Dreaded Questions

What do you not want to talk about in the viva? What topics or questions do you dread?

Hoping they won’t come up won’t help. You have to engage with them somehow in your prep, otherwise you’re walking towards the viva with a big worry strapped to your back.

Consider the opposite: what do you want to talk about in the viva? What are you hoping your examiners will ask?

Reflect a little on the topics you want to talk about. What makes them that way? Work to make the topics you dread more like that. How can you improve your understanding of something? Can you get a friend or your supervisor to ask you questions? Can you write something that will help you unpick an idea?

It’s not enough to know what you hope won’t come up in the viva. You have to then figure out what you’re going to do as a result.


Trust that the process is fair and tested.

Trust your supervisors to have helped you well over the years.

Trust the work you put into your thesis.

Trust your examiners to be excellent and treat you with respect.

Trust yourself.

You have the knowledge and the talent to succeed in the viva or you wouldn’t have got this far.

Two Truths

Truth Number One: If you get corrections it means your thesis isn’t perfect.

Truth Number Two: Nobody’s thesis is perfect and examiners aren’t expecting yours to be.

Typos can be fixed. Clunky paragraphs can be changed. Ideas can be added. References can be amended.

Just submit the best thesis you can, then go to the viva ready to talk about what you did and what you wrote.


I love the questions I get in workshops. It’s nice to help people with answers. Sometimes questions surprise me with how they’re phrased or the details involved. Last week I had to pause to think about how to answer a simply stated query:

What impresses examiners?

You and your thesis. Reading a significant original contribution to knowledge; getting to discuss it with the researcher who did the work.

You are impressive: the work, the talent, the commitment.

A Lack of Confidence

I often write about looking for ways to boost or find confidence. I’m not sure I’ve wondered too much about why someone might have a lack of confidence on the blog, except for mentioning surface level things like “what if my mind goes blank?”

For a long time before, during and after my PhD I would be hyper-nervous on any occasion I would have to speak in public. Eventually that went away, through a lot of practice. But at the root was a worry that people would judge me somehow, not like me or what I had to say.

Where did that come from?

In my dim and distant memory I remember being in a play as a teenager, to an audience of mostly teenagers, and no-one liking it. A really different kind of situation to the situations in my PhD and afterwards. Somehow different anxieties had tied together over the years.

It’s freeing to remember it now. I’m older, more rational, and can look on it differently: I can think about what it means, what I can do about it. I still get nervous, like anyone does, but thinking about where those worries came from has helped me to do something about them.

If you feel nervous or anxious about any aspect of the viva, then don’t look first for things to boost your confidence. Search instead for what might be at the root. What is causing you to doubt? What is holding you back? What does it mean?

What are you going to do?

Butterfly Wings

Look back over your PhD. It may seem like a straight-line journey has brought you to the finish line. But that’s only one path. There may be lots of ways you could have gone, and lots of times things might not have worked out. What would you have done then?

It can be fruitful to explore this area by using questions. Some of these kinds of questions line up neatly with general areas your examiners might want to explore; others simply lead you to reflect on what you’ve done:

  • How else could you have started your project?
  • How could you have used different methods in your research?
  • How could you have made use of more resources?
  • How would you have managed with fewer resources?
  • How would you have coped if you’d not got the results you’d needed?
  • How else could someone interpret your results?
  • How would you do things differently knowing what you know now?

These kinds of questions help to explore your contribution and how you got it. They also help to strengthen your competence as a researcher.

Butterfly wings flap and the world changes. What then? How else could you have got through your PhD?