“They’re Better!”

There’s a common worry among PhD candidates that examiners see all and know all. They have understood your thesis perfectly even before they’ve finished reading it. They can find the problems that you didn’t even notice. Their opinion is what counts.

A favourite analogy that helps me tell others about viva prep is to think of their thesis as a star, and think of their examiners’ work like constellations. Your examiners know more not because they are innately better than you, but only because they have had longer to do their work than you.

Keep things in perspective. They have experience; you have expertise.


Barriers. They’re in the way; maybe the way around them isn’t known, but they can usually be broken or overcome with time and investigation.

Hurdles are flimsy barriers. You can see hurdles from a distance and make plans to clear them. This might not make it an always easy task, but you can know in advance what you need to do. You can prepare and you can act, you don’t have to just hope.

Hurdles for the end of the PhD include:

  • Who should be my examiners?
  • When will my thesis be done?
  • How should I prepare?
  • What will my viva be like?

These can be worrying questions for the PhD, sometimes hard to resolve – but they’re all only hurdles. These are problems that have been overcome thousands of times before. You can overcome them too.

Ask for help if you need it, but clear the hurdles when they come around.


There are lots of ways people try to classify vivas. In my own work I’ve asked lots of questions before, hoping to see patterns.

“How long was it?”

“Did you get minor corrections?”

“Did your examiners go page-by-page?”

“Did you find out the result afterwards?”

As a starting point, you could say that my viva was a long/minor/page-by-page/afterwards-type viva. But when I think about it there are other factors that distinguish my viva.

It was long, but felt like it flew by. I was asked to give a presentation. I had to wait about twenty minutes afterwards to find out the result.

So let’s refine: my viva was a long-but-felt-short/presentation-start/page-by-page/minor/afterwards/twenty-minute-wait-type viva.

And it was tiring. Oh, and I was stood up for my whole viva.

So let’s refine again…

…or let’s not.

Questions and stories about the viva help set expectations. They help shape what you do to prepare. They boost your confidence.

But that’s just one side of things. At some point you have to accept that your viva will be unique.

A singular exam for a singular person and their research.

Where’s The Challenge?

As an alternate route to unpicking the value of your thesis contribution, consider reflecting on the challenge that was involved in getting it done. I don’t only mean the labour of three or more years, but the deeper questions about the nature of the research itself.

  • Why could it not have been done before now?
  • What made it difficult?
  • Who else had tried to do this?
  • Why are you the first person to do this?
  • What do you see the challenge as being?
  • What obstacles have you overcome?

Reflecting on the challenge is a different perspective, but it leads in the same direction. The challenge points to the value of what you’ve done.


I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.

An old friend of mine used to say this regularly. It’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, and my friend would use it to help him think about difficulties that he had with colleagues or customers. If somebody bothered him, his first action was to try to get to know them better. That could help him figure out a way around the problem he was having.

It strikes me that this sentiment is probably true of the viva. When I ask most candidates about the viva they tell me they’re worried, scared, unsure, uncertain and many more words. They don’t like the sound of it – and at the same time they often don’t know much about what actually happens there.

If they were to get to know the viva better, I don’t think they would necessarily remove all anxieties, but I do think they’d like it more.

Knowing more about the purpose and processes of the viva can only be a benefit.

So, in advance of your own, who can you ask? Where can you go to know the viva better?

Good Answers

Good answers don’t just appear on the day.

Good answers to your examiners’ questions happen because you’ve done the work.

Good answers happen because you know things.

Good answers happen because you’re talented.

I think great answers in the viva come when you give yourself a few extra seconds to think…

…what else do I know?

…is that the best thing to start with?

…what did I say in my thesis?

…what did I do like this in my research?

A few seconds can make good into great, but don’t stress.

Good is enough.

Unlucky For Some?

If the viva came down to luck, I’d be worried if mine was on Friday 13th! But it’s not about luck.

  • You’re not lucky if your thesis passes with minor corrections.
  • You’re not lucky if your examiners say nice things.
  • You’re not lucky if you feel good about your viva.

Your PhD comes down to effort, actions and talent: the things you do over a long period of time put you in a good position for the viva.

You can be fortunate, but that’s different. Fortunate is something good happening as a result of effort. You can be fortunate throughout your PhD as a result of the questions you ask, the risks you take and the good work you do. You’ll likely be fortunate in the viva, because of all the work that you’ve done, and the talent you bring with you.

It’s not likely that you’ll be unlucky (or lucky).

Overcomplicated Prep

You could plot out minute by minute when you are going to do your viva preparations. When will you read Chapter 4? How will you make notes for various sections? Which colour highlighters will you use to encode different associations?

How far in advance will you bring up mock vivas with your supervisor, and how will you raise the topic? Which approaches will you follow for making summaries? How often will you re-read your thesis, and at what intervals? Who will you look to for advice, and when will you let them know what you need?

There are many, many questions you can ask yourself to figure out what you’ll do. Many plans you can set in motion. There’s always more detail you can pile on. And at the end of it all you could be a viva-ready machine, thoughts all composed just-so, almost every detail anticipated.

But do you need to do all of that? Is that really what you need?

Or rather than overcomplicate things, can you focus on the fact that you did the work, that it’s good, and that really viva preparation is just checking details, reflecting on your work and finding some opportunities to talk?

Find Your Firsts

Build your confidence by identifying your achievements from your PhD. There’s more than just your thesis. Reflect on the first time you…

  • …gave a seminar in your department. When was it? What did you talk about?
  • …delivered a talk at a conference talk. Where was it? How did it go?
  • …wrote the first draft of a chapter. What feedback did you get? What did you learn?
  • …networked. Who did you meet? What did you share?
  • …realised you were going to finish. When was it? What prompted that thought?

Find your firsts: these are key moments in your PhD. They plot out a fantastic journey that’s brought you to today.

All The Ifs

Every hypothetical question and if that comes up in the viva has an answer.

If you find a typo? Underline it.

If you go blank? Pause and think.

If you forget something? Wait and try to remember.

If your examiners surprise you? Ask for more details.

They might come up, they might not. You can respond to all of them because of your talent as a researcher.