every day. Five minutes of reflection every day, building up a short story collection of the last few years. A collection of little story fragments that point to you being good at what you do. A story that, when combined, shows you can be confident you’re ready for your viva.

Keep It Simple

Thinking about how to prepare for the viva stresses some candidates. There can be lots of factors at play.

I have work, I have kids, I have so little time, I’m tired, I’m stressed, what to do, when to start, where to focus and so on.

I can’t answer every possible concern, but my advice generally comes down to four short thoughts:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Set regular prep times.
  3. Complete small tasks.
  4. Ask for support.

Engaging with prep doesn’t need to be much harder than that.

To date, there’s probably over 101 posts on this blog about viva prep. I’ve explored this topic a lot, but you don’t need to do 101 things to be ready for your viva.

Keep it simple. Cut through stress and worry with something as simple as a to-do list. Keep taking small steps to get to where you need to be.

My Story

Where do I begin?

Do I start with my teenage dreams of being a teacher? How I left those behind when my father died? Or do I start with telling you about my undergraduate degree in maths and philosophy?

How much should I tell you of my Masters, or why I didn’t continue working with my first supervisor from there?

When I talk about my PhD, should I tell you about the big results from my thesis? And if I do, do I leave out the miserable months of my second year when I could seem to make no headway? Should I tell you that those miserable months returned in my third year too?

What are the lessons that stand out? What are the moments I should share? What are the details that you need from me?

How did I get here? It depends on the audience. It depends on my mood. It depends on the story.

And in some ways it doesn’t matter at all.


A PhD story – or a viva story – can be useful. Listening to someone else’s journey is valuable; trying to tease out nuggets of experience and insight can be really helpful in finding things to try for oneself.

Far more useful though is the story you tell yourself about yourself.

I told myself I was lucky during my PhD, and it made me feel that I hadn’t worked for what I had.

Afterwards, I realised one day that I was fortunate – and that change of word helped me realise the work I had done, the skillset I had built and the confidence I could base on it.

My story? It’s good. It’s true. It’s changed over the years and stayed true.

What’s your story? Get it right, and it’ll help you through the end of your PhD, through your viva and beyond.

Unanticipated, Not Unmanageable

Every viva is “unique, not unknown” – always different, but following patterns from regulations, expectations and even traditions within departments or universities.

We can also say with confidence that a viva could be “unanticipated, not unmanageable” in how it occurs. A viva could deviate from expectations in a way that no-one could expect from the outset: a question could be unpredicted, a comment could seem random, a line of discussion could even be uncomfortable.

All of which would be unanticipated – but not unmanageable. Given the time a candidate would spend working on their PhD, investing in their development and getting ready, the viva could be surprising, more than the expected challenge, but still within the capabilities of the candidate.

Unique, not unknown. Unanticipated, not unmanageable.

Which is the short way of saying that you can have reasonable expectations, and rise to the challenge of anything you can’t foresee.

Even shorter: you can do it.