Why You Don’t Know

You’re not getting the context.

You’ve not considered the question before.

You mis-heard the examiner.

You don’t know a key piece of information.

You’ve gone blank.

You got distracted by a sudden thought or idea.

You’re just not making a connection.

It’s only been two seconds since the question was asked and your brain hasn’t leapt to a response yet.

Going blank or not knowing what to say in the viva is among the top fears of PhD candidates. None of the above are reasons for failure. None of the above are insurmountable, although if they occur in combination they can seem very scary. Nearly all of them are situations that can be improved by asking questions – either of yourself or your examiners. That extra breath, that extra pause, that extra idea, whatever it is, can be useful to shake some ideas loose.

Not knowing something is not the end of the viva. Pause, think, ask questions and work yourself away from “I don’t know…”

More Why-How-What

About six months ago I shared Why-How-What as a simple framework for talking about your research. There is a value in using interesting opportunities to think more and talk more about your work. It boosts your confidence for when the moment comes that you have to talk about your research: you will find the words. I’ve had a few more ideas about how Why-How-What can help frame stories about what you’ve done and how you’ve done it:

  • Why did you start a PhD? How did you feel at the start? What did you think you would do?
  • Why was it worth exploring the area you did? How did you initially approach your research? What did you hope you would find?
  • Why were you up to the challenge of doing a PhD? How have you developed along the way? What can you now do that you couldn’t before?
  • Why had your topic not been covered in this way already? How did you spot that you could do something about it? What are some ways that it can be explored more in the future?

There are many, many more setups like this that could help get your thoughts in order. There are thousands of questions that could come up in the viva. You can’t prepare for them all, but you can take opportunities to think more and talk more about your work. It will help. You’ll find yourself in a better place when your viva day comes around.

Two Questions About Your Examiners

There may be other academics who could do just as good a job as your examiners, but they won’t come with the same background, experience and knowledge as yours. When they ask questions about your work and how it relates to the wider field, they’ll do so through the prism of their own research. You can’t anticipate every question like this they might ask, but you can ask yourself two questions to help you prepare better.

  • First: how much do you know about them and their work? Think about which papers you’ve read of theirs, and areas they’re interested in (if you don’t know much about either then check their staff pages).
  • Second: how much do you think you need to know in order to boost your confidence? Think about how many papers you have time to read, what else you have to do and so on.

Answering these two questions can help shape how you look into your examiners’ work. You don’t need to know everything – you can’t know everything – but you can do enough once you set some parameters. You can be ready for the interesting questions your examiners have ready for you.


Anxiety and negativity crop up around the viva. There are lots of unhelpful associations. If you have negative thoughts then it’s important to take a step back:

  • Make a list, get it all out in the open, what are you really thinking about here?
  • Next, for each thing on the list, is there something you can actually do? (for example, you can ask friends to help you unpick possible objections to your work, but you can’t find everything you’ve never thought about before!)
  • Finally, make a list of concrete steps to take to reduce the impact of things you can do something about.

There’s no sense in worrying about things you can’t alter. And there’s no sense in only worrying about things that you can work on.

Be clear about which is which, and then you’ll see what you can do.

The Magic Feather

(Do I need to give a spoiler warning for a movie that is over 75 years old?!)

In Dumbo, the little elephant with big ears is given a magic feather to help him fly, and off he goes. When he loses it he suddenly believes he will crash! Thankfully his good friend tells him he could fly all along: the feather was just something that gave him the confidence to do it.

And with that he flies again.

If you’ve done the research, written a thesis and submitted it, you don’t need a magic feather for the viva. You’re supposed to be there, you have the talent. If you have a ritual, be it three coffees or good day socks, and that helps, then do it – use whatever confidence you can find.

You don’t need one, but if a magic feather will help then get looking.

Love Letter For Your Thesis

Viva coming up? For one day, pause your usual preparation. Don’t analyse the contribution in each chapter. Don’t frantically search for typos. Don’t read through and worry what your examiners will say about this chapter or that choice.

Just take a page and write down what you love about your thesis.

What do you really love about it? What ideas do you adore? How does it make you happy? (it’s OK if “it’s done!” is the answer!)

What are you grateful for in your thesis? What inspires you? What can’t you wait to show others?

Find all the good stuff, and use that to motivate you for the rest of your prep and the viva.

The Happy Viva

What do you need the viva to be like for you to be happy?

Does it need to be short?

Do you need to know all of the answers?

Do you need your examiners to tell you what they think right away?

Do you need it to be at a certain time of day?

Do you need to set yourself up well on the day?

Do you need a particular kind of atmosphere in the room?

You can do something about some of these things, and nothing about others.

A better question might be: what can you do to be happy in your viva?

Answer the question, get some ideas, start some meaningful actions.

Easy Viva Prep?

I’m a big fan of Tim Ferriss: he’s written interesting, thought-provoking books and interviewed hundreds of people at the top of their fields in his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. My wife got me his latest book, Tribe Of Mentors, for a present. It’s a collection of over a hundred short Q&As with people who are the best of the best; a means to find out what inspires them, how they do their best work and so on.

The genesis of the book was Tim feeling stuck, not sure what direction to take his life in. He has a list of questions that he’s found useful to get himself unstuck including “what would this look like if it were easy?” After a little free writing from this provocation his brain latched on to the idea of a “tribe of mentors” to help guide him, and thus the idea for Tribe Of Mentors was born.

The book is great, but the question is greater. I’m using it now to help me unpick future projects – some of which are related to this site and resources – but I think it could also be useful more generally when helping people get ready for the viva.

What would it look like if viva prep were easy? I don’t have firm answers yet, but I do have some ideas that are leading to useful questions for me:

  • Maybe it would be organised. What might that look like?
  • Maybe it would be structured. What form would it take?
  • Maybe it would be principled, based on key ideas. (I have some thoughts on this already!)
  • Maybe it would involve other people. Who, and how?

These are just ideas. I’m looking at it from a big, utilitarian view, trying to think how I can help as many people as possible. You can think much more focussed. Think: “What would it look like if viva prep were easy for me?”

Targeting The Viva

Nervousness about the viva sometimes comes from feeling unprepared or unsure about the quality of research, but often it comes from just not knowing enough about the viva itself. This is understandable: you need to see a target to aim for it. Without something tangible to aim for you can’t easily reach success.

The viva is made out to be a big unknown, but in reality there are lots of place to find out more information:

  • Your institution’s guidelines;
  • Your supervisor(s);
  • Recent graduates from your department;
  • People from your wider network;
  • Even random blog-people and Twitter-folk!

There’s no reason for the viva to be a mystery. Think about what you do and don’t know about it, then find ways to fill in the blanks. Learn about expectations, norms and what to do.

Then you can hit the target.

Six Thousand Hours…

…is my ballpark, back-of-the-napkin calculation for how much time someone might spend working on a PhD.

Compare that to two to three hours in the viva.

Three orders of magnitude difference and then some.

If you’re nervous about the viva: you’ve taken no shortcuts to get here. In and among those thousands of hours are lots of reasons why you’re up to the challenge ahead.