What could you do if an examiner was harsh?

Nevermind that they’re supposed to be fair, professional and so on. What if they weren’t? It’s easy to say don’t worry, they’re not supposed to be, but what could you do if you felt they weren’t fair?

  • …I don’t believe you!
  • …I don’t agree!
  • …What about my work?
  • …But don’t you think that such-and-such has a more important idea than this?

What could you do?

Listen. Breathe. Take a step back. Think. Ask yourself why. Ask them why. Remember that the viva is not a Q&A. Remember who the expert in the room is. If they’re harsh, push their tone to one side and respond to their ideas or questions.

It’s extremely unlikely that an examiner would be harsh, but it’s possible that they may have an opinion – fair, balanced and appropriate – that still catches you off guard. A question that throws you. Pausing, listening just to the question and not the tone, setting your feelings aside for a second – all of this can still help.

Not Sure

There are so many things PhD candidates could be unsure of…

I’m not sure what the rules are for examiners, who can and can’t be one.

I’m not sure how long I could get to do my corrections.

I’m not sure what to do to feel ready.

I’m not sure how to get rid of my doubts.

I’m not sure if my supervisor will run a mock viva.

These uncertainties drift around. It’s not unexpected that you could be unsure of something related to the viva.

The solution, thankfully, is straight-forward. Find out. Ask. Get sure.


What’s the probability that you’ll hear one of the following statements said in the viva?

“This is the best thesis I’ve ever read!”

“You should be doing my job!”

“You are one of the foremost minds in the country – nay! The world!

None of these are impossible utterances in the viva, but they’re pretty unlikely.

What can you definitely hear in the viva? You.

Capable. Knowledgeable. Fully participating in the discussion.


Paper Armour

Your thesis is armour to protect your ideas. Well-conceived, long-considered and oft-checked.

But it’s still just paper. Flaws can make it on to the page. It’ll be good, but it won’t be perfect. There’ll be nothing terribly wrong probably, but your research needs something else to protect it in the viva. Your thesis needs someone to help it shine.

A champion. Skilled, trained, clever, capable, someone who can make ideas move.

Sound like anyone you know?


Software is often patched after an initial release. Sometimes to repair a previously unknown defect. Sometimes to add other functionality. And sometimes a patch just makes something better.

The last kind is the same as making notes in your thesis margin before the viva. It’s equivalent to highlighting or underlining text or references. Small additions can help a lot. Annotation is a patch to make your thesis more user-friendly for one important user.

Event Horizon

At a workshop in December, a PhD candidate told me he couldn’t see past the “event horizon of his viva.” This put into words, quite beautifully, something I’ve felt for a long time about the important events in my life. Some things seem so massive that they draw you in completely. There’s no escape from thinking about them.

Time and space breaks down at the viva. Perspective gets skewed. The viva feels so big it distorts everything. What can you do as it draws you in?

  • Look back: you’re getting close, but you’ve come a long way to get to these few hours (and must have done a lot to get there)
  • Look forward: make plans for afterwards. Focus on the post-viva reality. This isn’t the end.
  • Look around: there are people who can help you in all sorts of ways, even if that’s just to help you get a bit of perspective.

Steer your focus. The viva doesn’t have to be a black hole.

Not The End

One way to look at the viva is that it’s the end of the PhD. The finish line. The finale. You’ll probably have corrections to do, but in your mind, this is it, the end.

Except… It’s not. Not by a long stretch. Whether it’s been three, four or seven years, all that time has been when you were doing a PhD. The viva is the start of having a PhD.

Being a PhD.

Something to remember.

Defending or Defensive?

In the viva you may have to defend your work. Ideally, you need to do so without becoming defensive.

Defending: “This is why I made this choice…”

Defensive: “I made the right choice!”

Defending: “…that’s a fair question. I think…”

Defensive: “…that’s not relevant because…”

Defending: “…well, I think I addressed this point in Chapter 3…”

Defensive: “…oh yeah? Well what would you know!”

Stay on the right side of defending in the viva. No thesis or PhD is perfect. You can defend, explain and explore your decisions and conclusions, of course, but don’t make it personal. Make your examiners’ comments about the work.

Take a step back and breathe if you feel that you’re being criticised. If your examiners don’t agree, ask them why. Listen and then bring it back to what you did and why. That’s what will help your answers.

Bad Viva Advice

Do none of these things.

  1. Ask your examiners, “Did you get the cheque?”
  2. Start with a joke: “Did you hear about the stupid examiners who missed the obvious plagiarism on page 25?”
  3. Shake a Magic 8-Ball after each question.
  4. Humblebrag.
  5. Plead ignorance: “I don’t know how it got in there!” When asked what you mean say, “Nothing! Nothing!”
  6. Preface every response with, “Well I’m no expert, but…”
  7. Sigh a lot.
  8. Ask if you can sit in-between your examiners. Before they answer, pick up a chair and say, “Come on, scooch.”
  9. Red Bull. Lots of Red Bull.

Candidates sometimes worry that they might do the wrong thing in the viva. Common sense rules. You’re going to have a great conversation with experienced academics about your long-term research project. Your instincts won’t lead you astray.

Thankfully there’s not a lot of bad viva advice out there. Listen for the good stuff, run it past your gut feeling. You’ll get it right.


There are lots of things people think will have an impact on their viva or their prep. Here’s a partial list of factors people think could make a difference, for good or bad:

Your examiners. Your institution. The number or types of awards or results. Whether you were part-time or full-time. Home or international. Number of supervisors. Time spent on your PhD. Do you have a Masters? How long between submission and the viva? Will you have an independent chair? Have you cited your examiners? Number of references in your bibliography. Number of chapters in your thesis. Number of published papers during your PhD. Number of hours spent on prep. Will you have had a mock viva? Have you read a book about the viva? Did you go to a workshop about the viva?

I’m a mathematician and there’s part of me which would love to take all of these variables and make an equation. But there’s far too many. Lots of them could make a difference.

So why not focus instead on the constants? The things that are always there.

You did the work. You made the choices. You steered yourself. Your examiners are capable researchers, who know what they’re doing in the viva. You are a capable researcher by the time you submit, and have the time to prepare yourself for the viva.

Focus on the constants that hold true for everyone.