How Many Questions?

I was recently asked how many questions a candidate might get in the viva. What is the range like? wondered the nervous PhD. Was there a minimum or maximum number?

I tried to apply some logic to come up with some numbers, but gave up – the question is a red herring. Examiners will have a lot of questions in mind, some driven by your field, some by their interests, some by your thesis. They’ll have questions that you can expect, and some that you can’t. They’ll ask questions that they didn’t know to ask until you said something interesting in the viva too.

I don’t know how many questions will come up in advance of your viva: we could only know that after the fact.

If you’ve read this blog before then you’ll know I have ideas about how you can prepare for questions though. Do a good piece of research, write a good thesis and spend some practising answering unexpected questions to build your confidence.

Listening To Others

I started this site almost six years ago for a lot of reasons: I thought it would be useful to share viva stories and help promote an understanding of what the viva was really like; I wanted to know more myself about the variety of experiences that people have; and I thought it would be an interesting and fun challenge.

There’s over sixty episodes in the podcast archive but over time, due to work pressure, family pressure and technology failure, it became less and less easy for me to record the podcast regularly. Then last year I switched my focus to publishing a post about the viva every day. I’m glad that it’s still there as an archive, and if I hadn’t started it I’m sure I would not be doing as much on the viva as I am now.

Of course, you don’t need a podcast to find out about the viva. Ask your colleagues. Find people who have recently had their viva in your field – in your department if you can – and see what their experiences are like. Ask them clear questions and look for details to build as good a picture as possible. You can be unsure about what your examiners might ask in the viva or think about your work, but there’s no reason for anyone to go to the viva unaware of what the process is generally like or the expectations for the event.

Listen. Ask. Learn. Be ready.

And having said all of that… I’m working to make the podcast return in the autumn! Stay tuned for more details… 🙂

One Step Closer

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by research, by writing up, by getting ready for the viva and the day itself. There are lots of things you could do to advance any one of those goals. Sometimes the problem is that there are lots of things you could do alongside many things you already have to do just to be a part of the world.

Start small then.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed then find one small thing you can do (not could, can), and do it. Move yourself one step closer to the finish line of submitting your thesis, or getting ready for the viva. It might not feel like much, but lots of small steps will bring you to your goal.

So what’s your first step going to be?

Perfect Examiners

Like the perfect thesis and the perfect viva, perfect examiners don’t exist.

You can make a list of things that might be ideal (an expert, an experienced academic) or preferable (someone who is nice, someone who could be a good reference), but they’ll never be perfect.

Steer their selection in conversation with your supervisor. Find out what you need to know about their work. Get ready to talk with some experienced academics about your PhD work.

They’ll be good, maybe great, but don’t put them on too high a pedestal.

Three Simple Hows For Viva Prep

On this blog and in my workshops I share a lot of viva prep ideas. No-one needs to follow all of my suggestions: my hope is that the ideas I share spark a path forward. The danger, sometimes, on being presented with lots of options, is that someone might think “I want to do it all!” or “I need to do it all!” or “Oh my gosh, how will I do it all?!”

I spend a lot of time talking and writing about all of the ideas for viva prep; today let me shift gears to give three questions I think can help anyone break down what they will do to prepare for their viva.

Three simple “how” questions:

  1. How much do you need to do?
  2. How much time do you have?
  3. How will you arrange it all?

Focus on you. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. There are lots of options but only a few core areas to pay attention to.

Don’t make your viva prep complicated. Just ask three questions to get started.

Dos & Don’ts For The End Of The PhD

Do the work you’re supposed to do…

…but don’t worry if you don’t get every answer to all the questions you had.

Do your thesis as well as you can…

…but don’t stress about the odd typo (you can fix that later).

Do explore who might be a good examiner for you…

…but don’t forget that you don’t get to pick them formally.

Do think about how you’ll manage to prepare before you submit…

…but don’t start preparing until you’ve got the thesis done.

Do take a break after you submit…

…but don’t leave preparation until the day before the viva.

Do read your thesis carefully…

…but don’t feel that you have to memorise it.

Do check out your examiners’ recent publications…

…but don’t stress about the literature in general (there’s only so much time to read papers).

Do find ways to practise answering unexpected questions about your work…

…but don’t have a mock viva if it doesn’t sound useful to you.

Do reflect on your work in as many ways as you can…

…but don’t forget to take breaks while you prepare.

Do go to the viva fixed on the thought that you’ve only got this far through talent and work…

…but don’t forget that there’s a little more work to do, a little more talent to show.


It happens occasionally that examiners tell a candidate at the start of the viva that they have passed. Universities don’t want examiners to do this – as it sort of begs the question, why are we going ahead with this exam? – but sometimes examiners do. They might think it puts the candidate at ease, maybe this will lead to a more relaxed discussion, who knows. Don’t expect it.

Nevertheless, can you pick up subtle clues during the viva about how things are going?

Maybe the phrasing of a question can give your confidence a boost.

Perhaps the slight suggestion of a smile from your internal will tell you, “They’re on my side.”

How about that short pause? Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’s fine…

Your external’s making notes while you speak? Well, they have to write a report later. I’m sure it’s fine too…

You’re over two and a half hours in and still a way to go? Well, vivas take as long as they take, it’s fine, there’s no need to- !!


Nothing means anything. You can see, hear or feel anything and spin it any way your mind will let you. It doesn’t make it true or false, good or bad.

Be present in the viva. Think about your answers. Engage with your examiners. Be ready to discuss your work.

The best hint about your viva’s outcome is that you’re there in the first place. It’s not a guaranteed pass just because you showed up, but think about how you got there to begin with.

Eight Questions About Contribution

Having trouble putting your research contribution into words? Or want to reflect on it in new ways? Try the following questions to take a fresh look at what you’ve done for your PhD. (and if you’re writing up, these questions might help you to unpick some new thoughts about your work)

  1. What’s the most interesting part of your research?
  2. What do you think will influence other people’s work?
  3. Why had no-one else explored this topic in this way before?
  4. What feedback have you had about your research and its merit?
  5. What do you see the defining contribution of your thesis as being?
  6. What else did you find along the way?
  7. How can your work be best explained?
  8. How could you take your work further?

Spend some time in your viva prep thinking, writing and talking about what your contribution means.

Bonus Question! What kind of difference does your research make to your field now that it is done?

Changing Focus

If I’m working from home then I love to walk my daughter to nursery to start my day. After I’ve dropped her off, I’ll often continue my walk near the River Mersey.

The view from the promenade looks towards Liverpool. I often take pictures of the city from the same spot on my walk.

Some days I focus on the beach…

…other days I’ll look up to the sky…

…and sometimes the sun shines just right and I capture something truly beautiful.

Changing my focus just a little can make a big difference. It’s the same city in the distance, but a little to the left, a sunny day or the tide being in can mean a radically different picture.

When you’re preparing for the viva, take time to look at your thesis in new ways. Ask yourself questions you’ve not considered before. Make summaries to tease out certain kinds of information. Reflect on what you’ve done and look from a different perspective.

You might see something interesting.

You might get some new ideas.

You might just see something beautiful.