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?

Sip & Pause

The viva is questions: your examiners want to talk to you about your research and there’s 101 things they could want to know.

The viva is answers: if you don’t talk about your research you’re not going to get very far.

It’s 100% fine to pause before answering – questions deserve a little thought at least, not just an automatic response – but social conditioning tells us that we have to answer as quickly as possible. In workshops people say things like “Won’t my examiners think I’m rude if I pause?” and “My examiners will think I don’t know anything!” Either could be true if you were pausing for minutes, but we’re talking about seconds.

Still, sitting in silence in an exam like the viva can be uncomfortable. I like Dr Claire O’Callaghan’s suggestion in Episode 27: take a big bottle of water to sip after each question is asked. That way you can take those seconds to get the question straight in your mind, start thinking about a response and answer well.


For years I’ve avoided spoilers. I remember racing home with the final three Harry Potter books on the days they were released, turning my phone off and reading until they were done – partly because I was desperate to know what happened, but also because I didn’t want anyone else to spoil them for me.

Spoiler Alert! A small number of vivas start with examiners telling the candidate that they’ve passed. Some examiners do it to reassure the candidate. Examiners who declare a pass at the start have good intentions, but universities would prefer examiners didn’t do it. It begs the question, “Is this an exam or not?”

After I’ve shared this possibility in workshops – usually because someone has said, “A friend of a friend was told they’d passed…” – I have to add that it’s not that likely and if it were your viva you would never know until it happens. You could spend all the time on the run up to the viva thinking, “Will they tell me at the start? Will they tell me at the start?” Is that helpful? I don’t think so.

You can’t control what your examiners will do in the viva or at the start.

Spoiler Alert! You can control what you do and how well you can be prepared.


My friend Shaine kept his viva secret. In his final year he got married, wrote up his thesis, applied for and got a place on a teaching course, prepared for it, submitted his thesis and then prepared for the viva. He had a lot going on, and I guess he didn’t want people asking after one more thing. We only found out after he had passed.

It worked for him. Most people won’t keep the viva a total surprise from their friends, but I can understand why they might. As with many things, there are pros and cons. What will work for you? Think it through: do you want the help your friends could give, or the space that might help you to think? There’s no right or wrong. Think about what you need and do what will help you most.

Hours and Years

Two to three hours is pretty standard for a viva. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Two to three hours is the right neighbourhood.

Three to four years is pretty standard for a PhD. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Three to four years puts us in a meaningful ballpark.

People worry about “long” vivas. Mine was four hours. I’ve heard of the occasional six-hour viva. It can seem like a long time to be on and discuss your research. But you get to those hours of discussion after years of work. You’re in a good place.