My internal examiner had a quirky sense of humour. At the end of the viva I was asked to wait in my office while the two examiners had a discussion without me. I got some water, paced a little then sat at my desk.

knock knock

“Nathan,” said my internal ominously, “It is time for your sentence.”

Without missing a beat he started off down the corridor without me.

As I followed him I was 99% sure that his pronouncement was a stab at humour. I was sure I had passed, because I felt sure no-one would say it is time for your sentence if they were about to tell someone they had failed.

Remember: your examiners are there to come to a decision, but it’s wrong to think of it as judgement, or passing sentence. They’re making an award. They’re recognising what you’ve done and helping you see what you need to correct for the final submission. It’s not a trial, it’s an exam.

The picture of the viva you carry in your head will affect how you feel about it.

Per Scientiam Ad Meliora

My school’s motto. Those four Latin words have been rattling around my head for twenty-five years. We were told it meant “through knowledge to better things”. I’ve loved it since the headmaster explained it on the first day.

Three thoughts:

  1. It’s a pretty good motto for a PhD. Whatever your experience during the PhD, good or bad, after the viva you’re headed to better.
  2. What’s your knowledge? You’ve done a lot. What have you introduced to the world that wasn’t there before?
  3. What could “better” be? Your thesis has to be good by the end. What are you going to do to top it after the viva?

However far you’ve come, you can go further.


I’m happy to be doing this daily blog, to have the podcast archive to share, a starting selection of original free resources and also some paid ebooks to offer. But I’m not the only person who tries to help people prepare for the viva. Look around you. Your university might have some great resources that it can offer; they could have a series of videos to help, posts and articles about viva experiences or resources that they’ve bought in – great things like Viva Cards or The Good Viva Video.

If you see something useful, share it. If you need something, ask people. If something doesn’t exist, make it.

I’m going to keep writing, making and helping.

Find The Vague

When you come to viva preparation time you will read and re-read your thesis. And you will find typos. That’s to be expected: spellcheck won’t catch everything, and neither will you. It’s not so bad though: make a note of them when you find them and you can correct later.

Instead of going on a typo hunt though, I’d recommend purposefully looking for vague sections of your thesis. Read your thesis carefully, line by line, and see what doesn’t quite make sense. What could be clearer? What might someone struggle with? Spend some time now making notes on that.

Your examiners can probably read past a typo, but they’ll notice something vague and be more likely to dig into it with you in the viva. If you find the vague ahead of time you’ll be more prepared in case it comes up, but you’ll also be better at explaining things in the future.

A Few Words on Corrections

By submission your research has to be good. You don’t get to that point by luck or by doing only bad work. But is your thesis perfect? Is it impervious to criticism? Probably not. Your examiners might have some notes for you, or even suggestions for changes.

How would you feel about that?

Are you going to be happy if they tell you, “You should change this…”?

Will you feel alright if someone thinks you’ve made a mistake?

Remember, your examiners suggest corrections to make your thesis better. It’s not about you. It’s about the work.


Step One For Viva Prep: start.

Do I start now? Am I doing the right thing?” Just begin. Wondering if you need to do something now or later? Do it now. There are lots of things that you can do which will help; find out what they are and do something to help yourself.

…all of that said…

Step Zero For Viva Prep: make a little plan.

It doesn’t have to be the most detailed thing ever. Figure out how much time you’ve got left. Think about what might help. Allocate tasks to certain days.

Then see Step One.

Opening Moves

It’s unsurprising for me to recommend being prepared for the day of the viva. Often I talk about tips or tools for engaging with research, or ways to look differently at your research. Today I just want to suggest thinking about the day itself. Planning for the day can eliminate decisions you have to make, which can in turn conserve your attention for things that really matter (such as answering questions in the viva).

So what will you do to start the day? When will you get up and what will you eat? Get your clothes ready the night before. Are you doing any more reading, or will you be finding things to occupy your mind? Make a choice in advance. Pack your bag the night before. Decide how you’re going to get to the viva room. Save all of your thinking for the viva itself.

(inspired by a little reading on decision fatigue; have noticed anecdotally that I and colleagues work better when we have eliminated choices in advance)

Last Minute

If tomorrow was your viva and you’d not done much to prepare, what could you do? This sounds like a weird question, but it’s one I’ve faced on occasion from a candidate who seems very worried. So, some ideas for someone with a rapidly approaching viva:

  • Put Post Its at the start of every chapter so that you can break your thesis down and make it easier to navigate.
  • Give a good friend a call and ask them to help you unpick your thesis through discussion.
  • Use the questions in these three posts to help you think about your research.
  • Recognise that you are supposed to be at the viva: you’ve not got this far by accident!

Don’t leave it to the last minute, but if you’re short on time remember you can do a lot with a little time.

Field Tests

It’s great if you have read your thesis, made notes, created summaries. You’ve probably got a beautiful mental model of your research. Can you use it though? How will you do in the viva?

Find opportunities to field test your knowledge and your skills. The mock viva is a great opportunity to do that, as are discussions over coffee and seminars for interested friends. Get confident answering questions by getting people to ask you questions.

Sounds simple; is simple.