Just Another Day At The Office

Which is better, treating the viva as a Special, One Of A Kind, Big, Important, This-Is-It Event Day – or going to university like it’s a regular day? Is it better go in thinking that it’s make or break, or acting as if the outcome is certain? Hard questions to answer.

Better questions to answer: What is the story that you tell yourself about the viva? Is it a helpful narrative? Would it be better to change the story?

Tick Tock

As a presenter, I silently curse institutions when I arrive to do a workshop and there is no clock on the wall. A clock is helpful to a presenter because they can keep track of where they are in their talk or session. If time slips or something changes they can modify as they go along. You can just glance whenever needed and move forwards.

If it’s viva day though, and you’re the one there to answer questions, a clock is not your friend. A clock just tells you how long you’ve been there, and whatever you see will not help your confidence. Ten minutes in, and you think, “I wonder what’s coming up?” Thirty minutes in: “Is it going well?” Ninety minutes: “How long is left?”

These are questions that you don’t need. They won’t help. At best they take your attention away from the focus for the day. At worst they knock your confidence by summoning doubts. A simple solution to a powerful problem: sit with your back to the clock or ask if it can be taken down. If you normally wear a watch, take it off. You’re fine without the time.

Talking Helps

Last year I chatted with a PhD graduate about their viva prep.

In her department they encouraged final year students to give a seminar about their PhD. As the viva approached they would deliver a talk summarising their research and then take questions. For the graduate I spoke to this was a hugely helpful practice: she got to spend time thinking about how to communicate her work, an opportunity to practice talking about what she had done, and lots of chances to answer unexpected questions from her audience. Three things that are perfect preparation for the viva.

A great idea. At the time I heard the story I thought, “I wish my department had suggested we do this.” A while later I realised, “If it had occurred to me, I could have just done it.”

And so could you. You don’t need permission, you just need a room. Find a space, invite some people, share your work, prepare for your viva.

The Worst

“Can you explain how to make a genus 2 handlebody?”


I was really confident on the results of Chapter 5, but the background was shaky at best in my mind. I had a great result, proved an open conjecture, but couldn’t explain the background with confidence.

And I knew it. I knew it as I was reading my thesis and making notes in prep for my viva. I knew what the worst question was just from reading my thesis. I could have spent more time trying to unpick it and prepare. Instead I hoped it wouldn’t come up.

In workshops I’m regularly asked, “What’s the worst question that your examiners could ask?” It varies for every person. I think each candidate knows what the worst question is, because they’ve already encountered it. In preparation for the viva it’s an area to definitely spend time on. Don’t just hope it won’t come up.

No Accident

I’ve got a few questions for you: Did you do the work? Did you show up at the library or the lab or the office? Did you overcome obstacles through the tough times? Did you learn, did you grow, did you develop?

If you did all of these during your PhD, how could you be in a bad position for the viva?

It’s understandable if you are nervous, but it’s no accident that you’ve got this far. Keep going.