What Now?

Your viva could go really well. The point at which work and prep and expectation and anticipation all meet; you try so hard, push so much, show your best work and best self and then-

It’s over.

It’s done.

And it might be a bit… Meh.

A little… Oh.

Just… Is that it?

What now?

Not everything can be controlled, pre-arranged and sorted in advance. You can’t pre-determine how you will feel. You can’t know for sure what your viva will feel like until it’s done.

However, you can let some people know when your viva is happening. Let them know when you’re done. Maybe let them know how you want to treat this, or even how you might want to. If you live with family or friends and your viva is over video, pre-arrange a celebration. Your viva will be a success, but for many reasons – not just the current state of the world – it might not feel like the achievement it is on the day.

Do a few small things in advance to help the period after your viva be as good as it can be. Ask for help if you need it, even if that is help celebrating and marking your success.


There are lots of unknowns for the viva. Lots of maybes and probables and expectations-that-should-be-true. This leaves plenty of space for doubts. What if…? Maybe if this happens…? It’s not hard to see why PhD candidates get nervous and worried in anticipation of their vivas.

Thankfully, though, there are also many certainties for your viva:

  • You did the work.
  • You must be talented.
  • You know your research.
  • You wrote your thesis.
  • You know who your examiners are.
  • You can prepare.

And while expectations are only the most likely circumstances, you can get certainty from the overwhelming number of viva stories that describe them as being fine. Not perfect, but a challenge you can rise to – by this stage, that’s certain.

Bloopers & Highlights

How often do you compare yourself to others?

I did this all the time during my PhD.

One office mate was determined to complete his PhD quickly. My friend at the next desk was a superstar, she had real talent. One of my best friends seemed so calm all the time. Compared to my friends, I was terrible.

What was I doing? How could I do a PhD if these people set the standard?

Of course, I only saw one side of their stories, and a distorted view of my own. Comparing “talent” and “progress” is a losing game during a PhD – if there’s even a game to be played! But so many people do it.

Is it any wonder candidates get to their viva and doubt themselves?

I spotted a really helpful YouTube video by one of the former podcast guests, Dr Pooky Knightsmith, and it resonated with me. The video is aimed at teachers comparing themselves to their colleagues, but a lot of the same ideas apply to postgraduate researchers too. Instead of comparing your bloopers – your mistakes – to your friends’ achievements, maybe try talking with them. Instead of dwelling on your slip-ups, focus on your own highlights. Think about how you can make them even higher!

Explore your highlights before your bloopers when it comes to your viva preparation.

Day By Day

Over the course of a full-time PhD in the UK, a candidate will probably show up on seven to eight hundred days. I can well imagine this number goes up for a part-time PhD. A candidate shows up when they come to get something done: work on their research practically, learn something, share something or write something.

They show up when they come to do something that matters.

On most days it might not feel like much. Stuck in the middle of second year, you could feel as if you’re stuck in a loop. Wake up, do work, sleep, wake up, do work, sleep, and so on. But it all helps. It adds up. Over hundreds of days, bit by bit, you build talent. Reflect on them and you can build confidence too.

You won’t have hundreds of days between submission and the viva, but this day by day perspective still helps through preparation time. Do a little every day, and build up how ready you feel. Build up your confidence day by day.

Pay attention to when you show up and confidence will follow.

Different Approaches

When it comes to viva prep there are lots of ways you could try to prepare.

You could read your thesis once and leave it at that.

You could read and re-read your thesis to try to remember everything.

You could obsess and try to make everything perfect.

You could do nothing and shrug your shoulders, saying “What happens, happens!”

You could worry, and hope that nothing too bad happens.


…you could learn what to expect, reasonably; you could know your thesis is not perfect, and that’s OK; you could do a little prep, making sure you have a good general awareness of your thesis and research and time to rehearse in some way; you could work on building your confidence, so that you go to your viva as sure as you can be that you will succeed.

The last approach is my favourite of course. It’s less simple than the others, but easier to do.

How are you working your way to being prepared?

The Terrible, Terrible Silence

Silence, in almost any kind of meeting, is almost unbearable. Do you know what I mean? The gap in conversation invites tension, creates a shared awkwardness… Sometimes it can feel almost overwhelming.

I used to notice it a lot when I was standing in front of a seminar room. Often just before I started or whenever I would ask a question. Everyone waiting for someone to speak, but perhaps not wanting that person to be them.

And I know that people worry about it for their viva. What happens if you have to pause? What happens if you have to ask for a moment? What happens if someone doesn’t speak for a short time? – something likely to happen given the time it takes for signals to move around the world between different places!

The answer to all of these is that nothing bad happens.

Silence is a by-product of a necessary pause in things. A wait before we begin, a pause while you think, a moment while the signal comes back. Silence isn’t bad, it just feels bad.

The only way past it, I think, is to practise: have a mock viva, pause before you answer and get comfortable with the silence. Use whatever meeting software might be used for your remote viva and take time to get used to those little delays.

Sit with the silence, and see it for what it is. Not terrible, not bad, not somehow good: just one small part of the viva process.

7 Reasons Webinar, May 20th 2020


This is an extra post for today to announce that I’m running my 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva webinar again on Wednesday 20th May. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and delight of sharing new short webinars with PhD candidates recently. I asked on Twitter which session I should re-run and 7 Reasons was the clear favourite.

Here‘s what I said the last time I delivered 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva – I can’t find better words to explain why I’m offering this session:

This is for PhD candidates who have their viva coming up and want to know why it’s going to be fine. Lots of people tell PhD candidates not to worry about the viva – relax, don’t stress, it’ll all be fine – sentiments which don’t always help because they often miss an important Why.

For some candidates, one thing – the right thing – can be enough to make the difference and help them feel certain about their viva. I have seven reasons to share…and my aim is to convince anyone coming that they will be fine for their viva. They may have work to do, things to check or prep to complete, but when the time comes, they can be ready. They will pass.

I was blown away by the response that the session got; it was great to see that something I’d done had really connected:

I hope you can join me next Wednesday. If you’re uncertain about what to do for your viva, how you should feel about it, or just need help then this 1-hour session is for you. There are full details at the Eventbrite registration link. 7 Reasons is free to attend, but if you can make a donation to help support the work that I do and the time that goes into providing it that would be really appreciated. If you can’t, please still come – I want this session to help anyone who needs it.

Thanks for your attention, I hope you can join 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva next week!

Wishing you the very best 🙂


Dobble and the Viva

Dobble is a simple-but-tricky card game. In our house it’s firm favourite for quick fun. A deck of circular cards covered with colourful symbols, the trick is that every card matches every other card in terms of one symbol: it’s kind of like snap, but where every card matches only one detail on every other. You have to be the first to spot the symbol to “snap”.

I love Dobble, despite the moments when my six-year-old daughter beats me.

(every game)

I mention it because it strikes me that Dobble cards are a lot like vivas: they’re structured, you know the general shape of them, there’s a pattern and a method to how they’re organised, and the details can be very similar.

But they’re always different, with no exceptions.

By studying a handful of Dobble cards you can’t divine some special thing to tell you about the card you’re about to draw, but it can give you something to think about. You can learn to expect things. This goes for vivas too: asking about your friends’ experiences or looking at the regulations won’t give you exact details for yours, but they can helpfully influence your expectations.

The repeated symbols you hear about in viva stories can give you a sense of what to expect when it’s time to play your own game.

Viva Reminders

You’re not expected to simply remember everything in your viva. Photographic recall is not a requirement, and there are lots of useful reminders you can use:

  • Use Post-it Notes to mark the start of chapters or important sections.
  • Write a list of important references.
  • Create a cheatsheet of questions you want to ask you examiners.
  • Read your thesis and write short summaries to break down your structure.
  • Make something to help you remember the important things you’ve achieved.
  • Make a jar of awesome to help you remember how good you are!

Of course, there’s a lot more you might need to remember, and a lot more ways you could help yourself remember.

So what do you need? And what will you do?

(A Final Reminder: need in this case could be because it will simply help you to feel better – that’s OK!)

Horses, Not Zebras

A few months ago I read a lovely little book called The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts – which is a long title for a quick read! Each chapter was a short discussion about different useful concepts, like thought experiments, thinking from first principles and so on.

In describing Occam’s Razor, the book introduced me to a wonderful phrase: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”

This is a great reminder for PhD candidates and the viva: I’ve observed many candidates to believe that the smallest hoofbeat could only be a great big zebra! For example:

  • A typo doesn’t mean you’ve made lots of mistakes – it’s just a typo and can be corrected.
  • A passage in your thesis that doesn’t quite make sense; now you wonder how you’ll pass – you will, you just might need to rephrase or explain it.
  • The difficult question you struggle to respond to – is just a difficult question that is difficult to respond to! It’s not a sign of failure.

Problems at the viva are likely to be small. Issues you spot in prep will not be overwhelming. It’s far, far more likely that the problematic zebras you think you hear around the viva are nothing more than horses trotting by, here today and gone tomorrow.