Games Worth Playing

There are PhD games that people play that are ultimately not fun or helpful. They’re founded in perfectionism and not knowing what’s expected. Playing them seems like a good idea sometimes, but is ultimately frustrating. Don’t play those games.

  • Don’t try to live up to an imagined ideal that doesn’t match the reality of what you need to do at the viva.
  • Don’t try to beat some stellar standard you perceive in other postgraduate researchers.
  • Don’t try to read everything, do everything or know everything – because you can’t.

These games aren’t worth playing. They won’t reward you or your progress.

The games that will help are personal games. You set a reasonable target and try to achieve it. You recognise the commitment you have and your growth (as a person and a researcher). You take action and move along the very, very long journey.

Play the games worth playing. Save your focus for what matters the most. Your success does not have to be defined by the achievements of others or false expectations.

Prep Principles & Personal Prep

Viva prep principles are fairly simple to share. How you put them into practice is not hard, but it is personal.

Read your thesis to refresh your memory. Annotate your copy so that information is easier to find or clearer to see on the page. Create summaries to help you clarify your thinking. Rehearse to help your comfort and confidence for the discussion in the viva.

Read your thesis – but when do you start? How much do you do at a time? It depends on how big your thesis is, how busy you are and when works best for you.

Annotation sounds good – but how much? What kind of things? What’s best? It all depends on how your thesis is written, what information will help you and how you like things to be organised.

And so on. The principles of viva prep are simple. How you need to do the work is personal. Reflecting on your thesis and circumstances will help you navigate getting the work done.


What if I forget something? What if I go blank? What if my examiners don’t like something?

All hypothetical questions. All reasonable too: any PhD candidate could feel worried about these things for their viva.

But why are hypothetical questions about the viva always framed negatively? I think we could ask a different kind of hypothetical question to help prepare for the viva.

What if you didn’t forget anything? What if your mind stayed clear during the viva? What if your examiners told you what they liked?

What if you had already done the hardest work? What if you had committed three or more years to getting to the viva? What if you had prepared for it?

What if you were good enough?

Hypothetically speaking, what would you do, think and feel?

(using hypothetically rhetorically!)

A Problem Shared

You’re the only person who can pass your viva, but there are many, many people who can support you before you get that far.

It may be that you just need a little encouragement, but if you have a problem then consider how others could do something practical to help:

  • Your supervisors can help you understand the role of examiners. They can help you unpick how you express your research. They can help you by hosting a mock viva. They can’t solve your problems for you, but if you share them they will do their best.
  • Friends and colleagues can help by understanding what you’re going through. They can share viva expectations or perhaps simply listen while you explain your research and ask questions. If you have a problem they can signpost you towards something that will make a difference.
  • Your family and loved ones may not understand your research! But if you have a problem then they will listen. If you can share the root cause they might have a suggestion that could help. More than anything, if you have a problem, they will want to be there to help.

With the viva, as with many things in life generally, there are problems and there are Problems. There are little things and Big Things. You are not alone. You don’t have to solve every pre-viva problem or Problem by yourself.

You are good, you are skilled, you are capable and knowledgeable – and you are not alone.

Tricky or Trivial

Describing the viva’s conversation and questions isn’t as simple as picking an extreme.

Questions can be tricky because of the standard of the work being talked about. Responding could be trivial because of the work that you, as a postgraduate researcher, have put into your thesis.

A comment might be simple, easy-to-understand, and in the moment you might find yourself lost for words.

It’s not sensible to focus on how much of one kind of question or another one might get. Instead, you can focus on being prepared.

Read your thesis and practise for the viva. Refresh your memory so that you’re as comfortable as possible talking about your work. Understand that you can’t know every question that is going to be asked, but you can prepare yourself to listen, pause, think and respond.

The viva isn’t trivial, but nor is it so tricky that you have to worry. Get ready to engage with whatever your examiners bring to the discussion.

Keeping Score

To help remember your effort and progress – to then help build confidence for the viva – keep records of what you do and what happens during your PhD.

You don’t have to have a minute-by-minute journal of what you do: perhaps start a tally and for each day you show up to do something for your PhD, make a mark. Each time you finish a task, make a mark. Whenever you do something new, make a mark. Whenever you feel you’ve learned something, make a mark. And so on.

Whatever challenges you face, whatever gets in the way, – and particularly whatever makes you feel like you’re not going as far or as fast as you might want to – perhaps all you need is simply to show yourself, with a few marks, that you really are making progress.

You really are good enough.

Do You Feel Nervous?

It’s not a bad thing if you feel nervous before the viva, or at the start.

It’s probably not comfortable. Nervousness can sometimes grow into feeling overwhelmed or anxious because – but by itself it’s not a terrible state.

Nervousness recognises the importance of something: your viva matters. Success means something.

If you feel nervous, don’t fight it. Focus on the work you’ve done. Remind yourself that your ability and knowledge, your effort and research outcomes are what has brought you to your viva. Focus on all of that and you’ll find enough confidence to put your nerves in perspective.

Yes, your viva is important, so you might feel nervous.

Yes, you did the work, so you can feel confident.

Now I Forget

I remember checking in with my supervisor half an hour before my viva and asking him about a key definition. I don’t remember seeing him at all later that day, but he must have been there. Right?

I shared an office with four other people at the time, but don’t recall any of them being there on my viva day. Isn’t that strange? A Monday in early June and no-one was around. Did that happen? Or do I just not remember?

I started my viva with a presentation. I remember my examiners asking me questions almost immediately, as I was sharing a summary. I remember difficult questions about my explanation for some results. However, I don’t remember any questions at all about the key result of my thesis. Isn’t that strange?

I remember passing but have a hole in my memory until that evening, a celebratory dinner in a restaurant with my family. I don’t know if my examiners gave me a list of corrections after my viva. I don’t know if I saw any friends around the department. I don’t know if I called or texted anyone to let them know I was done.


I’m starting to forget my viva. I remember a story, a fragment of what happened, but not the day.

Maybe it means my viva really wasn’t that big a deal compared to everything else in my PhD. Maybe it means I’ve finally finished thinking about that day – unlikely as that may seem!

Why am I sharing this? To offer a little perspective, for those who have their viva in the future. It matters. Your viva is important. But it won’t be the most important thing you ever do.

The viva is one day on your journey to getting your PhD.

And maybe one day you’ll realise you’ve forgotten all about it.


The viva is a discussion. Questions are asked to prompt and probe; responses are given to move the conversation along. Your examiners ask questions and make comments to explore your research and your capability.

If your examiners disagree with you in the viva: ask them questions if needed, then listen and figure out what – if anything – you have to say in response.

And if your examiners agree with you in the viva, then the process is the same: ask them questions if needed, then listen and figure out what – if anything – you have to say in response.

It’s understandable why any candidate might worry about examiners disagreeing with them. It’s helpful to remember that disagreement does not mean failure. It’s helpful to remember that you can engage with critical questions and comments; that’s what you’re supposed to do as part of the viva.

It’s also helpful to remember that the vast majority of vivas are successful.

One More Time

The viva is one more time when you have to bring your best.

One more time when you have to share your research and contribution.

One more time when you might be challenged.

One more time when you might be stretched.

One more time when you can show your knowledge and skills.

And one more time on the path to being done. You have lots of experience when you submit. You have repeatedly demonstrated how good you are. Now you have your viva: one more time to show what you can do.

Make the most of it – and remember how you’ve got this far.