Coming Attractions

I went to the cinema recently. The movie was excellent, but even before that I was getting excited because of the trailers for other movies coming soon. The new Star Wars movie, Murder On The Orient Express – I’m not even that interested in seeing the new Justice League movie, but I watched the trailer and thought, “Wow!”

Here’s an odd question for you: what trailers have you seen for the viva?

Have you seen any? If not then maybe you’re not sure what it’s going to be like. I meet a lot of people who are confused or uncertain about the viva. That’s how I was, I didn’t really know what it was about.

I meet plenty of people who have seen bad trailers for the viva: they hear it’s really long, that the characters are unfriendly and harsh, that it’s an exhausting but necessary experience you have to go through.

I thankfully also meet candidates who have caught a trailer for the viva which leaves them intrigued or excited. It’s the end in an epic story after all, and they’ve seen the other parts. They’re looking forward to this final part to see what happens.

Movie trailers are awesome because when they’re done well they make us excited and compelled to watch the film. They tell a tale that leaves us hungry for more and hyped for the time when we get to experience the full story. Of course, you don’t really see trailers for the viva, but there’s a lot of word of mouth. Your supervisors, your colleagues and friends, post-docs, there are lots of people who can tell you about what expect. There’s no reason to be ignorant about the viva format when there is so much help nearby.

What would be an awesome trailer for your viva?

Fear Doesn’t Matter

It’s alright to be anxious or afraid of the viva. Maybe you feel it, maybe you don’t; maybe a little, maybe a lot. It could be specific or vague, keep you awake with “what ifs” or sound asleep with uneasy dreams.

Do nothing and let it fester, or explore why you’re afraid and figure out what to do about it. Viva fear is a sign you recognise the viva is important. Once you figure out the root of your fear you can do something to help.

Fear doesn’t matter; your actions do.


A frequent worry in the mind of viva candidates is that their examiners will say something like:

I was really surprised that you didn’t mention Famous Paper X by Professor Important in your literature review…

What if your examiners say that you’re not cited something important? What then?

Well, that’s their opinion. Your examiners are in the viva to have opinions and ask questions. You’ve not thoughtlessly compiled and read the papers that you have to help support your research. You have reasons for citing the articles that you have, and you have reasons for not citing the articles that you haven’t.

If you’ve intentionally not included Famous Paper X then discuss why – and then explore the papers that you have referenced.

Remember, there will be a lot of papers relevant to your field, it isn’t possible to read them all. If you’ve not read Famous Paper X or not heard of it then ask questions. Why does your examiner think it is important? What do they think it would have added? Listen, and then discuss with them all of the papers or work in your thesis that is relevant to their point.

The viva is an exam disguised sometimes like a conversation. Some questions are testing, others are exploratory. Your examiners might have a different opinion, but they can’t claim that you’ve not done the work. Listen to questions, listen to comments, listen to opinions. Then respond.


Failure at the viva is rare. There are many, many reasons why this is the case. The three that come first to my mind are: you did the research, wrote the thesis and you know how to answer questions about your work and field.

Still, the brain looks at outliers and thinks, “Why not me?”

Remember: the viva is pressured, important, but also just the latest occasion you’ve had to talk about your research and field.

Probing & Specific

I’ve built up a small library of notes, slides and documents about the viva from a variety of sources. On a scrap of paper I found the thought that “viva questions can be probing and specific.”

This is really worth remembering and preparing for. Your examiners are not typically looking for soundbite answers, they want explanations. A probing and specific question is looking for details and a demonstration of understanding and competence.

But that’s alright!

  • You are competent: you did the work!
  • You know the details: they might not be perfectly organised but you can take time to think.
  • The viva is a discussion: you don’t have to jump to a conclusion.

Remember too: your research and thesis are built on probing and specific questions. You’ll be able to answer similar questions in the viva.

Different Audiences

Here’s a thirty minute viva prep exercise. It aims to help you think differently about your thesis by considering how you could communicate your work with other people. All you need is something to write on and write with.

Take 5 minutes to make general notes, first thoughts about your research and how you share it with others.

Take 5 minutes to plot out a conference talk about your best work. What must you include?

Take 5 minutes to sketch a thirty minute talk at a local high school. How would you begin?

Take 5 minutes to brainstorm for a Three Minute Thesis talk. What would you have to cut out of your normal explanations?

Take 5 minutes to think about your elevator pitch. What would you say if you were in a lift with the head of your university?

Finally, take 5 minutes to review. What ideas or themes consistently showed up? What surprised you? What can you do with these ideas now? How does this help you to frame your work for others?

Exploring different perspectives and looking at your work in a fresh way is valuable. Make time to take a step back in your viva preparations and consider what someone else might think of your thesis. And think: you have the outline for four or five different kinds of talks about your work now. Why not give one of them?