Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances. In some ways I feel like this is quite a mundane definition, almost boring: it doesn’t capture the flavour of what people tend to think about survival. Over time we have skewed survive to only mean situations where life is threatened and nearly all hope is lost.

Survive implies, I think, a challenge that is being worked through. It feels like the best verb to describe the kind of challenge being overcome in the PhD viva: it’s not a new challenge, it’s not impossible, it’s not supposed to be a struggle. It applies to the PhD as well, of course, though the challenge is bigger, for longer and can take many forms.

Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances sometimes doesn’t capture the nuance of the difficulty or the challenge. It doesn’t account for how someone might feel about their PhD or viva. It’s still the best verb I can think of for describing how someone can engage with the circumstances of their viva.


Whatever challenges you faced during your PhD, they helped you get to submission and to the viva.

Whatever prep you do it will build on a solid foundation of knowledge and ability that you have developed.

Whatever disruption you encountered because of the pandemic you have worked around and persevered.

Whatever questions you are asked you will be able to find a way to respond.

Whatever you feel before your viva, you are a talented and capable researcher.

Whatever happens you are good enough.


Whenever you respond to a question in the viva, remember that you need to offer evidence. A question might be seeking information; you need to provide it. A question might ask if you are correct; you can’t simply say yes. You need to offer evidence – context, information, reasons – that help show that you are correct.

Whenever you receive a question in the viva, remember that it is being asked for a reason. The evidence of your thesis, the story, facts and figures you have written up, have given your examiners plenty to think about. The evidence of your thesis prompts the questions that you are being asked to drive the discussion.

Summary Values

Summaries are not scripts. You don’t write an overview of your results to be able to read them out. You don’t make a list of helpful references to simply parrot them back on the day.

The value of a summary is that it helps to highlight what matters. It’s a practical task that gives you an opportunity to draw your thinking together. It helps you to find the words you need to express yourself.

If you invest a little time in writing one or two summaries before your viva then you prime yourself to respond well in the viva.

Three Part Success

There are three parts to a successful viva:

  • Effective preparation before the viva;
  • Full engagement during the viva;
  • Relieved celebration after the viva.

Before the viva you need to take steps to get ready. Plan your prep in advance so you don’t feel pressured for time. There’s a lot of generally good advice about kinds of activities help (and a lot of that on this blog). Make sure you don’t leave it too late, but remember you have done a lot already that puts you in a good position.

During the viva take your time. Breathe. Pause. Your examiners want you to engage with and respond to the discussion. They are not simply looking for rapid-fire responses or testing your memory. They need to have a conversation so that you can demonstrate what you did, what you know and what you can do. Take your time. Engage – and enjoy!

When the viva is finished do something to celebrate. Smile. You’ll probably have corrections to complete, but all in due course. On the day you can celebrate your achievement. You’re very likely to succeed, so perhaps have an idea or two in mind before the viva to help motivate you.

There are three parts to a successful viva – after, of course, a successful research journey and thesis submission.

Notice that at every stage the key factor is you.

A Special Day

When you think ahead to it, how do you describe your viva?

Do you feel it will be a challenge? Do you joke that your examiners will give you a grilling? Do you find thinking about your viva a bit scary?

When you think of all you’ve done, do you imagine your viva will be special? Important? Easy?

Do you think you will feel nervous, anxious or worried in the days before?

Words matter. The words you use to describe your viva, your preparation and yourself all matter. They are the story you tell about the situation.

Will you need to be lucky or do you think you will be ready?

It’s Complicated

If your research wasn’t complicated then it probably wouldn’t be up to the standard needed for a PhD. It will help you, however, to explore how you can express your ideas clearly, simply.

The process for getting ready for the viva isn’t a straight-forward linear process; deciding when to start and what to do can be a complicated business. You can simplify things by asking simple questions and doing simple things.

Knowing what to expect from your viva is a very complicated question. It depends on what field you’re in, what university you’re at, whether your viva is in-person or over-video, who your examiners are, what time of year you submit and many other factors. Or simply, you can expect a conversation for several hours or so, lead by examiners and their questions.

Ask anything about the viva and the honest first response is: “It’s complicated.” If you find the right help and explore a little though, you’ll probably find that there are simple things to consider which will really help you.

A Lasting Contribution

Nothing lasts forever. How long will your contribution to knowledge stand? How many years before there is something bigger, better, more considered or more helpfully stated?

On the one hand, you don’t need to account for everything that will or could happen in your field with respect to your research.

On the other, it could be helpful to think about what could happen next to help you share something of the significance you see and that you hope others will see in time.

Consider what your work could mean in the future and you can help yourself to consider what it means right now.

Find Your Numbers

I’ve worked with over 6500 people who were getting ready for their viva. I’ve now been publishing this daily blog for five years. Today happens to be the 1800th post.

And every time I am about to start a webinar I get nervous.

Every time I finish up a post I wonder if it is alright.

Every month I wonder if I’m going to run out of things to say or what I might do if no-one wants my help.

I’ve been working in this area for over a decade and I still have doubts. I still get nervous. And that’s OK, that’s part of the process. Over time I’ve found ways to build up my confidence and balance out the nervousness I feel. I’m nervous because I treat what I do as important.

I’m confident, at least in part, because of the numbers I focus on. If I’ve done that many viva prep sessions, helped that many people, written that many posts – well, I can do one more!

What numbers will help convince you on your journey to the viva? The number of times you’ve presented work? The number of days or hours you’ve shown up to work on your PhD? The number of papers you’ve read to build your knowledge of your field?

Find the numbers that will help build your confidence for the viva.

The First-Year Viva

I write and publish this blog with the final PhD viva in mind, but there are other times when some of the ideas and advice might be applied. The first-year viva naturally springs to mind: a test that marks confirmation that a postgraduate researcher is on track. After a year of work they have made progress, are showing their potential and their department is confident that they will complete their PhD.

Thoughts on how to prepare for the first-year viva are very similar to the final viva. Ideas of who can support you, expressed throughout the many posts of this blog, are the same: your supervisors, your colleagues, your friends and family. The expectations for first-year vivas are very similar.

Everything is smaller though. Shorter than the final viva. Less work expected. Less prep needed. The stakes and the desired outcome are nowhere near as great as the final viva.

Of course, for all the same reasons that one might feel nervous for the final viva, you might feel nervous for your first-year viva. Worries about what to expect. Uncertainty about whether you’ve done enough. Anxiety about whether or not you are good enough.

All the same remedies are needed as for the final viva. You can’t simply change how you feel. You can work to get past the worry and stress. Do the prep. Ask for help. Reflect on your journey so far. Remember that you’re learning, developing, but capable. You are good enough.

Ask others from your department about their experiences in the first-year viva to learn more about what to expect. Then use that to work well and work past any doubts you have about the future of your PhD journey.