Overthinking On Examiners

It’s tough to generalise about examiners but it’s easy to tie yourself in knots about them.

Get an examiner who is an expert and you won’t have to explain the back story to your thesis… Unless they decide to test you and make sure that you understand it all…

Get an examiner who isn’t too connected then there’s no chance that they’ll have an ego to bruise… Although you might need to explain some things to them…

Get someone you know and at least it won’t be a total stranger coming to examine you… Doesn’t sound so bad actually…

It’s tough to generalise about examiners because they’re people. They have their own wants and needs, their own thoughts and feelings. So do you. We can go back and forth on pros and cons, try to second guess what someone might be like, but it’ll only ever be a guess. Whatever qualities you’ve discerned in the past, they’re there to exam your thesis.

All that said: they’re only people. Forget pros and cons. Think about what you need. Think about who you know. Talk to your supervisor. Don’t try to second guess what someone might be like or say. You’ve done the work. Find people who might appreciate it. Do your best to prepare. Then go to the viva and answer their questions.

Six More Whys

I wrote a short post a few months ago with six why questions to help reflect on your research. Here are six more to continue the process.

  1. Why had no-one already done what you’ve done for your PhD?
  2. Why is your work original?
  3. Why is your work necessary?
  4. Why would someone else care about your research?
  5. Why is your thesis now finished?
  6. Why will you be celebrating after the viva?

Make some notes and let your answers rest for a couple of days. Come back and reflect some more.

Make opportunities to explore your research now your PhD is almost done.


Graduated. (yay!!!)

Final submission. (yay!!)

Corrections approved. (yay!)

Doing corrections. (well…)

Given corrections. (probably)

Viva over. (viva passed!)

In the viva. (in flow, I hope)

Ten minutes before the viva. (………)

Day of the viva. (last minute nerves)

Day before the viva. (getting centred)

Weeks before the viva. (preparation)

Submission. (phew!)

Weeks before the submission. (finishing up)

And so on.

We can start at the end of the PhD and work backwards. You can start from today and plot forwards. We can get as detailed as we like, but have to acknowledge that we can’t know how everything will play out. Think and plan. Get a sense of the direction you’re going in.


My internal examiner had a quirky sense of humour. At the end of the viva I was asked to wait in my office while the two examiners had a discussion without me. I got some water, paced a little then sat at my desk.

knock knock

“Nathan,” said my internal ominously, “It is time for your sentence.”

Without missing a beat he started off down the corridor without me.

As I followed him I was 99% sure that his pronouncement was a stab at humour. I was sure I had passed, because I felt sure no-one would say it is time for your sentence if they were about to tell someone they had failed.

Remember: your examiners are there to come to a decision, but it’s wrong to think of it as judgement, or passing sentence. They’re making an award. They’re recognising what you’ve done and helping you see what you need to correct for the final submission. It’s not a trial, it’s an exam.

The picture of the viva you carry in your head will affect how you feel about it.

Per Scientiam Ad Meliora

My school’s motto. Those four Latin words have been rattling around my head for twenty-five years. We were told it meant “through knowledge to better things”. I’ve loved it since the headmaster explained it on the first day.

Three thoughts:

  1. It’s a pretty good motto for a PhD. Whatever your experience during the PhD, good or bad, after the viva you’re headed to better.
  2. What’s your knowledge? You’ve done a lot. What have you introduced to the world that wasn’t there before?
  3. What could “better” be? Your thesis has to be good by the end. What are you going to do to top it after the viva?

However far you’ve come, you can go further.


I’m happy to be doing this daily blog, to have the podcast archive to share, a starting selection of original free resources and also some paid ebooks to offer. But I’m not the only person who tries to help people prepare for the viva. Look around you. Your university might have some great resources that it can offer; they could have a series of videos to help, posts and articles about viva experiences or resources that they’ve bought in – great things like Viva Cards or The Good Viva Video.

If you see something useful, share it. If you need something, ask people. If something doesn’t exist, make it.

I’m going to keep writing, making and helping.