Whatever They Ask

The simplest way to describe your role in the viva is that you are there to engage with your examiners’ questions. Whatever the question is – easy, hard, expected, unknown, hoped-for or unwanted – engage with it. There’s space for you to ask your own, of course, but for the most part you play your part by responding to questions and being a full participant in the discussion.

Whatever they ask, think and respond. There’s useful prep that can help but keeping that thought in mind once you get to the viva can do a lot to prepare you.

You have one job. Engage and respond, whatever they ask.

Selecting Examiners

I like things to be just right. I’m not fussy, I’m particular.

Which means I’m never satisfied by Christmas selection boxes: a collection of chocolate bars in one festive package. My grandmother would say, “You mustn’t eat them all at once or you’ll spoil your appetite!”

Well, I couldn’t eat them all at once. Because I didn’t like the bars with nuts in. And I wasn’t keen on the chewy one. And that other one has a funny texture…

So many treats aren’t to my taste even though there’s nothing wrong with them. I’ve not found a selection box that is just right for me.

For similar reasons I think many capable examiners would feel unsuitable for any candidate. There’s nothing wrong them, but their selection would feel wrong.

There are no universal criteria for good examiners. There are criteria that academics must satisfy  – a length of time in post or level of experience – but after that everything comes down to personal taste of the candidate.

Have you cited your examiners? That could feel right for some but not for others. Are they an expert in your field? A lot of candidates could find that scary! A friend of your supervisor? Is that really the best thing to focus on?

So much of what would make an examiner feel right to a candidate comes down to what matters to the candidate.

Fundamentally, you can’t choose your examiners but you can talk with your supervisor. You can make a case for what you think would work well. Reflect in advance on what you would ideally like.

  • What are you really looking for?
  • What criteria would make for someone who is close to perfect?
  • How do you find academics who meet your requirements?

Your supervisor will ultimately nominate your examiners but you can put forward ideas for the kinds of people who would be just right for you. Be particular.

Find the best selection for you.

Change of Plans

I’m thinking back to this time last year. In the UK there were various permissions extended to allow families and friends to meet over Christmastime-

-and then there weren’t.

Very quickly plans were changed, compromises were reached and make-do decisions were made.

That was hopefully just for one year. If you’ve had to make a similar change of plans for your PhD since March 2020 then that could have had a big and continuing impact on your PhD journey. Everything from a lack of access to equipment or materials and reduced meeting opportunities with your supervisors, all the way to a fundamental change of direction to your research.

It’s natural to be concerned about the questions that could be asked about this at the viva. It’s natural to worry. Not just common viva nervousness from anticipation of the event, but concern for communicating the practical changes and the impact – perhaps even wondering about what might have been.

It’s also natural to expect your examiners to be understanding about how the pandemic has had an impact on your PhD. They will know the changing situation of the last two years will have been difficult: in whatever way it comes up in the viva they will simply want you to be clear. Be clear about the impact. Be clear about how you changed your plans. Be clear about how you navigated the work despite the situation.

Be clear. They will understand.

Examiner Maybes

Maybe they’re nice. Maybe they’re a bit unknown to you. Maybe they have a special interest in your research area.

Your examiners might be experts. They could be among the many people you’ve cited in your thesis. Maybe they know your supervisors; they’re friends, more than professional colleagues.

There are lots of possibilities for examiners – and lots of certainties too.

They will have prepared. They will be ready. They will have questions. They will have expectations for you, the viva and themselves.

They will not have been randomly selected – supervisor friends or not, experts or otherwise – they will have been asked for a reason. They will have been selected as a good choice.

Best choice? Perhaps. Capable? Certainly.

Find out who they are and you can help yourself as you prepare for your viva.

The Key Expectation

There are lots of things we could expect of the viva. A particular length, certain questions, the tone of the discussion, the expertise of the examiners…

And the most fundamental expectation: that the candidate is up to the task. That they have done the work. They have written a good thesis. They are a capable researcher.

If your viva is near, or submission is soon, it’s reasonable to expect you are up to the task.

It’s also common to feel that you’re not. It’s common to be nervous, anxious or worried that you are missing something.

If you feel doubts about your ability then take a deep breath and ask yourself three questions:

What am I really worried about? What can I do to work past that worry? And could I really have got this far if I wasn’t good enough?

You can’t simply be lucky. You’re expected to be good.

And really, you must be good by this stage.

Vivas & Job Interviews

It’s understandable to think of the viva as being “like a job interview”…

  • You dress a little smarter than the everyday probably.
  • You expect to be challenged by the questions you’ll be asked.
  • As much as you prepare, you know you can’t anticipate everything.
  • Like job interviews, it helps to treat a viva as something serious.

The success rate for a candidate is much higher in a viva though – because you’re not competing with anyone else. You’re trying to demonstrate what you’ve achieved and what you’re capable of, but not to be better than someone else.

It’s understandable to think of the viva as being like a job interview but there are better mindsets and better reflections to make of the viva. Understand what the viva is like, understand what it’s for, understand what you need to be and do.

When it comes to passing your viva, you’re the right person for the job.


Your examiners have enough experience that they can read your thesis, understand it and know what they need to do in their role to give you and your work a fair examination.

It’s possible that your examiners might know more than you about your field. They might even be considered experts in topics related to your thesis.

If that’s the case, however you feel, remember that you have the experience of writing your thesis. You have the experience of doing the work. You have the experience of reading everything you needed to get this far. You have the experience of rising to all of the challenges you had so that you could get to submission.

Your examiners are experienced enough to do their part well. You are too.

The Wizards

I wasn’t a fan of The Wizard of Oz when I was a child.

At the time it had too many songs for my taste and not enough lightsabers or spaceships, but as I’ve got older I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more. Now I can see the work that must have been done at the time to make the film come together – the vision, the talent, and all at a time when movies were still working out how anything worked at all.

When Dorothy and her friends initially visit the Wizard they are in awe. He is a great floating head, the ground shakes when he speaks, fire roars up whenever he is angry. He is terrifying until it is revealed, by accident, that he is just a man. A clever individual, stood behind a curtain, controlling various machines to produce the effect of someone grand and powerful.

It’s worth remembering that for your viva, there are two Wizards present – at least, they may seem that way in your imaginings.

Either one of your examiners might seem mighty or intimidating. You could read their publications and wonder at how someone could do what they have done. Or you could feel small next to their experience and careers.

Pull back the curtain.

Your examiners are just people. Clever, talented people, but still human. Whatever their achievements they’re humans who know that something like the viva might be uncomfortable for some. They’ll be fair. They’ll treat you and your work with respect.

Of course, there’s a third Wizard in your viva – but you don’t need a curtain to hide behind. You don’t need tricks to magnify yourself.

Your talent is enough. Your knowledge is enough. You have done enough.

Questions Are Opportunities

The viva is a conversation driven by the questions your examiners ask. Every question is an opportunity.

  • An opportunity to explore your work.
  • An opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding.
  • An opportunity to add to what is in your thesis.
  • An opportunity to defend your choices.
  • An opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge or ability.

Every question is an opportunity for you to do something good for yourself.

Pause, think and respond as best you can.

Homework For Examiners

That’s your thesis.

Before the viva they have to read it, think about it, make notes, think some more, read papers and write reports and then think some more because that’s the job they’ve agreed to do. That’s the role of the examiner. They have to examine your thesis so they can then examine you in the viva.

Whether your feet are firmly planted in one discipline or you’re playing Twister between two or more, your examiners will do what they need to do so that they can examine you properly. You might have expertise that spans multiple areas; theirs might be more concentrated. Still, they will do the necessary work to do the viva well.

Examiners are never perfect. They’re professional. They’re prepared. But they might not know as much as you, or be familiar with all the terms and ideas that you use. So they do their homework. That might put them out of their knowledge comfort zone, but they still do their homework.

Expect them to be ready, whatever their background.

Expect that you will be too.

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