If you want

  • to get opinions on taking your research further…
  • finding homes for publications…
  • anything connected with your future academic career…

…there aren’t many people you could ask, who could base it on your work and not just offer general advice.

The viva is an exam, but there will be opportunities to ask for your examiners ideas and opinions. Think carefully about what you would want opinions on. Make a list of questions to help your future self.

And if your viva is some way off, think carefully about who might make for good examiners. Who would you want to be part of an exclusive little group to help you?

Pop Quiz!

The viva begins…

Quick! Ten words or less, what’s the main contribution in your thesis?


Why did you follow the methodology that you did? Hurry!


Rush, rush! What would you do differently if you started again?


…and so on.

Have you heard of a viva like this? No? Nor have I, and yet candidates worry about pausing before they answer. The viva’s not a rapid fire exam, a game show or a straight test of memory. Examiners are looking to explore, to host a discussion.

Get ready for a conversation, not a quiz.

7 Questions To Answer At Submission

There’s a few key things it would be good to know around submission time. Questions which occur to candidates all of the time, but which I very rarely have answers for because they’re particular to their institution. If you’re submitting soon, find answers to these questions:

  1. In what time frame does your university hope to hold your viva after you submit?
  2. Under what circumstances would you be liable for fees after submission?
  3. Who will be in the room for the viva?
  4. What are the range of possible awards or results for the viva at your institution?
  5. In particular, how long are you given for minor corrections at your institution?
  6. What is the post-viva process at your institution?
  7. What are you unsure about when it comes to the logistics and process of the viva?

You’ll likely pick up answers to most of these questions by osmosis during your PhD. It’s within your power to find answers to all of them, and find out how things are done at your university.

If your answer to Question 7 is anything other than “nothing” then find someone who can help. It’s up to you.

When The Tide Goes Out

I love walking along the promenade near where I live.

Every day looks different depending on the weather, the light and the tide. Sometimes you can’t see the shore. Some days waves crash over the railings, threatening to soak you if you walk too close.

On a quiet day when the tide is out you can get a really good look though. Just stand there and stare. See what you can see.

All the details of the shoreline jump out. The little features that get lost under ten feet of water. You have to stop at the right time or you’ll only see a blue-grey surface.

Doing a PhD sometimes you just keep going to get the research done and your thesis submitted. Work work work through good days and bad, great results and imposter syndrome, nervous talks and valuable conversations, you push on through until you’re done.

Then the tide goes out.

You can stop, and you can stand, and you can stare.

What do you see?

The Waiting Game

The talking part of the viva regularly ends with the candidate being asked to wait while the examiners have a discussion. I remember sitting slightly dazed and confused in my office, staring at my computer, clicking through webpages and wondering how long it would be.

You could be asked to go to your office, wait outside, or go find your supervisor.

You might need the loo, or need a drink, or be really hungry!

Maybe you’ll want to go for a walk, get some fresh air, or start texting friends.

Whatever you do, you’re waiting, waiting, waiting…

I’ve heard ranges from a minute to half an hour. You won’t know in advance.

Think about what you might do in those moments. You may be directed to do something in particular, but have an idea of what you could do to distract or decompress after the talking stops.

Tick-tock tick-tock and then you’re called back in…


A pat on the back. A thumbs up. “Good luck.” Motivation, encouragement and reinforcement come in many forms. Sometimes you have to look to your memory and your experience. The words you choose to use can help prime you for confidence.

As the viva gets closer, try these phrases out and see if they help:

  • I did the research and wrote the thesis: I can do this.
  • I’m the expert in the room.
  • I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m ready.
  • Per Scientiam Ad Meliora.

It’s a reminder, not magic. What words could prime you to be at your best?


You do the research and write the thesis, but it doesn’t come from nowhere.

You have to be good to do it, and you have to grow as you go along. You have to do the work, but you’re surrounded by help. And you create a significant, original contribution but your research doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

There are essential supports that surround your PhD and help make it what it is. Review your postgraduate journey when submission and the viva are coming:

  1. How have you developed and how are you talented now?
  2. Who do you owe thanks to for helping you?
  3. What research and researchers have most inspired you?

Unpick your supports. Acknowledge them. Say thank you.

Emotional Limbo

Typically there’s six weeks to three months between submission and the viva. You’re bound to be busy with lots of things, but there’s plenty of time to prepare well for the viva – and plenty of time to feel a range of emotions swirling around you. One day you can feel fine, the next worried. Confident one minute, concerned the next. A bit anxious, a bit excited, a bit indifferent. Unsure perhaps, stuck, and alone.

Remember: you don’t have to be stressed – or excited – by yourself. Sharing helps.

Questions and Focus

I recently watched the Tony Robbins documentary I Am Not Your Guru on Netflix. I’d really recommend it; it’s uncomfortable at times, funny at others, but it’s an interesting look at an interesting person and it gets you thinking.

At one point he observes, “Questions control what you focus on.” It made me think of my workshops. I ask people for their viva-related questions at the start, which I’m always happy to answer and help with. Candidates ask me questions that they’re already asking themselves. Frequently asked questions include:

  • What if my mind goes blank?
  • What if my examiners are harsh?
  • What if I can only say “I don’t know”?
  • What if I fail?

These are important questions, and clearly some answers or thoughts could help people feel better and prepare better. I just wonder how the general mood of the viva and viva prep would be if candidates more regularly asked themselves:

  • What will help me be prepared?
  • Where can I find good help?
  • What have I done to put me in a good place?
  • How can I make the most of this opportunity?

Questions control what you focus on. Change your questions, change your focus.


Hey John, how was your viva? “It was fine.”

Hi Kate, how was your viva? “Fine, thanks.”

Tom, how did you feel about your viva? “Fine.”

I asked lots of friends about their vivas while I was a PhD student. They all said it was fine and I left it at that. When my own came around I felt fine too, until the night before. Insomnia hit and I lay awake for hours and hours. I didn’t know what to expect and now I wasn’t fine.

Fine is nice, fine is reassuring, but fine doesn’t tell you anything. Ask specific questions, push for specific answers and set some reasonable expectations for the viva.

Then you will be fine.