Failure at the viva is rare. There are many, many reasons why this is the case. The three that come first to my mind are: you did the research, wrote the thesis and you know how to answer questions about your work and field.

Still, the brain looks at outliers and thinks, “Why not me?”

Remember: the viva is pressured, important, but also just the latest occasion you’ve had to talk about your research and field.

Probing & Specific

I’ve built up a small library of notes, slides and documents about the viva from a variety of sources. On a scrap of paper I found the thought that “viva questions can be probing and specific.”

This is really worth remembering and preparing for. Your examiners are not typically looking for soundbite answers, they want explanations. A probing and specific question is looking for details and a demonstration of understanding and competence.

But that’s alright!

  • You are competent: you did the work!
  • You know the details: they might not be perfectly organised but you can take time to think.
  • The viva is a discussion: you don’t have to jump to a conclusion.

Remember too: your research and thesis are built on probing and specific questions. You’ll be able to answer similar questions in the viva.

Different Audiences

Here’s a thirty minute viva prep exercise. It aims to help you think differently about your thesis by considering how you could communicate your work with other people. All you need is something to write on and write with.

Take 5 minutes to make general notes, first thoughts about your research and how you share it with others.

Take 5 minutes to plot out a conference talk about your best work. What must you include?

Take 5 minutes to sketch a thirty minute talk at a local high school. How would you begin?

Take 5 minutes to brainstorm for a Three Minute Thesis talk. What would you have to cut out of your normal explanations?

Take 5 minutes to think about your elevator pitch. What would you say if you were in a lift with the head of your university?

Finally, take 5 minutes to review. What ideas or themes consistently showed up? What surprised you? What can you do with these ideas now? How does this help you to frame your work for others?

Exploring different perspectives and looking at your work in a fresh way is valuable. Make time to take a step back in your viva preparations and consider what someone else might think of your thesis. And think: you have the outline for four or five different kinds of talks about your work now. Why not give one of them?

The Elephant Story

There’s an old fable about a group of blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. In the story all of them think they’ve found something different because they each touch a different part: a snake, a leaf, a tree, a spear tip and so on. All of them are wrong because they don’t appreciate the full picture.

There’s a lot of parts to the viva and a lot of perspectives that people take. Expectations, examiners, preparation, questions, confidence, your research, your thesis, emotions and more. It’s useful to zero in on one area from time to time, of course, but not to the exclusion of everything else. If you only focus on one aspect of the viva and the prep then you’ll miss something important.

Make sure you have the full picture.

Balancing Acts

How much work do you need to do to prepare for the viva? How do you get ready when you have so many other things going on? How do you deal with anxiety?

It’s all about finding a balance.

Balance the prep work against what you know and what will help. See what other people do and what resonates with you.

Balance your day job and family life against the time you need to get ready. Find strategies that allow you to work effectively and fit the work around your commitments.

Balance your nerves against the work you’ve done. Your thesis didn’t appear from nowhere.

Simple solutions can work when you focus on them rather than problems.


My youngest sister is nearly eight years my junior. It feels at times like we’re separated by generations. I’m sure she was the first person I heard use the words “ceebs” as a contraction of “can’t be bothered.”

It’s a good word. Said with the right tone it perfectly conveys the frustrated boredom of knowing what you need to do, but being unable to get going. You can make a plan, set short term goals, have a vision and still some days you’re just ceebs.

Maybe you’re like this with getting your thesis finished or preparing for the viva. Maybe it all seems too big. Maybe you can’t see the end yet. What then?

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of work by Tony Robbins lately. I like one of the solutions that he promotes for ceebs: just do something. Don’t try to think your way out of whatever funk you’re in. Sitting there, thinking about not being all ceebs isn’t going to do it. Get up and walk around, change your physical state. Start something. Write something. Pick up a paper and read it. Open to a chapter in your thesis and start making notes.

Totally ceebs with your thesis or viva prep? Get going.

Presents To The Future

I used to be annoyed with past-Nathan all the time.

past-Nathan was the guy who covered papers with scrawl. past-Nathan was the guy who couldn’t organise his notes. past-Nathan filed things away in bizarre places so I couldn’t find things.

Then one day I remembered something from my undergraduate philosophy metaphysics course: somewhere, out there, there’s a future-Nathan for who I am past-Nathan. And I was annoyed with so many of my past-Nathans, but I want future-Nathan to think that I am cool!

Which leads me to ask: what do you want future-You to think of present-You? What can you do now to help viva-day-You?


Werewolves can be taken out with silver bullets. Vampires fear garlic and the sun. To kill a zombie you go for the brain. Scary things all have weak spots.

Scared of the viva? What scares you? What can you do about it?

Confidence can be built. Answers can be found. Read more, think more, learn more, talk more.

Applying the same talents you’ve built up during your PhD can make the viva seem less daunting.

Examiners Are

Too many viva fears are rooted in the mistaken belief that examiners are somehow the enemy. I’ve written before about what examiners aren’t, but what are they?

  • Examiners Are Human: if they think you’re nervous, they’ll respond kindly. They know that anxiety is about the importance of the day.
  • Examiners Are (usually) PhDs: your examiners know what the viva means. They know what matters, and they have an idea of the work you must have put in to get to that day.
  • Examiners Are Interested: you’re the only person in that room who has to be there. Examiners are asked and can say no – if they’re doing it, it’s because they’re interested.

That last point gets forgotten sometimes. Your examiners are academics interested in your work. They’ll be ready for your viva. They’ll read your thesis carefully, weigh it up, and come with questions in mind.

Would you have it any other way?