When I first got interested about the viva someone told me, “People hopefully pick an internal who they like, and hopefully pick an external that is an expert in their field.” I’m not sure that’s the best advice for picking examiners, but it’s a starting point for today.

It could certainly help to have an expert for an examiner: then you would feel confident that they would understand the implications of what you have done without needing to spell it out again.

But suppose they know it all too well? Suppose they understand it better than you? Suppose they can appreciate problems that you haven’t? Suppose, suppose, suppose…

Don’t forget: by the time you submit your thesis you are an expert. No-one else has done what you’ve done. No-one else has your lived-in experience of doing your PhD. Maybe it takes an expert to examine an expert?

Expect Unique

If you ask around about viva length, two to three hours is fairly common. If you google you’ll find lots of lists of standard questions. On the day you will probably find out the result within thirty minutes of the end. (and you’ll probably get minor corrections)

There are broad expectations for the format and tone of the viva. But you can also expect that yours will be unlike anyone elses. My viva was four hours long and I was stood for the entire viva in front of a blackboard. I didn’t expect that and I don’t expect it for your viva! I started stood up giving a short presentation, and things just went from there.

Ask your friends who have had vivas recently what they were like. See if there are common experiences but know that yours will be a custom experience to examine you and your work.

What If I Fail?

Why might I fail? What happens if I fail? What is the process for failing the viva like?

I am asked questions like this all the time. Some people do fail the viva. The vast majority don’t.

What makes you think you would?

If you’re thinking about failure, seriously thinking about failure… Why? What has tripped that thought for you? There’s a real difference between wanting to pass and thinking you might fail. If you’re concerned about your examiners, read some of their papers, ask around about them. If you’re worried about remembering “everything” then read your thesis carefully and make some notes. If you worry about answering questions under pressure then have a mock viva, or get friends to practise with you.

If you’re really troubled by the thought of failure, do something about it.

Curious Volumes

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

I have an idea to write a parody of The Raven which is about the PhD or viva prep. The idea hasn’t fully come together in my mind.

As a starter, I like to imagine that the narrator is someone preparing for their viva. I can imagine that many researchers produce curious volumes! Towards the end they may be up late re-reading their thesis. Stressing over it perhaps – “weak and weary” – when someone knocks on their door.

Not a stranger, but a friend, offering to help. “What do you need?” That would be nice, right? You don’t have to do it all alone.

Of course you’re probably not sitting up at midnight hunched over your thesis, people (and ravens) probably don’t knock at your door that often after dark. So alternatively: go ask people for help. What would make the difference to you?


A very practical post today that springs from a frequent question at workshops: “Can I take a break in the viva?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.


Bathroom break, leg stretch, medical need – you can ask for a break in the viva. As time progresses, your examiners should be thinking about whether or not it is appropriate to offer a break. Most vivas fall in the two- to three-hour range. That’s enough time that a short break is in order.

If you need one, ask. If you’re offered one, say yes, move about and get some blood flowing.