The viva is a challenge. The majority of candidates pass.

Candidates are talented because of the time and work spent on their PhDs. Candidates need to take time after submission to prepare for the viva.

Most candidates are nervous. Most candidates feel confident.


Challenging but passing. Talented but taking the time to get ready. Nervous and confident.

We have to accept these strange dualities; often, with these seemingly contradictory states and feelings about the viva, it’s the case that both are true.


As you prepare for your viva, consider your thesis as the record of your research.

You followed a method or were guided by a particular reference. Why? What did that give you? What if you had followed another method? What if you used a difference reference?

Reframing could help you to see other possibilities – not better, but maybe not worse. Something different.

Reframing could help you add more evidence for your thinking: now you are even more certain you made the right choice.

This kind of reframing can open your mind to questions from your examiners. They might ask you to consider other perspectives. They will probably ask questions to gain a better  understanding of your perspective. The more practice you have before the viva, the more comfortable this could be when you meet your examiners.

Just OK

Be aware that there’s a chance your viva won’t be amazing.

It’s likely it won’t be terrible or exhausting. It’s highly improbable for your examiners to be unprofessional or unfair. And it’s certainly true that the viva can be an enjoyable experience.

But it could be just OK.




I’m glad that lots of candidates enjoy their viva. I’m sad that some people, like me, feel their viva is an anticlimax. I don’t know what can be done to set expectations for the emotional experience that candidates might have.

At the very least consider it as a possibility.

There’s a good chance you will enjoy your viva! It’s unlikely you will hate it. But it could end up just OK.

Still, you’ll have passed. Then you can move on to the next step of your journey.

Who Did It?

I often encourage PhD candidates to reflect on Why, How and What:

  • Why did you do this research?
  • How did you do it?
  • What was the result?

These three questions are useful for breaking down the thesis contribution. They could be a good way to build up a summary. They’re a nice reminder that your thesis has something valuable.

But don’t forget Who:

  • Who did it?
  • Who kept going?
  • Who got more capable, more knowledgeable?

Your thesis has a significant original contribution. It’s only there because you did the work. You persisted, despite any pressures or setback – you made it happen. You became more talented along the way.

So: who is going to pass their viva?

Candidate or Thesis

A fairly common question about the viva, asked by someone who has to pass one in their near future, is whether or not it’s an exam of the candidate or their thesis.

“Is it me or my book?” – and the answer is both.

  • The candidate is being examined to see if they are a capable researcher; have they done enough? Do they know enough?
  • The thesis is being examined to see if it has what it needs; does it meet expectations? Does it have everything that a thesis in that field is supposed to have?

The candidate wrote the thesis, but on the day both have to be good.

Both typically are.

5 Random Posts

Last year, with the help of a plugin, I made a little link that diverts to a random post every time it is used:

I use it to find old posts to read. I look for little thoughts I might want to explore more. Occasionally I remind myself, “Oh wow, I wrote that! That’s pretty bad/good/silly/weird…”

Here are five random posts and five thoughts from them that seemed worth sharing:

  1. You Can’t Do Everything: “You can’t do everything [to get ready], but everything you do will help you.”
  2. Riddles: “…if a question in the viva might feel like a riddle or a challenge, remember it might not have a single right answer. In some cases it will have only the best response you can give.”
  3. Blinkered: “Don’t expect your examiners to know more than you, but don’t expect that you know every possible question or idea either.”
  4. “How Can I Help?”: “You don’t need to have had your viva to help someone else with theirs.”
  5. No Rush: “There’s no rush necessary in your viva preparations or in the viva UNLESS you make it that way.”

Each of those posts is more than a one-liner. And there’s 1600 more to find by using the random post link:

Maybe you’ll find just what you’re looking for.

The S-word

I try to be as careful as possible using the s-word.


You should get ready for your viva this way…

You should be prepared for your examiners to ask…

You should start your viva prep…

Lots of well-meant advice is hard to hear, hard to act on or hard to follow because the person speaking throws the s-word in the mix. It can raise tensions or muddy expectations. It can increase pressure on someone struggling if they hear that they should do something, in a specific way or at a specific time, that conflicts with what they feel able to do.

Don’t ask for people to tell you what you should do to get ready for your viva.

Don’t tell people what they should do for their viva.

Share ideas. Say why something helped you. Tell them what could work. Say why something could be valuable.

Leave the s-word out of it.

In Your Way

Time or work pressure.

Not knowing what to expect.

Being unsure of how to prepare.

Hearing stories that create doubt.

There can be lots of obstacles in your way of getting ready for the way. They’re real, they are barriers. You can still be ready, but only you can take the steps to get these things out of your way.

You have to make a small piece of time for yourself. You have to find out what to expect. You can learn what to do to prepare. You can ask for more viva stories that help.

You can and you must deal with anything in your way of getting ready for the viva.

Nervous & Excited

If you feel nervous about your viva then you’re reacting to the importance of the event. In anticipation you feel that you want everything to go well and that’s the nerves you feel.

If you feel excited about your viva then you’re also reacting to the importance of the event. You feel more certainty than a nervous person perhaps, and can’t wait for the viva to go well.

Feeling nervous isn’t wrong. Feeling excited isn’t wrong. Neither are end states. They change and can be made to change. Feelings can help to prompt your action.

Feeling nervous for the viva? What do you need to do to help (as nerves aren’t always comfortable)?

Feeling excited for the viva? What do you need to do to maintain your good feelings (as they might still need encouragement)?

How do you feel? So what do you need to do?

The Numbers Game

95% of vivas are finished by the four-hour mark.

I estimate that less than one-in-ten candidates will be asked to prepare a presentation.

Around 85% of candidates are asked to complete minor corrections to their thesis as the formal outcome of the viva.

Approximately 10% could be told the outcome of the viva as they start the exam.

And as useful as these statistics can be sometimes for shaping expectations, they’re also really hard to give someone a game plan for the viva. Lots of overlapping ideas – and while they create a feeling to hope for or engage with, you can’t know what is going to happen until you’re there.

The statistics help but you can’t play that game. You have to focus much more simply.

Use the stats and the stories of friends to create a picture of the viva that honestly seems fine. Then do your best. Create the best thesis you can. Prepare as best you can. Boost your confidence as best you can. Start the viva well. Keep going.

It’s important to have good expectations for the viva but the numbers can be a distraction. Create good expectations for yourself too.