Edison’s Mistakes

Edison failed in his pursuit of a lightbulb 500 times, 1000 times or even 10,000 times depending on which (probably exaggerated!) account you read. What is certain is that he made mistakes, but he didn’t really¬†fail because he kept pursuing. He tried things, probably believing for good reasons that he would be successful, but he was wrong a lot.

All of that wrong helped him to be ultimately right.

Now, hopefully you haven’t succeeded in spite of 10,000 mistakes during your PhD – but if you arrive at submission you must have made mistakes along the way. Things forgotten, things that didn’t work out, things you can’t explain, things that are wrong… Through all of that you’ve made it to success and submission.¬†Mistakes are part of the PhD process, both of doing the research that becomes your thesis and of developing the skills that make you a capable researcher.

It’s fine to remember you made mistakes, but not helpful to dwell on them. Understand them, but not focus on them.

Determination is another part of the PhD process, wrapped around mistakes and setbacks and failures. Determination to see things through. If you make it through a difficult path to submission, then you’ve got the determination to prepare for and pass your viva.

Failure Is (Not) An Option

If every outcome was a pass with various conditions then the viva wouldn’t be an exam. Failing is possible but not likely. A rare outcome, not one you should expect.

Failure is an option for the PhD viva, but one that comes at the end of a generally long list of possible outcomes: no corrections, minor corrections, major corrections, resubmission without a viva, resubmission with a viva, awarded an MPhil, no award. Failure is the exceptionally rare last option that makes the viva an exam and not some kind of confirmation process.

Don’t expect it for your viva. Given everything you’ve done and how far you’ve come, it’s not an option for you and your thesis.


Failure at the viva is rare. There are many, many reasons why this is the case. The three that come first to my mind are: you did the research, wrote the thesis and you know how to answer questions about your work and field.

Still, the brain looks at outliers and thinks, “Why not me?”

Remember: the viva is pressured, important, but also just the latest occasion you’ve had to talk about your research and field.