8 Thoughts About Viva Questions

I’ve written a fair bit about viva questions before. I’m exploring different angles on the topic at the moment for future posts and workshops.

Here are eight short thoughts that might be useful:

  1. There are lots and lots of lists of common viva questions. Google it. There’s no reason for anyone to go to the viva ignorant of what could come up.
  2. There are lots and lots of questions you could be asked about your thesis which won’t be on any of those lists.
  3. You can’t practise every potential viva question.
  4. You could reflect and practise a few in particular on explaining your research or methodology.
  5. You can practise answering unexpected questions so you get comfortable in thinking through questions you’ve never considered before.
  6. You don’t have to answer a question immediately without pause or asking for clarification.
  7. You don’t have to answer a question without making a note of it first.
  8. Every question in the viva is being asked for a reason.

Number 5 is important. You can gain confidence by knowing that you can answer questions in viva-like conditions. Mock vivas, conversations with friends, giving seminars – there are lots of opportunities. Go find them.

Salmon Swimming

I had an idea for explaining the PhD process, a picture in my head that I described to my wife:

Me: “PhD candidates are like salmon, swimming upstream to the source of ideas. It’s a difficult journey, long and tiring, but at the end-”

Mrs R: “They’re eaten by bears? Are examiners like bears?”

Me: “Erm, no. Well, I guess you could say-”

Mrs R: “I think a lot of salmon don’t make it. I’m sure I read that. Swimming against the current kills some salmon just for trying.”

Me: “…”

Mrs R: “And then some of the salmon that make it get eaten. By bears.”

Me: “…”

There are lots of metaphors and analogies that work in describing the PhD journey and the viva. They’re useful because they give us something to hook into. They can set expectations or help us through tough times. Find one that helps you.

But please don’t be a salmon.


You can’t expect your thesis to be perfect. Your examiners don’t expect it to be perfect. There might be typos or clumsy writing, something vague, but nothing too awful.

But what if there’s a flaw? What if there’s something which is just wrong? A hole in your logic perhaps, or maybe a result or reference that doesn’t support your argument. What then?

First, read your thesis carefully before the viva. Then you can be sure of what’s in there. If you find a flaw you can figure it out. You’ll know how to respond to comments about it in the viva. If you don’t find anything, then you’re probably fine.

If your examiners find something you didn’t, then talk it through with them. Ask questions to get as much information as possible. Think it through. Talk through each point in turn, make notes and see where your discussions lead you.

A flaw can be a tiny imperfection, not a big deal at all. No thesis is perfect. Not every problem is a problem.


How many times have you answered questions about your research?

How many times have you read a paper and increased your knowledge?

How often have you made a contribution to your field?

How many times have you had a discussion with someone about your work?

How many times have you checked your work?

How many times have you thought about your thesis and how best to write it?


How likely is it that you will be faced with an unanswerable question in the viva? How likely is it that you will freeze or go blank? How likely is it that you’ll realise that something you did is fundamentally wrong? How likely is it that you’ll face one of the nightmare scenarios that people imagine and torture themselves with?

It’s not likely, right?

You did the work. Do the prep. Thrive in the viva.


You need pressure to make diamonds. It’s cheesy, but maybe you need the pressure of viva questions to find certain insights. I’ve lost track of the number of times someone has told me that they found new ideas through talking to their examiners. Sometimes a new connection or way of explaining something.

Viva pressure can produce amazing results, but it can seem overwhelming, particularly as the day draws near. If you feel nervous or anxious, remember that you also need time to make diamonds. Viva questions might seem pressured sometimes, but you can take time to answer them. There is no need to rush to respond. Listen to the question, think about it, make a note: you don’t have to have the whole answer when you start to speak. Start, and see where the discussion goes.


It’s cool when you can summarise your research in a tweet. I loved the challenge of explaining my work so that a layperson could understand.

I explore ways to tell apart complicated knotted structures. For my PhD, I found several new processes and results using maths!

There might be some value in breaking down your chapters or key results into soundbites, as a reflective exercise. You could start off with 100 words to summarise a chapter, then try to do it in 25. Could you explain a chapter in ten words? You’d lose something, but it could help you to think through what’s important.

Just remember: this might help you to reflect on your work, but you’ll need more words to tell your research story to your examiners. You can’t predict all of their questions ahead of time, but you can be sure that they want more than a quip.

The Four Elements

There are four elements of practical viva preparation, four key modes of activity to pay attention to:

  • Thinking: specifically, reflecting on your work, how you did it, what it means.
  • Reading: your whole thesis, carefully, and any papers that you need to remind yourself about.
  • Writing: adding annotations to your thesis and creating summaries of your work.
  • Talking: making and using opportunities to practise answering questions about your thesis.

None of them requires you to learn radically new skills. Investing time in these areas will be rewarded by your increased confidence as the viva comes around. There are lots of things that you can do in each of these areas:

  • Thinking: use a questions list; explore your contribution; reflect on why your thesis matters.
  • Reading: don’t skim the first read-through; look for vague passages; target the good and bad.
  • Writing: make important parts stand out; write overviews of your chapters; find new ways to explain things.
  • Talking: talk to friends; have a mock viva; give a seminar and take questions.

You might not have done any of these things during your PhD, but you can do all of them. You only have to find expressions of the four elements to match your personal preferences: for example, not everyone will want a mock viva, but every candidate will benefit from practise through answering questions.

Find ways to think, read, write and talk that build confidence for your viva.


One way viva processes differ around the UK is in terms of awards. These are the various outcomes. Often people think in terms of corrections: no corrections, minor corrections and major corrections. If your viva is coming up I would encourage you to check exactly what each of these means at your institution.

Some universities give three months for minor corrections; others, only four weeks. At some institutions major corrections is an acknowledgement that your thesis is on track but you have some substantial editing or rewriting to do; at others, you must formally resubmit your thesis and have a second viva. Check the outcomes before you go to the viva. Better to know all of the possibilities…

…and then temper them with facts. Most people get minor corrections. It’s likely you will too. They won’t be terrible, but they’ll still be work that needs doing. Sketch a plan now. How long would you have to complete them? What would you have to do in order to complete them in that timeframe given everything else you have going on?

Be realistic. Prepare to pass and prepare for that final burst of work to make your best thesis.

Anonymous Seminar Rooms

I think this is the best way to describe the places where most vivas happen. They might just be another seminar room in your department, but some universities have their own viva suites. You probably can’t control where it will be, but you will know in advance, and that can be really useful.

Any space you’re working in can have an impact on the quality of the work you do. The room your viva is in can have an impact on how you feel. But because you know the location in advance you can do something to help yourself.

Check the layout. Does it make a difference to you if you can see a clock in the room? If there is one, do you want to sit with your back to it? Check it there is a whiteboard, chalkboard or flipchart. Would you need one of these? Is there a window in the door? Would you sit with your back to that, so you don’t get distracted by passers-by?

Environments do have an effect on our confidence and performance. Explore your viva room ahead of time and see what you can do to make it the best space for you.

10 Thesis Reading Tips For Viva Prep

I always tell people that reading their thesis is an essential part of viva prep, like it’s the easiest thing in the world – and I know that I struggled with it a lot! By the time I submitted I felt like I was burned out on my thesis. I felt confident, but was looking forward to when it would all be done. Here are ten tips for reading your thesis that should help with your viva preparations:

  1. Take a break for at least two weeks after you submit. Give yourself a little distance from your thesis.
  2. Plan when you’ll read it. When will you have read the whole thesis?
  3. Put Post Its at the start of each chapter. Make your thesis easier to navigate.
  4. Put Post Its where you find something important. Make it easier to find your thesis essentials.
  5. Try not to skim-read your thesis. Read it line-by-line at least once.
  6. Make a list of questions that one might have about your thesis. Keep them in mind.
  7. Underline typos when you see them. Don’t obsess about finding them.
  8. Make a glossary of terms. Whenever you find a piece of jargon, break it down.
  9. Set some goals. How many times do you need to read your thesis to feel happy?
  10. Take a day off from reading your thesis from time to time!

You have to read your thesis. It can feel like a chore at times, but it really is essential for the viva. Do everything you can to make the process work well for you.