Things The Viva Isn’t

It’s not a quiz.

You need to know a lot, of course, but you’re not expected to have rapid recall or a photographic memory of your research and your thesis.

It’s not an interview.

You might choose to dress smart, but you’ve not applied for a position. The focus and purpose of the viva are radically different.

It’s not a game.

The people involved have roles but aren’t players. There are rules to be followed but there aren’t moves to make or best strategies to employ.

It’s not a question and answer session.

There are going to be lots of questions but the structure and flow is not simply question and answer, question and answer.


The viva is an exam.

The viva is a discussion.

The viva is a challenge, but one you can prepare for.

The viva is one more day to demonstrate your capability as a researcher.

Easy or Hard?

Questions in the viva do not fall neatly into one of two piles.

Easy and hard are relative terms that don’t help to describe the questions that prompt the kind of discussion found in the viva.

An easy question for one candidate could be very hard for another.

An easy-to-ask question could have a very hard-to-formulate response.

A hard question could have been considered many times before by a candidate, while an easy question has no certain response.

Best to get away from labels of easy and hard completely.

Questions in the viva can be challenging or not. In either case, they are there to drive the discussion. They’re asked with an expectation of a response from the candidate. You can’t predict what questions you will be asked before your viva, but you can prepare yourself to respond to whatever question your examiners bring to you.

Easy Mode

I enjoy playing video games where I can alter the setting to “easy” and feel powerful. I can advance through the story, feel present and connected to the world of the game (as enemies don’t knock me down every two minutes) and I can really have fun.

Unlike a video game, you can’t simply alter the difficulty setting of your viva.

The nature of what you’re there to do, not knowing exactly what questions you might be asked, feeling nervous – all of these can layer to create a challenging environment.

I also enjoy playing video games where you can’t alter the difficulty. There is no easy mode, you have to persevere. You explore the systems and scenario, get a feel for the challenge. Try different tactics and find ways to play to your strengths. The game remains challenging, but also seems easier, due to the practice I’ve had.

This is more analogous to the PhD journey and the challenge of the viva. You can’t alter the difficulty, you have to raise yourself up to meet each challenge. Learn more to do more, do more to know more. Find your strengths, use them well and you make it through.

The final challenge is still a challenge, but it’s not all or nothing: you continue to show what you know and what you can do, and you succeed.

There’s no easy mode for the viva – and you don’t need one anyway.

Level Up

In some video games you defeat monsters or complete tasks and gain quantifiable experience that helps you to level up: over time you gain points to invest in making your character better. Stronger abilities, new equipment and perhaps completely new skillsets.

A webinar participant suggested to me that this was like the viva:

After much toil and many obstacles you have reached the hallowed halls of your destiny. You are the mighty wielder of the legendary Sword of Thesis! Only you can overcome the Terrifying Twin Dragons of Examination!!

For obvious reasons, I like the idea, but also I think the reality of the PhD presents something different to this fantasy viva micro-world. By the time you reach the viva, you – the brave hero – have levelled up so many times, and overcome so many great challenges, that the difficulties you face in the viva are not so terrible.

The Twin Dragons really aren’t so scary at all actually.

Questions can be managed. Fears can be resolved. You’re no longer a mere mortal.

There’s challenge for you in the viva, but your experience helps you overcome it.

Beginning, Middle & End

You could be enthusiastic but untalented at the start of a PhD, and unsure but hardworking in the middle.

The only explanation for getting to the end is that you’ve done the work and done it well. It’s not an accident you’ve made it this far: you’ve done something that’s valuable, and you can only do it by being good at what you do.

The viva’s not a formality, it’s just one more challenge – a challenge you are fully capable of making a success.

Easy, Hard, Challenging

Don’t worry about whether or not your viva will be easy or hard. Who knows what you’ll feel like on the day, in the moment?

Prepare for a challenge. Two people have read your thesis and are ready to ask you all about it. This isn’t trivial, an elevator conversation or dinner party chit-chat. It’s there to explore what you’ve done, what you could have done and what all that means.

On the day you could find this easy or hard, but it will still be a challenge.

It’s still a challenge even if you are necessarily talented.