Whether it’s Halloween or any other day of the year, your viva is not a scary story in your future.

No-one is going to jump out at you in your viva.

Nothing startling. Nothing horrific.

No terror. No torture.

Your viva is unknown but not unknowable. You can’t know exact questions but you can know what they will be related to. The viva isn’t a spooky mystery with shadowy figures lurking in the background: your examiners are right there in front of you, and you know who you are.

There might be surprises, but even then, if someone asks a questions that’s unexpected you can still take your time to think it through. You don’t have to respond to some immediate terror confronting you.

However you might feel now, once you’re done you’ll realise that your viva was not so scary after all.

Be Brave

I would hope you don’t need to be brave for your viva. I would hope that whatever worries or concerns you have, they don’t overwhelm so much that you need to find courage. Given everything you’ve done before, your viva should not be such a great challenge.

But if you do find yourself more anxious than confident, if you do feel fear and you need to be brave, remember:

  • You are not alone. There are many people who can and will support you. Ask for help. Ask early, ask often.
  • The viva is not a mystery. You don’t have to fear the unknown. Check the regulations, learn about expectations and listen to viva stories.
  • You have already come a long way. You’re not beginning an epic journey, you’re near the end. You don’t have far to go.

You don’t need to find a lot of courage or do a lot of work to be ready. Be brave if you need to be. Ask for help if you need it. Keep going.

“Not The Word I’d Use…”

I’ve asked over six thousand candidates in workshops, seminars and webinars, “How do you feel about your viva?”

Less than 1% have said they felt excited.

There’s probably some selection bias there; if you’re attending a session about getting ready for the viva then perhaps you’re less likely to feel excited.

Candidates often feel nervous, which is a similar flavour of emotion; nervous and excited are both a reaction to how you anticipate something, but nervous has a much more negative sense to it. Candidates often express concern or worry: rather than being simply nervous about the viva, they have a particular aspect that they’re focussed on, a problem that needs a solution.

Many candidates feel unprepared. Thankfully that’s a temporary state; work moves you from unprepared to prepared. Work also helps with worry, you have to do something to change how you feel. Preparation won’t help nerves directly but it can help to build confidence. Confidence helps a candidate feel capable – they know what they know, they’re sure of what they’ve done, they can do what they need to – even if they then feel nervous they can put that into perspective.

And, on occasion, preparation and learning more about the viva could help someone to feel excited. As they know more of what to expect they could come to see that perhaps this is an event that’s not a final hurdle to jump or an encounter they need to win. It’s an opportunity to enjoy.

It’s not likely though. On most occasions when a candidate tells me they are excited they hastily clarify, “Er, excited to be done!”


You feel how you feel. It’s not good or bad to feel one thing or another, but understand that some states are more or less helpful for you. How you feel cannot simply be changed, but you can work towards a different state. So: how do you feel? How do you want to feel? What could you do to try to change how you feel?

Understanding The Odds

If you work hard at your research then you increase the chance that you get useful outputs for your PhD.

If you write the best thesis you can then it’s more likely it will be read well by someone else (like an examiner!).

If you prepare for your viva then odds are you’ll be better off than if you had done nothing in particular.

And if you do all of these, as most PhD candidates do, then you’re very likely to succeed.

The Goal

Viva prep helps you to feel ready for the viva.

Learning about expectations helps you to feel ready for the viva.

Exploring who your examiners are (a little) helps you to feel ready for the viva.

Rehearsing the kind of work you will need to do in the viva helps you to feel ready for the viva.

All the various tasks are there to help you towards feeling ready.

But you don’t want to feel ready for your viva: you want to pass your viva.

That’s OK. Preparing will help you to pass, learning expectations will help, exploring your examiners and rehearsing all help you pass.

Except you don’t want to pass: you really want whatever you’re aiming towards after your PhD is complete.

The PhD is a goal, not the goal.


A few thoughts: can you do viva prep in such a way that it benefits your real goal? Can you organise your prep to leave space for working towards your real goal? And viva prep is easily defined, but have you clearly set out what you’re really working towards?

Learning & Growing

It’s not wrong to reflect on what you might do differently if you started your PhD again.

No thesis is perfect. No PhD journey can be completed without encountering problems or making mistakes. The PhD process is one of learning, so it’s natural to complete it and realise you might do things differently.

Some things could be because you realise a choice was made in error. Or perhaps you know that something went wrong. Maybe now, with the benefit of hindsight and greater knowledge, you know you would take another course of action or understand something with more clarity.

Considering what you would do differently is a great way to remind yourself that you’ve learned more than you knew at the start of the PhD. Don’t think about differences as a way to give yourself more problems and doubts. Reflect and see that your talent, knowledge and skills have grown.

What More Can You Do?

If you think you’re ready for your viva then there’s probably nothing to do but find space to rest and relax. If you’re not sure you’re ready then there’s lots you could try:

  • You could find out more about what to expect.
  • You could read your thesis again to check that it matches your memory.
  • You could learn a little about your examiners.
  • You could reflect and check how you feel about you as a researcher.
  • You could talk to your supervisor and get their opinion on lots of things.

If you’re not sure you’re ready then there’s lots you could try – but that doesn’t mean that you have to do lots to get ready. Viva prep is only a small piece of the viva puzzle.

Have you done the work you needed to for your research? Have you written and submitted your thesis? Then you’re almost ready. You’ve done a lot to get this close to PhD success.

Viva prep is a little more that will help.

Your Why

Whether you feel good or bad as you finish your PhD journey, remember why you did this in the first place. What was your reason for starting a PhD? Why did you want to do it?

Your why can help you renew your efforts if you’re tired or silence doubts when you think you’ve not quite done enough. Your why can motivate and reassure. Your why could have changed over time, so reflect on that too: why did you start a PhD and why did you keep going?

There are lots of possible whys: whatever it is, yours is good enough. Come back to it if you need a boost or a push to get finished.

You’re almost there. Keep going.

Being Wrong

There’s always a chance you’re wrong about something. There’s always a possibility your examiners believe you’re wrong. Until they ask they won’t be able to know either way.

Being wrong or being asked something because you might be wrong is not comfortable. It invites all sorts of feelings and worries.

Did you make a mistake in your research? Did you write something up incorrectly? Did you misunderstand? Were you unclear?


  • You’re not perfect.
  • Your research can’t be perfect.
  • Your thesis won’t be perfect.

There’s a chance that you’re wrong in some way but a much greater chance that if you are then you can make it right.

You can do the work. Do the work in your prep to figure out how to correct things. Do the work in the moment in the viva to clear up what you mean. Do the work while you talk to your examiners to explain something. Do the work to correct your thesis after the viva.

You might be wrong, that’s human – as is working to make things right.

In The Margins

You have lots of useful, empty space on the borders of every page in your thesis. In the margins you could:

  • Mark out important sections.
  • Highlight particular types of information.
  • Leave notes to expand on key points.
  • Improve a reference.
  • Clarify something that’s unclear.
  • Correct an error.

You can help yourself: you’re the only person who will see these marginalia, so make them really helpful.

In your preparation, take time to consider what will help your thesis be as useful as possible for the viva. Decide on a consistent way to make margin notes as easy to read and understand as possible.

Then do the work. It won’t take long.

Afterwards you’ll have a better thesis for the purposes of the viva. All of the valuable work you’ve done for years plus, in the margins, some helpful notes to help you succeed when you talk with your examiners.