Emotional Limbo

Typically there’s six weeks to three months between submission and the viva. You’re bound to be busy with lots of things, but there’s plenty of time to prepare well for the viva – and plenty of time to feel a range of emotions swirling around you. One day you can feel fine, the next worried. Confident one minute, concerned the next. A bit anxious, a bit excited, a bit indifferent. Unsure perhaps, stuck, and alone.

Remember: you don’t have to be stressed – or excited – by yourself. Sharing helps.

Questions and Focus

I recently watched the Tony Robbins documentary I Am Not Your Guru on Netflix. I’d really recommend it; it’s uncomfortable at times, funny at others, but it’s an interesting look at an interesting person and it gets you thinking.

At one point he observes, “Questions control what you focus on.” It made me think of my workshops. I ask people for their viva-related questions at the start, which I’m always happy to answer and help with. Candidates ask me questions that they’re already asking themselves. Frequently asked questions include:

  • What if my mind goes blank?
  • What if my examiners are harsh?
  • What if I can only say “I don’t know”?
  • What if I fail?

These are important questions, and clearly some answers or thoughts could help people feel better and prepare better. I just wonder how the general mood of the viva and viva prep would be if candidates more regularly asked themselves:

  • What will help me be prepared?
  • Where can I find good help?
  • What have I done to put me in a good place?
  • How can I make the most of this opportunity?

Questions control what you focus on. Change your questions, change your focus.


Hey John, how was your viva? “It was fine.”

Hi Kate, how was your viva? “Fine, thanks.”

Tom, how did you feel about your viva? “Fine.”

I asked lots of friends about their vivas while I was a PhD student. They all said it was fine and I left it at that. When my own came around I felt fine too, until the night before. Insomnia hit and I lay awake for hours and hours. I didn’t know what to expect and now I wasn’t fine.

Fine is nice, fine is reassuring, but fine doesn’t tell you anything. Ask specific questions, push for specific answers and set some reasonable expectations for the viva.

Then you will be fine.

Imaginary Numbers

In maths the symbol i is used to denote the square-root of -1. It’s an imaginary number, an unreal but valuable concept. They’re useful, but most people go through life without being troubled by them or what they mean.

I often think all of the stats about the viva are kind of like imaginary numbers. It’s useful to know nearly everyone passes, that most vivas are finished in three hours or less, that around 85% of people get minor corrections. But to be well well-prepared for the viva you don’t have to dwell on the statistics.

They could be a confidence boost for you, but it’s far more valuable to regularly remember you lived the life and did the work that lead to your thesis. You’re a talented researcher: knowledgeable enough and experienced enough to meet the demands of the viva.

Don’t focus on the imaginary numbers: focus on what’s real.

The Unimportant Bug Hunt

After submission, read your thesis long enough and you’ll eventually spot a typo. Go actively looking for them and you’ll get a decent list of things that you can correct after the viva.

…but is that really a good use of your viva prep time?

Focus on getting a good perspective on your whole thesis, practise how to articulate your research, find opportunities to think and learn more.

If you find typos along the way, fair enough, but don’t make that a goal.


I have that phrase about “a particular set of skills” from the movie Taken in my mind a lot when I start workshops. Not for the attitude, because I don’t want PhD candidates to see the viva as a fight to the death. The phrase resonates because candidates come equipped with a skill set, knowledge and experience to match what their examiners bring to the table. When it comes to examiners’ questions, candidates know a lot and can work out a lot because of the talent they’ve built up during their research.

Don’t forget: you can’t do a PhD without developing your particular set of skills.