Saying The Right Thing

In the viva, no candidate wants to say the wrong thing. No-one wants to misremember a detail or misquote a paper. No-one wants to go blank and say the first thing, the silly thing, the wrong thing.

No-one wants to say the wrong thing, but remember there might not be a right thing.

Not every question has an answer. Not every question is probing for truth. A question could be exploratory. A question could be to clarify a point. A question could be seeking an opinion if there is one.

In the viva you could definitely say the wrong thing; depending on the question you might not be able to offer a right thing. You can always take your time and offer your best. Listen to the question, pause, think and respond.

Stories Beat Statistics

We can look at all of the numbers for the viva – pass rates, lengths, percentages of candidates told they’ve passed at the start, correlation of questions and disciplines – and see lots of little details about the general expectations.

We can listen to the stories of candidates – what they did, what happened, how they felt and what that meant for them – and we’ll build a real sense of the viva experience.

The numbers help but certainty of what to expect and what to do is only going to be found by asking people about their experiences. Ask the right people the right questions and you’ll know what you need to do and what you can expect for your viva.

Statistics about the viva help, but stories about the viva help more.

Contributions Make A Difference

Every PhD candidate in their viva is, at some point and in some way, going to need to talk about their contribution. Examiners will raise the topic and the candidate will need to talk about why their research is significant and original. No small thing, and so it’s no wonder that it might feel tough to do.

When it’s your turn to get ready, think about the difference your work makes. A research contribution makes a difference. Sharing new ideas or a new perspective; discovering something or making something clearer. Helping someone or maybe helping lots of people. Showing that something is true or proving that something is false. Updating old ideas or revealing something for the first time.

Your research contributions must make a difference in some way. If you’re stuck trying to find the words to express your contribution, consider starting with the difference your work makes.


I love Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rejection of being described as a “self-made” man. He’s responded to that thought in many interviews and talks but writes emphatically about it in the foreword to Tim Ferriss’s bookTools of Titans:

I am not a self-made man.

Every time I give a speech at a business conference, or speak to college students, or do a Reddit AMA, someone says it.

“Governor/Governator/Arnold/Arnie/Schwarzie/Schnitzel (depending on where I am), as a self-made man, what’s your blueprint for success?”

They’re always shocked when I thank them for the compliment but say, “I am not a self-made man. I got a lot of help.”

He goes on to describe the practical help and support he got from others, the inspiration that motivated his journey and keeps him going. It’s worth reading the whole piece. I like that recognition: working hard, but knowing that he couldn’t have got that far without the help of others.


It resonates with what I think about the journey of a postgraduate researcher. A PhD demands a lot of work from a candidate and the result is a huge success for them – but it wouldn’t be right to say they were self-made. Every candidate has supervisors supporting them; every candidate has friends and family who want them to succeed. Every candidate has influences and inspirations that have prompted their journey or helped keep them on track.

In preparation for the viva it could be helpful to reflect on these two elements: the work you’ve done and the support you’ve received. For the work, recognise that you couldn’t have got as far as you have without your efforts; you did that work, you built your knowledge and talent.

For the support, thank those who have helped you get to where you are. Reflect on the things that got you started, the ideas and inspirations. If appropriate, ask for help one more time as you prepare.

It’s Hard To Get Prep Wrong

To be more specific, provided you do the work it’s hard to not be prepared. Viva prep doesn’t need to take a lot of time, maybe twenty or thirty hours in total, and the type of work that helps is really clear.

Read your thesis, make some notes, check some papers, rehearse for the viva.

Do the work and you’ll be ready.

The only sense of “wrong” prep comes from the environment you might make. There’s no law that says when you have to start getting ready for the viva. You could start your prep a few days before – but that might be a very pressured situation! You could do an hour a day for the two months leading up – but that might spread things out a little too much, or mean that you invest more time than you need.

It’s hard to get prep wrong, but you have to think about the way you do the work to get it right for you.

You’re Not The First

You’re not the first person to have a viva.

You’re not the first person to feel nervous, anxious, worried or afraid. You’re not the first person to worry that you could or should have done more. You’re not the first PhD candidate to feel you needed more things to go right. You’re not the first candidate to have vague worries or specific concerns about the viva.

You’re also not the first candidate to pass with all of these being true.

You’re not the first person to feel this way but that doesn’t make it any less real or hard. Thankfully it means there are others who will know what it is like to be in your position and be able to help you.

You won’t be the last person to have a viva either – which means that you’ll be able to help others as they get ready to meet their examiners.

Get help now as you need it. Give help later when you can.

The Many Names Of The Viva

People use lots of names to describe the PhD viva.

Viva voce. Thesis defence. Final viva. Thesis examination. The viva.

It’s quite common, in my experience, for candidates to capitalise the V in viva!

“…my Viva is next month…”


Words matter. The name we give something influences how we think and feel about it. In turn this influences what we do about it. The viva is important – your viva is important – but it’s just one day. One day after over a thousand spent on your PhD journey.

If you find that preparing for your thesis defence is giving you doubts, then consider that you’re getting ready for a thesis examination.

If you stress over your Viva then perhaps you will feel better about your viva.

What’s in a name? There are so many ways to describe the conversation you’ll have with your examiners at the end of your PhD. What name will be right for your viva? Make a good choice for yourself.

The Viva Challenge

The viva is a challenge because you don’t know what will happen.

It’s a challenge because you don’t know what your examiners think.

It’s a challenge despite the vast majority of candidates passing.

It’s a challenge because the outcome matters.

It’s a challenge even though you have the right skillset and knowledge base to succeed.

It’s a challenge even knowing that it all springs from your work and research.

Perhaps the best thing you can do is simply accept the challenge. Remember that you have done well and done enough in the past. Believe that you can succeed again.

Whatever They Ask

The simplest way to describe your role in the viva is that you are there to engage with your examiners’ questions. Whatever the question is – easy, hard, expected, unknown, hoped-for or unwanted – engage with it. There’s space for you to ask your own, of course, but for the most part you play your part by responding to questions and being a full participant in the discussion.

Whatever they ask, think and respond. There’s useful prep that can help but keeping that thought in mind once you get to the viva can do a lot to prepare you.

You have one job. Engage and respond, whatever they ask.

Do Your Corrections

If your examiners ask you to complete corrections for your thesis after the viva there’s a reason.

Corrections don’t mean you did anything wrong. Most candidates are asked to complete them because it’s hard to get everything right.

Just get them done. Unless you’re positive a request is asking too much or misses something important, say thank you and get the corrections done.

Then move on to something more important.

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