Who Is At The Viva?

In the UK there have to be at least two examiners, one internal and one external. Both are important. It’s not true that the external has the final say or is senior to the internal. Both will have read your thesis. Both will be prepared. Together they will lead the discussion in the viva and together they will determine the outcome.

An independent chair could be part of the viva process: a member of staff who will observe and confirm that the viva was fair. Some universities always insist on a chair; others require them for certain situations. If there needs to be a chair then they will be there.

You might need your supervisor at your viva. It might feel appropriate to have them be a witness to a final step of your PhD journey. You might need them to make notes about what you discuss or you might need the help of having a supporter in the room.

Or you might need them to not be there: that’s fine too!

Finally, you need to be there. You need to be present, prepared and ready to engage.

Who is at the viva? In short, everyone who needs to be.

Getting Prep Done

If viva prep seems hard – you’re tired, stretched, stressed, busy – then think about how you can make doing it somehow rewarding to you.

  • Can you incentivise getting it done?
  • Can you record doing it in a fun way?
  • Can you create a routine or ritual that helps you get the work done?
  • Can you include others in your prep in a useful way?

You need to prepare for your viva, but that need by itself might not be enough. What can you do to help you get it done?

Don’t Deny Nerves

If you feel nervous about your viva there is a reason. Don’t try to put it to one side or squash it down, because that feeling is trying to draw your attention to something.

  • If you feel nervous because you don’t feel ready, then take time to prepare for your viva.
  • If you feel nervous because of something that doesn’t seem right in your thesis, then talk to your supervisor and figure things out.
  • If you feel nervous because you don’t know what to expect then find out more!

And if you just feel nervous but can’t put your finger on why then most likely you are recognising that the viva is important. This matters to you. Still, don’t push away your nerves, but instead focus on building your confidence, a counter-feeling that will help bring your nervousness into perspective.

Different Kinds of Mistakes

Different kinds of mistakes require different actions in the viva.

If you find a few typos during your viva preparation you don’t need to go out of your way to mention them to your examiners.

If you find a sentence that doesn’t quite make sense you may need to bring it up if you’re talking about that chapter or topic.

If you discover a paragraph or section that is wrong for some reason, it could definitely help to pre-emptively explain what you really meant.

If your examiners ask you about something and you haven’t noticed it before the viva then you need to think carefully in the moment. That’s all. You need to stop, think and respond.

You need to be prepared to acknowledge all kinds of mistakes in the viva, but you don’t need to build up stress about them. Do what you can in preparation, but spend more time getting ready to talk about everything that isn’t a mistake. The focus in the viva is far more on what is right than what is wrong.

Writing A Thesis Blurb

I’m not a fan of the abstract in my thesis:

This thesis uses Kauffman skein theory to give several new results. We show a correspondence between Kauffman and Homfly satellite invariants with coefficients modulo 2, when we take certain patterns from the respective skeins of the annulus. Using stacked tangles we construct a polynomial time algorithm…

And I’ll stop there before I lose every reader of this blog for ever! I look at my thesis now and again, and whenever I read my abstract I think, “What does it all mean? Why would anyone care? Why did I care?”

Of course, abstracts are needed to share what a thesis is about. They have a place. I think it would have been helpful for me, to boost how I thought about my thesis, if I also wrote a blurb – the kind of thing you read on the back of a book or a DVD box that’s there to draw someone in.

Maybe instead of using lots of big words to say very little at all I could have said something like:

Do you like knots but don’t know how to tell them apart? I can help with that! This book describes my explorations of several ideas that explained some unsolved maths mysteries. I went further than anyone else had gone before! I didn’t quite get everything I wanted, but I got more than I thought possible when I started. Read on to find out more!

Perhaps it wouldn’t have what my examiners needed, but it could have done something to help me.

What could you write about your thesis to excite yourself? If your abstract needs a little oomph to boost your confidence, what kind of blurb could you write?


I hear a lot of people describe vivas in binary terms.

  • The viva is long or short.
  • Either you’ll love it or hate it.
  • Expect examiners to be fair or critical.
  • Questions are either easy or hard.
  • Preparation is straight-forward or lots of work.
  • You’re either nervous or confident when the day arrives.
  • Overall, the viva is either good or bad!

And of course the truth is that, generally, these either/or positions don’t capture what the viva is really like. Different people will feel different things, and rarely will the viva be one thing or the other.

My viva was four hours long and it felt like it flew by. My examiners were really fair with their questions and they had some very critical comments about the structure of my thesis.

Being nervous means that the viva is important to you, but you can be confident too if you reflect on your achievements and realise the success that you’ve made for yourself.

Prove It

In your viva you might be able to handwave some details.

To have time to explore the truly important aspects of your work you might want to skip past tricky things, or make a short point that captures something big. That’s acceptable to do. You can say, effectively, “Trust me. This is the way it is and we don’t need to explore or explain it too much.”

It’s acceptable, but it’s also acceptable for your examiners to say, “Prove it.”

You can use whatever words you want in the viva to explain something. Your examiners can always ask for more detail. While you can say things as simply as you want, you have to be prepared to explore the complex.

This Might Not Work

I was halfway through my PhD journey before I accepted a truth about my research: “I’m trying this, but it might not work.”

I spent weeks trying various methods to get an algorithm to act as I expected.

It took me a long time to decipher what papers meant and then combine them to prove the results I needed.

And I tried different approaches for over two months before I realised that I couldn’t solve the equation I was working on. And I never did solve it.

This might not work.

It could be a helpful thought to hold on to from time to time during a PhD. You can work hard, try your absolute best but fail to get the result. You could read a lot but not find what you wanted, or understand what you need. You could explore your area and leave with more questions than when you started.

Sometimes PhD candidates hold on to the thought as they approach their viva – but that’s a mistake.

By the time you’ve reached the viva you’ve already passed submission. Despite all the problems you’ve faced and times when things haven’t worked, enough has worked for you to complete your thesis.

By then, enough things have worked out for you that the viva will work out too.

Investing In Confidence

The specific tasks involved in viva prep – reading your thesis, making notes, rehearsing and so on – don’t need to happen until after you’ve submitted your thesis. Until then your goal has to be getting your thesis written and finished.

Viva prep is not purely mechanical though. Being ready isn’t simply completing a list of activities. Being ready is also a matter of confidence. Do you feel capable? Do you feel like you can engage with your examiners’ questions?

You don’t need to prepare for the viva until after you have submitted but it’s a valuable investment to do things to build your confidence over a long period of time. The more that you reflect on your success and remind yourself of it, the more you will feel ready for your viva when it arrives.

Reflect on your success. Remind yourself of what you have done. Do things that help you to feel confident.

You Pass

In most cases the viva is a tough, fair, interesting conversation. In most cases the candidate finds out they have to complete some corrections afterwards. In most cases the candidate discovers that their worries about what might happen didn’t match up with what did happen.

Your viva could be an anticlimax. It might not live up to all of your expectations. It could be boring. It could be fine but not the amazing event you thought it might be.

After thousands of hours of work spread out over several years of a research programme, in the space of a few hours you’re pretty much done.

Before you can believe it, it’s all over.

You pass.