How Do You Feel?

I start every workshop by asking the room how they feel about their viva. I get a range of answers. Most are centred around nervous, anxious, stress. One or two fears or terrors. A few people will say they don’t know what to feel because the viva is such an unknown. Some people just want it over and done with.

Occasionally one or two candidates will be excited: they see the viva as a chance to talk about their work with experts, or they’re looking beyond the PhD at what comes next.

There’s no right or wrong to any of these, of course. In every case you can say, “OK, so what do I do now?” If you’re stressed, find ways to prepare and lower your stress. If you’re afraid, figure out the root cause. If the viva is an unknown to you then find out more. And so on.

So how do you feel? And what do you need to do?

Examiners Aren’t

They’re not monsters. They’re not cyborgs from the future programmed to irrevocably alter your timeline. They’ve not got a list of 101 unfair questions. They’ve not been looking through your thesis with an eye for problems and mistakes.

They’re not ninjas.

Your examiners are experienced. They’re professional. They’re interested. They’ve done the work to be prepared for your viva. You can too.


“What’s a good strategy for answering questions in the viva?”

It’s a common question I get in workshops. I’m not sure why. I understand that people want to do well, but at the same time I wonder if it’s overthinking things too much.

You’re asked a question? Pause briefly to think, then answer.

Your viva is probably going to feel more like a discussion or conversation than anything else. If an examiner wants to know more or less then they’ll steer things. If they want to talk about something else or ask a particular question then they will. When asked a question, answer as well as you can. That’s probably all you need to have in mind for a strategy.


From xkcd, at


My wife and I really enjoyed the Daredevil show on Netflix. For those who don’t know the character, Daredevil is a superhero who is blind but has super-senses. His hearing, sense of touch, smell and so on are so powerful that he has an advantage over people who can see. Of course, there are some things he can’t do, because despite his super-senses he still can’t see.

Nathan, this is a blog about a vivas and PhDs and stuff!

Oh yeah!

The character of Daredevil got me thinking about the viva. If you’re on your way to the viva you have a similar situation: you’re blind to what’s coming your way. You don’t know how long it will be, you don’t know what questions are coming, you don’t know what opinions your examiners have formed. There’s a lot you don’t and can’t know.

But like Daredevil you have an advantage: you have the experience of doing your PhD. You have 3+ years of work and thinking about your research, not just the thesis. You can’t see the question coming, but when it comes you know how to tackle it. Why? Because you have superpowers.

(Again, it’s no accident that you’re at the viva)


“We’re so pleased to present you with this award for shortest viva this year, well done!”

“Congratulations, you did it! Here is a Silver Star for no typos in your thesis!”

“This ribbon shows that you are Quite Probably The Smartest Cookie Ever. Both the external examiner and I salute you!”

Three sentences which have never been uttered during or after a viva. And there are no medals for the viva. There are different awards, like getting no corrections, minor, major and so on, but you don’t get a prize. You’ll get a certificate when you graduate, but it’s not the same.

You’re not doing your PhD and the viva for badges and medals though. (I hope) You have your reasons, but sometimes those reasons – your why – get lost in the doing. As the end of the PhD looms, take some time to reflect on why you were doing it all in the first place. Maybe those reasons have changed as well, but in either case it’s interesting.

Interesting Challenges

Throughout my PhD I thought that I was particularly attracted to what I did because I loved the challenge of maths. Maths can feel like there is a secret language at work. If you know it, or know enough, then you can feel powerful. It’s hard to get to know enough, and then to build up enough intuition about how to apply this magic to solve problems.

After my PhD I realised that I loved having interesting challenges to work on, and for a long time maths had been filling that space for me. So I started looking for interesting projects. This blog is an interesting challenge to work on. I have to write a lot (and edit a lot). I have to do a lot of planning and scheduling. Interesting challenges are worth it. They stretch you. They develop you. They’re worth finding or making.

At the end of your PhD, spend some time thinking about the interesting challenges you had. What did you learn from them? How did you encounter them? What happened as a result? Your examiners will not necessarily launch into asking you about the interesting challenges of your PhD, but if you spend time reviewing them you’ll find rich ideas to reflect on.

What Didn’t Work?

If something didn’t work, if something went wrong, if you didn’t get the result you were hoping for… Why? In 3+ years of research, not everything can go perfectly. What’s responsible? Who is responsible?

At every stage, but particularly at the end of the PhD, you have a choice in the story you tell yourself. You can say that it’s all your fault. You can say that things were beyond your control. Or you can change focus: treat everything as an opportunity to learn. This happened, why, what next? This happened, why, what do I do differently?


I love helping people prepare for the viva. One of the happiest parts of the workshops that I run, for me, is the opportunity to answer questions at the end. It’s important to answer questions (typically which are “what if…?” or “how do I…?”) because then people can move on. If you have an answer then you can step forward and do the really important stuff.

In general, ask more people more questions. Even if it’s not about getting a better picture of the viva. Ask your supervisor about your thesis. Ask them about your examiners. Ask your friends about their vivas, and be specific with your questions. Ask your family for help (whether that’s giving you space, taking on chores or putting the kids to bed).

You can ask me questions about the viva too. Send me an email, I’ll get back to you ASAP. I’ll keep a list of questions for future Q&A specials of the podcast. You can find two past episodes here.

If you don’t ask…

Day Off

If you spend every day between submission and the viva doing some effective viva prep, then you’ll be in a great position for the viva. If you do nothing between submission and the viva, you probably won’t be in a great position for the viva.

Do some viva prep regularly on the lead up to the viva. But if, say, on a Bank Holiday, you take a day off? You’ll be fine. If there’s no bank holiday in the period leading up to your viva, still take a few days off. Well-placed breaks are just as important as the hard work you put in towards a goal.

[inspired by #takebreaksmakebreakthroughs which Dr Kay Guccione tweets about a lot!]

In three seconds…

In three seconds…
…a photon travels almost 900 million metres.
…a Shinkansen moves over 250m.
…Usain Bolt is a third of the way to the finish line.
…in the viva you can feel like there’s an awkward pause in conversation.

Three seconds might not seem like a long time, but it’s all about perspective. Three seconds is the difference between victory and defeat in a race. In the viva, it’s not even a pause, but it can feel like forever.

In reality, it’s a few heartbeats while you put some thoughts in order and take a breath. Not too long, in fact not long at all. Take a quick pause to think in the viva and you’ll go a long way.