Easy, Simple, Hard, Difficult

Some thoughts…

You can’t expect any questions to be easy in the viva. Some could be simple for you to answer, however, but only because of what you know about your research, your discipline and your talent as a researcher.

Possible opening questions could be hard – Can you summarise…? How would you define…? – but they’re also picked deliberately as an opportunity for you to start well. Perhaps you would be talking about something that is simple for you to explain due to your experience.

There’s a common observation about vivas that “the last question will be hard.” I don’t know how true this is in general. Even in cases where a final question is more challenging, it’s probably better to frame this as difficult. Even given your knowledge and talent, questions could be difficult for you to respond to. You can’t expect questions to be easy, and you also can’t expect particular questions in general.

But you can improve confidence and talent through practice. Put yourself in situations where you need to think. Have a mock viva to rehearse for the real one. Meet your supervisor to discuss your research. Go for coffee with friends to see what they want to know about your thesis.

You can’t prepare by practising only particular questions – easy, simple, hard or difficult – but you can get better at responding to questions in general.

Not So Fast!

Lots of candidates tell me they want a short, quick viva, all done as soon as possible. I can understand where they might be coming from, but don’t think that particular wish helps…

  • Generally, the PhD isn’t a quick process. It takes time to do the amount of research needed for a doctorate.
  • Generally, preparing for the viva isn’t a quick task. To be ready, you can’t just skim your thesis and hope for the best.
  • Generally, your viva may not be a quick event. It probably won’t rush by, but it won’t be too long either – not compared to everything that’s come before.

Not so fast, OK? Don’t try to rush. Go slow.


I like the tool GROW – Goal, Reality, Options, Will – as a tool for coaching and development. It is a nice framework for exploring future plans, but helpful for reflection too. The four prompts could really resonate with looking back at the end of the PhD:

  • Goal: what was your objective? How did you arrive at that goal?
  • Reality: where were you starting from? What did you need to do to move forward?
  • Options: what did you consider doing? How did you decide on the approach that you took?
  • Will: how did you get through the more difficult moments of your PhD? What kept you going?

At the end of the PhD, as we’re reflecting and not planning, we can add to GROW… How about GROWN, N being Now?

Where are you now? Now that your PhD is almost behind you, what else could you do?

Bag Of Tricks

While your examiners will want to explore your research with you, they also want to explore your capabilities as a researcher. To prepare for your viva you need to explore your research, but also invest time in reflecting on your own development.

What’s in your bag of tricks? What can you do that others can’t? What have you learned over the last few years doing your PhD?

6 Questions Not To Ask

You’ll get plenty of questions in your viva, but it could be a good time to ask your examiners some questions too. But don’t ask:

  1. “So, how did I do?” right at the start.
  2. “Can we start again?” if you get stuck.
  3. “Can I pass on that one? That OK?” but you could ask for a few minutes to think.
  4. “Yeah, well how would you do it?!” if an examiner disagrees – although it’s good to ask about their reasons.
  5. “Can we just stop here?” if you’re a bit tired.
  6. “Do I have to do them?!” when they tell you the corrections they recommend.

Most other questions will be fine! The viva could be a good place to ask your examiners for advice. You could prompt them for their opinion or suggestions related to your work, or dig deeper into some of their comments or criticisms.

Four Threads Of The Final Year

Whatever kind of research you do, there are four threads that will run through the final year of your PhD. In those last twelve months you will have to:

  • Finish your research: no more reading, no more experiments, no more following ideas to see where they lead. You have to find a place to stop.
  • Finish your thesis: write, write, write, and then write some more. Get feedback and then do your best to create a good thesis.
  • Think about your next steps: at the very least, think. Apply for jobs? Start a business? Write papers? Juggle, juggle, juggle…
  • Start your viva preparation: …but only a little!!!

Over 99% of your final year will be the first three threads. You have to get your research done, thesis submitted and start exploring what you will do afterwards. But there are a few small tasks to do before submission that will help with your viva.

First, have a conversation with your supervisors about potential examiners. Think about your preferences and what names that would suggest to you.

Second, get contact details for a member of staff in your graduate school or doctoral college who could help in case of emergency or something unexpected happens.

These are the only two essential tasks for viva preparation in your final year, but if you want to do more then make opportunities to talk about your work and take questions about what you’ve done. Give seminars, present at conferences, go for coffee with friends and build your confidence at talking about your research and what you can do.

Viva prep is a tiny element of your final year, but it still needs to be started.

First Five Top Fives

To date I’ve written five “Top Ten Top Fives” posts! These are preparation icebreakers useful for getting started with valuable viva preparation. I have ideas to do more in the future, but for today here are links to those first five posts, plus my favourite prompt from each!

Viva prep is more than making lists, but you can use any of these fifty prompts to make a start on useful reflection.

Making An Impression

A question from a nervous candidate, “What should I wear for the viva? I want to make the right first impression on my examiners!”

Except that’s not the first impression. Your examiners’ first impression is your thesis. They get their first impression long before they meet you in the viva.

Wear something that helps you to feel confident: there are far more important questions to grapple with than what should you wear.

What have you written? What did you do? What does it mean and why does it matter?

And what impression do you hope your thesis will make?

Sword Sharpening

A sword could be excellently forged, made with skill from the best materials – but if it’s not kept sharp, it won’t work well.

Similarly, you can’t create yourself and your thesis without making something good by submission – but if you don’t take a little time to prepare before the viva you won’t be at your best.

So: what are you going to do to sharpen yourself for your examiners?