What If I Fail?

Why might I fail? What happens if I fail? What is the process for failing the viva like?

I am asked questions like this all the time. Some people do fail the viva. The vast majority don’t.

What makes you think you would?

If you’re thinking about failure, seriously thinking about failure… Why? What has tripped that thought for you? There’s a real difference between wanting to pass and thinking you might fail. If you’re concerned about your examiners, read some of their papers, ask around about them. If you’re worried about remembering “everything” then read your thesis carefully and make some notes. If you worry about answering questions under pressure then have a mock viva, or get friends to practise with you.

If you’re really troubled by the thought of failure, do something about it.

Curious Volumes

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

I have an idea to write a parody of The Raven which is about the PhD or viva prep. The idea hasn’t fully come together in my mind.

As a starter, I like to imagine that the narrator is someone preparing for their viva. I can imagine that many researchers produce curious volumes! Towards the end they may be up late re-reading their thesis. Stressing over it perhaps – “weak and weary” – when someone knocks on their door.

Not a stranger, but a friend, offering to help. “What do you need?” That would be nice, right? You don’t have to do it all alone.

Of course you’re probably not sitting up at midnight hunched over your thesis, people (and ravens) probably don’t knock at your door that often after dark. So alternatively: go ask people for help. What would make the difference to you?


A very practical post today that springs from a frequent question at workshops: “Can I take a break in the viva?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.


Bathroom break, leg stretch, medical need – you can ask for a break in the viva. As time progresses, your examiners should be thinking about whether or not it is appropriate to offer a break. Most vivas fall in the two- to three-hour range. That’s enough time that a short break is in order.

If you need one, ask. If you’re offered one, say yes, move about and get some blood flowing.


The last time I was terrified was watching Get Out. I’m not going to spoil it, and if you intend to see the movie I suggest you stay spoiler-free.

I saw it at a lunchtime screening. Afterwards I walked out of the cinema with my heart pounding. I spent the rest of the day on a big adrenaline high. I’m really serious: it took about ten hours for the terror to go away. It’s a great, scary movie with a compelling story that leaves you with a lot to think about.

Nathan, this blog is about the viva and viva prep, where are you going with this?

I ask in workshops how candidates feel about their viva. Worried. Nervous. Unsure. Excited.

Sometimes they tell me they’re terrified. When they do I can tell they mean it, it’s not an exaggeration. They are beyond scared. The thought of the viva makes them terribly afraid.

I don’t have an easy answer to this problem. If scary movies make you terrified, you can avoid them. If the viva makes you terrified, you still have to have one. I’m a huge fan of Seth Godin and this post from March is really helpful if you’re facing viva fear. The level of fear or terror we get in the modern world is disproportionate; we’re not being hunted by large predator animals, but we can still have strong fear responses. But as Seth says in the post: “As soon as we give it a name, though, as soon as we call it out, we can begin to move forward.”

That’s the not-easy answer: if you have viva-fear, figure out what it is that makes you afraid, and then you can start to change.

Scared of what the examiners think and how you’ll respond? Get feedback from others so you have practice.

Worried that you’ll forget everything? Read your thesis carefully and make some summaries for yourself.

Terrified that you’ll freeze when asked a question? Have a mock viva or get friends to ask questions.

Once you name your fear you can do something about it.


It’s the General Election in the UK today. Today is a day for a decision – but then so is every day.

Every day is a series of decisions, some big, some small, some that don’t matter and many that do. There are decisions that only you care about, and decisions that you wish you didn’t have to make. There are decisions that will change things forever and some that are just one of many options that seem fairly similar – you have to pick something and so you do.

The PhD is a series of decisions. The viva might explore some of them. Which methodology did you pick and why? Why study this topic in this way? Why do X instead of Y? Why did you come to that conclusion? Why, why, why, why…

The PhD is a series of decisions that you make, and the viva is where you try to account for them. Some of them aren’t right or wrong – they just are. They need an explanation or an argument to support them. Your examiners may disagree or have a point of view that needs accounting for. “Why?” is a good place to start there too. Once it has been asked then there’s no place to hide: both parties need to listen, think and come to a conclusion.

Unpicking decisions can be a useful prep tool for the viva, both to strengthen arguments and prepare for answers.


The greatest training montage ever captured on film is the 3-odd minute training scene in Rocky III. You can check it out here if you’ve never seen it. It’s awesome. If nothing else, add the music to your inspirational playlist.

It shows a process that’s a bit a like preparing for the viva: Rocky’s in great shape but isn’t quite there yet for the competition. After your research is done and your thesis is finished you’re awesome, but you could probably still use some work for the viva. You don’t have to spar, run laps down a sunny beach or build up massive quantities of muscle though.

Read your thesis to remind yourself of everything in there. Answer some unexpected questions from your supervisor or friends. Look for ways to boost your confidence. Make some notes about what’s important. There’s lots you can do to help yourself.

Training montages show someone developing to a peak of excellence. What would be in your viva prep montage? Think about how much time you’ve got, what things you can do, then go do them.

Five Years

Viva Survivors started as a podcast five years ago today. A lot has happened. That’s an understatement, but a good starting point.

In five years I’ve produced over sixty episodes of the podcast, written three books, delivered hundreds of workshops to thousands of PhDs and that’s scratching the surface. That’s just the numbers, not the real achievements, not the real milestones.

Viva Survivors started as a podcast, and has only recently broadened out with the daily blog. With the Other Resources, Books and eBooks pages, there has been more than just interviews for some time. It was only seven weeks ago that I “officially” threw the switch that changed things, but the change was coming for a while. I’m really happy with how it is going and am looking forward to share more posts every day, along with more new original resources for viva prep soon.

At this five year mark I want to say thank you to everyone who I’ve interviewed; thank you to everyone who has shared or tweeted about the site; thank you to everyone who has come to a workshop; thank you to everyone who has bought one of my books; thank you to everyone and anyone who has been a supporter. Viva Survivors does not have a staff of hundreds: there’s me and my wife and our business. This “side” project would not have got anywhere without thousands of other people who have helped our work along.

A question: how has your life changed in the last five years? If you’re finishing up a PhD, what numbers or achievements are you most proud of? Why?


“Hello Mr Magpie, how’s your wife?”

If you see a lonely magpie then you’re supposed to ask where his wife is, supposedly to ward away sorrow or bad things. I don’t know where the superstition comes from, I heard it at a very young age. I would never consider myself to be a superstitious person, but for some reason this has hooked into my brain. I can’t get rid of it. Whenever I see a magpie I look around hoping to see a friend for it, and if I don’t I whisper, “Hello Mr Magpie, how’s your wife?

I wouldn’t class myself as superstitious, but I did wear a pair of my “good day socks” to my viva.

I often listen to Daft Punk while I set up for a workshop, it puts me in a happy sort of state that I find really helpful.

You should do none of these things. These are things that help or have helped me. You can call them superstition, ritual, process, practice, whatever. For the viva, think about the things that help you: a good night’s sleep, psyching yourself up, listening to music, three coffees, someone saying good luck (or not). Find what helps you.

But if you see a lonely magpie, say hi from me.

First Thoughts

Here’s a quick reflective exercise for the end of the PhD. Take a sheet of paper, divide it into three:

  • In the top write WHY: why did you do a PhD? Answer the question.
  • In the middle write HOW: how did you do a PhD? Answer the question.
  • At the bottom write WHAT: what did you find during your PhD? Answer the question.

What were your motivations? How did you go about doing research? What were the results?