I Don’t Know

“I don’t know” is not the end of the viva. It’s not a stain against your name. It doesn’t mean that you automatically lose.

It means you didn’t know something.

If you don’t have information, what do you have? I can think of a few possibilities:

  • Probably a question for yourself: you don’t know a definite answer, but what possibilities are there?
  • Probably a question or two for your examiners: can you tell me more?
  • Definitely a brain, and experience: given the question, given everything you do know, what does that lead you to think?

I don’t know is not the end of the viva. It could be the end of a strand of conversation. Or it could be an opportunity to show how you can think, and engage, discuss and decide. You can give an opinion. YOU can reason things out. I’ll say it again: You’re not here by accident.

The Perfect Thesis

If the perfect thesis exists, it’s not yours. No corrections is not a reasonable goal. If you’re not asked to do any corrections that doesn’t mean your thesis was perfect. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything “wrong” either.

Do some work, get some feedback, talk about it in useful ways, repeat a lot and do something that amounts to a significant, original contribution.

Chasing perfect is a way to drive yourself crazy. Make something that matters.

One Day

The PhD versus the Viva: if you can get it done* for 1000+ other days, why would this day be any different**?

*show up, learn, develop, grow, make, read, think, synthesise, propose, share, write, play, do and keep on doing…

**you’re at a challenging point, but you’ve shown yourself to be capable of meeting these challenges.

A Good Choice

In most institutions PhD candidates can talk to their supervisors and discuss possible examiners. There may be hundreds of names that could fill the roles. What makes for a good choice? Who do you pick? How do you pick?

I like creative thinking tools. There’s a lot of them, and many approaches aimed at finding a creative solution to a problem propose divergent thinking – trying to find as many ideas as possible – followed by convergent thinking – using tools to narrow down possibilities to the most suitable choices.

Some questions to open up the space of possible examiners:
Who have you cited?
Who have you met at conferences?
Who has particular interest in the kind of research you’ve done?
Who has a reputation for being excellent?

Some questions to narrow the field:
Who is just an absolute no? (for whatever reason)
Whose name would be a useful reference?
Whose work have you criticised?
Whose work do you find particularly influential?

These questions can be useful, but I think you first need to have some idea of good examiner qualities. The overall question is far more personalised than people usually take it: instead of “what qualities should you want in a good examiner?” the question needs to be “what qualities do I want in my examiner?”


It will be like this. It will be like that. You need to do it this way. I did it that way.

Check this book. Listen to that podcast. My friend said this.

A friend of a friend had a nightmare experience. A friend of a friend of a friend FAILED.

My sister’s brother’s best friend’s dead dog’s former owner knew someone who had their viva and said it was no big deal, so what are you worried about?

Everyone has an opinion about the viva.

Ask a few questions. Listen to the answers. Decide for yourself. Keep doing good work.