Cosmic Viva Prep

Think of your thesis as a star. It shines, it’s powerful. It’s there because you’ve set it out in the cosmos of your research field.

Somewhere in that vast space are the works of your examiners. They’ve done more; their contributions might make constellations. Patterns of lights in your discipline.

Don’t think negatively of yourself by comparison. Instead, just look at the constellations. What do they look like? What does a constellation tell you about what an examiner thinks?

And what might your thesis-star look like from their constellation?


How long will your viva be?

What will your examiners think about your thesis?

What questions will they ask?

What award will you get?

How will you feel afterwards?

How long will it take to complete corrections?

You might have expectations, but some questions about your viva have answers that are unknowable at this point.

So focus on what you do know.

Your viva comes at the end of several years of hard work. You did the work. You are talented. You’re more than up to the challenge.

Examiners Are Not The Enemy Either

They’re not out to get you, with malicious ideas and opinions. You’re not locked in their sights, and they’re not on a mission to make the viva uncomfortable, unenjoyable and un-passable.

They have to do their job. They have to examine your thesis and you. They have to be experienced and knowledgeable, they have to be prepared for the viva. That can sound intimidating, but all of these are good things.

Remember that you’re the expert in your thesis. Your examiners might have more general experience than you, but no-one else in the world has as much experience with your work as you do.

Your examiners are not faceless and unknown. See what you can learn about them and their work. Explore what you can find that will help you feel confident meeting them to discuss your research.

Questions Are Not The Enemy

They’re not being asked to find your weak spot or the flaw in your thesis. They’re not to be dodged or to guard against. You can’t write yourself away from questions with your thesis.

Questions are there to examine you, shed light on your work and explore what you’ve done.

Don’t dread them. Don’t put up a wall. Don’t just hope that they’ll be OK.

Find opportunities to practise, so you can realise that they’re not to be feared. In the viva, pause, breathe, think and answer.

I Can’t Answer

A recent workshop question about viva questions stood out to me:

“What if my examiners ask me something I can’t answer?”

This is distinct from thinking I don’t know or going blank. If you can’t answer then there is an underlying aspect of the question that means an answer can’t be given. There could be many possible reasons:

  • You might not be able to answer because you don’t have all of the information – so tell your examiners that.
  • You might not be able to answer because the question is not something you have investigated – so tell your examiners that.
  • You might not be able to answer because you decided that question was not worth following – so tell your examiners that – and tell them why.
  • You might not be able to answer their question fully or definitively, because it’s the sort of question to which one can only give an opinion, backed up with an argument and reasons – so do that.

The motivating question for this post is hypothetical. It may never come up in your viva. It’s probably better to invest time in things that you can control or influence. If a question does come up and you can’t answer: tell your examiners. Tell them why. Ask them questions.

Continue being part of the conversation.

Two Thesis Book Clubs

Two ideas that popped into my mind at a Viva Survivor workshop last week:

  1. If you and some colleagues are currently writing: go exploring in your department’s thesis collection. See what people have submitted in the last few years. Meet once a month to discuss what you’ve found. Perhaps you could all read a thesis per month or take it in turns. You might find something interesting but your goal should be to look at style, formatting, layout and argument construction. As a group, create a list of helpful thoughts for your own work. How can you best layout your thesis? How can you setup a good structure? and so on. Use this to make writing up better.
  2. If you’ve submitted and are preparing for the viva: invite some colleagues into a very special book club. Only one book involved: yours. If you have time, get them to read and think about a chapter per week, then invite them to ask you questions. If there isn’t time for a regular meeting, you could arrange a one-off event. Your friends get a copy of your thesis in advance to read, you give a short overview of your research at the start and then take questions.

As option two is geared solely around your thesis you might have to pay for some refreshments – but that’s a small investment compared to the benefits of valuable questions from your colleagues!

The Finale

I’m a fan of genre TV shows. I have been for years, so many, many long stories. I heard someone describe Lost as a ninety-hour movie and that seems pretty apt to me. Partly it’s the characters, the settings, the ideas but more than anything it’s the sheer scale of the stories being told. Heroes become villains, bad guys become unexpected allies, a late dramatic reveal upturns everything we know…

…and then there is the finale.

Things come to an end. A resolution is needed, but we need fan service too. Both characters and audiences need to be satisfied. All threads have to be tied up neatly.

With that much expectation is it any wonder that so many finales fall short?

The viva is the finale of the PhD (corrections are the credits rolling). So much has happened to get to that point, and so much is expected, wanted, needed from that event – is it any wonder that candidates sometimes feel it’s a bit of an anticlimax? That they were thinking it would be longer, or tougher, or that there would be something more about it?

If yours feels like that, don’t worry. You’ve not missed something. Your expectations were so grand that maybe they could never match the reality.

You’ve done it now. Reflect on the journey that got you here, look ahead and keep going.

The Viva Train

The viva is, in some ways, a bit like a train journey…

You have your ticket (thesis), you know your destination (graduation) but it’s right that the conductors (examiners) check you’re supposed to be there.

There’s clear norms about what’s involved. It takes time. It’s rare for something to go seriously wrong. If sometimes it might take a little longer than expected it can be coped with. Even if it was cancelled, there would be another at some point.

Thankfully, unlike a lot of trains, the viva is not too crowded and you have space to stretch out a little and think.

You should probably still keep your feet off the seat.



At the start of my workshops I always share that my viva was four hours long. I’d be asked at some point anyway, and once it’s out there we can talk about expectations. My viva was longer than most, but not the longest I’ve heard of. It was challenging, but not bad. It was tiring, but that was mostly due to insomnia the night before.

By sharing my story I can talk more generally about the stories I’ve heard and what realistic expectations are for the viva.

But mentioning the length of my viva raises a worrying series of questions for some people: “What if I have a four-hour viva? What if I lose my focus? What if it’s all too much and I can’t concentrate? What then?”

Well, what if you’re fine? What if nothing bad happens?

What if you invest time and energy and stress now on things that might never happen, when you could invest them in something better?

You can’t be certain in advance of the viva of how long it will be, of what award you will get, of what your examiners will think or what questions will come up. You can have reasonable expectations about all of them maybe, but you can’t have certainty about them.

You can be certain of what you know and what you can do. You did the work. You’re talented. You can be prepared for the discussion that comes up in your viva.

Don’t focus on “what ifs” and maybes. Focus on your certainties.