Practised, Not Perfect

Remember that you don’t need to be perfect to succeed in the viva.

Remember that you will have invested a lot of time, effort and energy into becoming practised at all the things necessary for you to succeed.

You have read, you have written, you have learned, you have developed the skills for a researcher in your field and a lot more.

You’re not perfect. You are practised.

And that’s enough.

A Score For Ready

A little bit of fun to help you think about getting ready for the viva.

Think about each of the following statements and give yourself a score from 1 to 10 depending on how well you agree with them (1 being that you don’t agree with it and 10 representing total agreement):

  • “I feel like I know my research and my thesis pretty well.”
  • “I know what to expect from a viva.”
  • “I have taken time to annotate my thesis well.”
  • “I feel confident about my examiners and who they are.”
  • “I have rehearsed for the viva enough.”
  • “I feel confident about meeting my examiners.”

Now reflect on the scores you’ve given. Think a score is low? Well, what can you do about that? What will you do about that? Who could help you? When will you take the next step?

Think a score is about right for you and your situation? Why? What evidence supports that? Is there anything else you could do to help?

Numbers can help you move yourself closer to being ready.

Breaks & Breakthroughs

Take breaks, make breakthroughs.

Dr Kay Guccione was the first person I saw share this sentiment on Twitter. It’s a phrase I’ve kept in mind for years now.

Breaks are a necessary part of a working life. Breaks are needed to get work done. Relax and recover. Rest the mind. Find a balance for oneself.

I’ve spent most of the last month taking a break as it’s been my daughter’s summer holiday time. That doesn’t mean that it’s always been relaxing(!) but it has been a chance to rest from regular Zoom meetings, reflect on how I’ve been doing them for a little over two years now and what I can do to continue to build on that practice. I’ve taken some time off from writing as well – which has been really odd but also really good.

I’m ready for some breakthroughs in the coming weeks!


Remember, a break before the viva can help you breakthrough so many things. Breakthrough worries and find your confidence. Breakthrough doubts and talk to your examiners.

At submission take a break so you can make a breakthrough.


An odd viva could occur. Odd in a way that nobody is anticipating prior to it.

How odd?

  • A four hour viva.
  • A viva with an additional Doctor or Prof.
  • A viva without many hours of discussion.
  • A criticism you had not thought of.
  • Or finding no typos in your big fantastic book!

Odd is not automatically bad. Odd but OK. Odd is not hard, not tough and not a fail.

How odd?

As odd as a Viva Survivors blog post without our common fifth symbol of communication!

For The Last Time

There’s a lot of attention given to the idea that the viva could be the last time that a candidate gets to really talk about their research.

Discussing your work with your examiners could be the final chance to do so – after that, even if you stay in academia maybe your conversations will be on new research and new ideas. If you move out of academia perhaps the viva will be the last chance to talk about your research.

Not a lot of attention is given to the truth that while the viva might be the last time to have a deep discussion about your PhD research, it will not be the first time. So many candidates are nervous thinking about the “final” time, without paying attention to the fact that they have done this many, many times before – and can be confident as a result.

Meetings, seminars, webinars, practical demonstrations, conversations and hour upon hour of deep thought about how best to explain things. If your viva is the last time you go to it plenty of experience to make the best of the occasion.

Every Day The Same

With hindsight my PhD journey feels a lot like the movie Groundhog Day.

Every day was get up, go to the office, do some maths, go home, go to bed, get up, go to the office… And so on. There was a definite rhythm to things; my days and weeks punctuated with breaks, seminars and meetings at the same times.

Until submission! Until the viva! Two very different days, days when everything changes. No more repetition, and like the end of Groundhog Day, uncertainty – but positivity – about the future.

What will happen next? Who knows – but it won’t be the same as every other day.

I don’t mean to sound negative about my PhD. It was a formative time in my life; I didn’t find all the answers but at least I realised what I was missing. I had a good foundation to build on for life afterwards. However it was hard: every day the same, more or less. Work work work work work, and occasionally some results, then back to work.

I’m not negative, but it can be hard if your experience is similar to see the change in yourself. The development in your abilities, talents, knowledge and the contribution you make. If you don’t see that, by the time you reach submission day or viva day you might feel unprepared for the new challenges ahead.

Before your viva take a little time to reflect on your PhD journey. The thousand or more days of the PhD have made a difference to you.

What is that difference? How far have you come? And how does that set you up well for the viva and for life after the PhD?

The R Expectations

Information about viva experiences can be presented in different ways.

I did a survey some years ago that showed that approximately half of vivas were less than two hours. How do we turn that information into a useful expectation?

  • There’s a fifty-fifty chance your viva will be over in two hours!
  • You just can’t know what’s going to happen.
  • Hope you’ll be done in two hours – but you might not be!

None of these are helpful!

There are three words to keep in mind when framing expectations:

  • Is the framing relevant? Does it practically help?
  • Is the framing reasonable? Does it match common sense ways of thinking – so as to be accepted as useful?
  • Is the framing realistic? Does it agree with the information?

Approximately 50% of viva are less than two hours. How can we share an expectation to help someone?

How about: Expect your viva to be at least two hours: it might be shorter, but you can prepare for the potential effort.

This is a big expectation for the viva, based on a lot of data and experiences. It helps to try to express things clearly and concisely. I keep the three Rs in mind when sharing general viva expectations, but they help when sharing your experience too.

When trying to share your story or viva experience, consider whether what you’re saying is relevant, reasonable and realistic.

Publications, Interests, Reputations

After submission, spend a little time exploring three aspects of your examiners.

First: read two or three of their most recent publications. You don’t need to become an expert in what they do, but being sure of their topics, methods and research can help in the viva.

Second: Google them! Take a look at their staff page and the interests they declare. How familiar are these topics to you? Is there anything you can practically do to find out a little more? Again, you don’t need to be an expert. This just builds the picture in your mind of who you’re meeting.

Third: ask your supervisors, friends and colleagues about your examiners to know a little of their reputations. Who are they? What are they like? What are they known for?

Learning about recent publications and interests can help you practically engage with your examiners on the day of your viva. It could be this is not a big task for you – over the course of your PhD you could have already learned a lot about their work.

Learning of their reputations can help with how you feel about your viva. Knowing that these are real people really helps with your confidence at meeting to discuss your work with them.

Five Flavours Of Viva Prep

I’m an extremely amateur cook and baker. I like to make nice things for my family and I like to experiment. I love to learn about how ingredients are transformed, how to combine them better and how to improve the process and outcome of something.

In my reading a few years ago I learned there are five basic flavours – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami – that make up the flavour of all the things that we eat and drink.

This formulation appealed to me a lot: I love to express things simply. Having three of this or five of that as a foundation for a topic makes my brain very happy!

Flavour is a nice metaphor for lots of things as well. Perhaps we can apply it to viva prep too?

Sweet viva prep describes the fundamental tasks that you have to get done: reading your thesis, making notes, adding bookmarks and so on. It’s work to do but you know what you have to do.

Sour viva prep is tougher; it makes you think more and tilt your head to one side: reflecting on questions, revisiting tricky concepts and checking old references.

Salty viva prep needs a break afterwards to refresh yourself: a mock viva, writing a summary or giving a presentation. All helpful, but all demanding.

Try to avoid bitter viva prep as much as possible. It can help to explore what ifs and maybes when reflecting on your PhD journey and your contribution, but not as much as being certain of the success you’ve found. Don’t go looking for problems now.

All viva prep should have a satisfying umami flavour to it! When completing any task – sweet, sour, salty or bitter – you should feel satisfied by the effort, like you have added to your readiness. You are closer to the viva, nearer to completion and more ready for the challenge.

Nervous or Confident?

You don’t have to feel one or the other for your viva. In fact, it’s likely that on the day and in the time leading up to your viva you could feel a whole range of things.

Nervousness comes from feeling the importance of viva day.

Confidence flows from feeling sure of your ability, knowledge and contribution.

The viva is important, so of course you might feel nervous. But you’re also capable, knowledgeable and someone who has done the work. As a result, you can feel confident.

It’s not either-or. You may feel nervous and confident: perhaps a little uncomfortable from the event itself, but hopefully sure of your place in the process.