Being Afraid

Someone asked me last year if it was good to be afraid before the viva: “Is it a good sign?”

There isn’t a straight yes or no answer. We need to unpick what’s going on when we talk about fear and the viva. Three main things come to mind for me.

First, we need to explore: what are you afraid of? Get specific with your fear, don’t let it be a nameless dread. Figure out what you are afraid of, then ask: what can you do about it?

Second, in some cases it’s a fear of the unknown. If it’s so, then work towards finding out more about the viva. Learn about regulations, expectations and experiences. Don’t just stop at feeling afraid.

Finally, we return to the original question: is it a good sign?

In itself I don’t think it’s bad, but it’s bad for fear to dominate. It’s bad if you can’t prepare for or enjoy the viva because you’re so afraid. The fear is a symptom of something else. You’re so nervous that now you’re afraid.

Nervousness correlates with importance. You’re afraid because you’re nervous, you’re nervous because the viva is important.

It’s good to recognise the viva as important, but bad if nerves stop you being prepared for it.

Chekhov’s Thesis

My wife and I are both writers. We’re also fans of stories: if we’re watching a mystery film, we try to figure it out. If we’re reading a sci-fi novel we’re thinking about how problems might be solved. If there are zombies involved we think about how we might get away!

And we cannot help but see Chekhov’s gun everywhere. Any time a the story makes a point of drawing attention to something we just know it is going to either be a problem or solve one later.

If a character says that they were a gymnast in high school, we know they’ll be backflipping out of danger before the end.

If someone remarks that their car is low on petrol, that means we know they are not going to reach their destination.

The movie Home Alone has Chekhov’s gold tooth!

Quite rightly, your viva has Chekhov’s thesis – OK, it’s your thesis, but the principle holds: it’s there to be used. It’s not just a ticket to get into the viva. It’s a resource that you can rely on to help you. At any point you can check something, clarify details and be sure of what you’ve presented.

In the earlier acts of your PhD you laid out your research in your thesis. In the final act, you can use it if you need to.

Getting Ready If You’re Busy

I had a luxury of time to prepare for my viva. I didn’t have a job or a family, so I treated my prep as a continuation of my 35-to-40 hours per week routine.

Most candidates won’t be in that position. You could have a full-time job, or a part-time job, or family obligations or 101 other things that I didn’t have to think about.

And that doesn’t need to be a problem. It just takes a little planning to make sure you don’t feel overwhelmed.

There are lots of things you could do to get ready (and there are lots of posts on this site on those sorts of topics!). Think about what will make you feel prepared. Explore how much time you might have, based on when you might submit and what your work pattern is like.

Break things down. How long would it take to read a chapter of your thesis? How long would it take to write a summary of a chapter? How could you spread it out over the weeks before your viva?

Even if you don’t have specific dates and times now, you can map out roughly how you might get it done. Keep that rough map. When your thesis is submitted you can start to make that sketch a reality.

Viva preparation doesn’t take hundreds and hundreds of hours. If you’re busy, or you’re going to be, sketch a plan today.

You Get Corrections Because…

…your thesis isn’t perfect. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be.

You get corrections because you’ve probably never written a book before. The thesis you submit for your viva is the very best draft you could write.

Typos creep in. Style choices don’t quite work. You miss a reference or a full stop, a comma or the numbering of a figure.

You get corrections because you tried your very best, not because somehow you failed. Corrections aren’t failing. Corrections are part of the process.

Corrections are your examiners saying, “Here, take a look, this is how you could make this better.”

But never perfect. “Perfect is the enemy of done.” You can’t make it perfect. You can make it done.

You get corrections to get to done.


When I tell candidates their examiners will be checking their competence in the viva, I feel them pull back. Perhaps we’ve heard the word “incompetent” too often. Now even if we talk about the opposite it comes to mind. I ponder the viva and how to help people all the time. So I keep thinking about this word, competence, and if there’s a better way to get the point across.

I turn to the thesaurus and find:

expertise, fitness, know-how, proficiency, savvy, skill, suitability, talent, the right stuff, what it takes

As a candidate you’re not being asked to be superhuman. You need to be good. You need to have done something good.

That has to necessarily be the case by the time you submit. There’s just no other explanation.

To get this far you have what it takes.

The Best Way To Say I Don’t Know

I don’t know could be your answer to a question in the viva, but it doesn’t have to be all of your answer.

Say why.

It can be as simple as “I didn’t do that” or “I didn’t read this.” Or perhaps, “I’ve not thought about it that way, but let me have a think…”

If your first thought is “I don’t know,” say why and engage with the question.

New Year, Old You

What are your resolutions? What are you changing? In particular, what efforts are you going to make to ready for your viva?

Change can be good, but it’s worth asking whether or not you need to change in the first place. Do you really need to make big changes to get ready for your viva? Do you need to give everything 110%?

Maybe you don’t need a New You.

You’ve not got this far by accident. Old You is up to the task.