Limits of Control

You’re not in control of your viva and the situation around it. You’re not totally out of control either.

You can’t control who your examiners are, not directly…

…but you can control what you know about them through research before your viva.

You can’t control what questions they ask or what they think…

…but of course, you will influence them with your thesis.

You can’t control how you will feel on the day…

…but you can control what you do in preparation, where you focus, how you get yourself ready.

You couldn’t control everything that happened over the years you did your research…

…but time and again you could steer yourself, change direction when needed, make small adjustments, and lead yourself to where you are now.

Which means, I think, that even if you can’t control everything about your viva, you can do enough to get yourself through it.

On Wishlists

Wishlists for presents and wishlists for the viva are two very different things.

For presents you’re telling others, “If you can, if you want to, can you please get me this?”

For the viva you’re saying, not asking, “These are the things I really want when I meet my examiners.”

Really, the best person to help you get what you want from your viva wishlist is you. If there’s things you want or feel you need then you have to work to make them a reality. If there’s no way of making it certain then you have to act to get more comfortable with the uncertainty present in the situation.

You might also have to recognise when an item on your viva wishlist, like a present wishlist, is just not going to happen. Some wishlist items are a shot-in-the-dark, maybe-just-maybe…

…but they’re probably more of a distraction than anything. Work to remove these items from your viva wishlist. Focus on what you can achieve, not just what you wish for.

What Don’t You Do?

At the end of your PhD, you could say, “I don’t know how to run that type of an experiment,” or “I don’t know about that topic,” or “I never read that paper,” and feel bad…

…or you could choose to list all of the things you can do and know.

Sometimes listing what you don’t do or don’t know can be a way of finding your edges; for the viva, it’s better to look inside those boundaries first. Get a real sense of your mastery. What skills do you have? What knowledge have you learned? What ideas can you share?

Explore what you don’t do if you must. Lead with what you can do.

Less Than

It’s not always easy to put exact numbers on the viva. Consider:

  • The number of mistakes in your thesis will be less than the number of good ideas you’ve had over the course of your PhD.
  • The number of minutes you spend in your viva will be less than the number of days you’ve spent on your research.
  • How long your examiners have spent preparing for your viva is less than how long you have spent in preparation.
  • The number of questions you’ll be asked in the viva is far less than the number you’ve already answered during your PhD.
  • A few hours in the viva is less than a few weeks preparing for it, which is a lot less than the years that go into your research.

Expectations help. Deciding where to focus helps.

Start At The End

I chatted to a PhD candidate recently about her viva prep.

“I don’t know where to begin,” she told me, “I’ve got so much material, so many questions I think about, and my examiners, my methods, my results – my life outside of my PhD! Where do I start?”

I could feel how overwhelmed she was. All she saw was more and more work. She hadn’t submitted yet, but was trying to plan her preparation. She hadn’t done her preparation but just thought about what her examiners would ask. Hadn’t been to the viva but was worried about managing her corrections.

I told here what I would tell anyone in this state: you have to treat all of these as distinct stages of the PhD. Get your thesis done before you start to prepare; prepare before you start obsessing about “what if’s”, and so on.

If it helps, map out the different stages on index cards. Limit yourself to focus on the task though, to really put boundaries on how much effort you sink in:

  • One index card with the big picture of what you need to do to get your thesis finished.
  • One index card with the key tasks to do in preparation.
  • One index card with key questions or ideas to think about for the viva.
  • One index card with notes on regulations for outcomes, and what that might mean for minor corrections.

If you’re still writing, then map out the different stages on four cards. Focus on the first one, getting your thesis finished, and only start on the next one when you’ve reached the end of your thesis writing. Start your path to the end, but only go one step at a time. That’s all you need to do.

Where’s Your Focus?

Focus on perfection for the viva and you’ll be disappointed.

Having a focus for your preparations is useful. You can see gaps in your confidence, and set goals to bridge those gaps. There’s a lot you could do.

Pick a focus that helps.

You can focus on reading your thesis to learn it. You can focus on your examiners and their research. You can focus on getting feedback from your supervisor. You can focus on trying to answer questions well. You can focus on making your thesis useful by annotating it. You can focus on refreshing your memory of your bibliography. You can focus on asking your friends for help. You can focus on finding out as much as you can about viva experiences. You can focus on building your confidence for the day.

Pick a focus that helps.

Red Herrings

I love reading mystery stories. One of my favourite things is trying to figure out which clues are red herrings. What are the distractions? Which things don’t matter? What gets in the way of important things? It’s not always so easy to see.

It’s not always easy to see which things around the viva are red herrings either. Which things are distractions, and which things should you give attention to?

Hypotheticals are usually not worth your focus; reading your thesis is definitely something to prioritise. You can’t anticipate every question, it’s a distraction to try to – but a mock viva is worth your time so you have some practise at being in a viva-like situation. You can’t know how long your viva will be, so it’s not worth worrying about it; but you can find out about expectations generally to give you an idea.

Remember: you get to choose what you give your attention to. Figure out what the red herrings are, and focus instead on what’s worth your time.


In the viva, as with the rest of your PhD and life in general, there are things you can control and things you can’t.

You can control what goes into your final thesis, but you can’t control what your examiners think of it.

You can control how much you know about your research and your field, but you can’t control what questions come up.

You can control what you do to feel confident, but you can’t get rid of nervousness completely.

You control the actions you take. Focus on what you can do to be prepared, not on things which are beyond your control.

Me, Chocolate and Books

Boxes of bite-size chocolate frustrate me. I eat the treats I love first, Twixes and Twirls, then days later I open to find that all I have left are so-so Milky Ways and Mars… Finally I’m left with Bounty and Snickers that I won’t eat at all.

I look at my bookshelves and see similar behaviour. I look at my stacks of unread books and go for what attracts me most, or for a book I know I’ve enjoyed before. I push to the back of the queue any books that seem too big, too boring or just not right. I’ve had books on personal improvement, award-winning novels and sci-fi escapes in my library for years and always pushed them away. “I’ll get to them one day.” I go for the fun or the familiar. Save the rest for later.

If you’re preparing for your viva then it’s OK to focus on things you like about your research. You can make notes on things that are most rewarding or fulfilling to you. You can prepare for the questions or topics that you like most.

It’s your choice, but all of the other stuff is still there. Just because you don’t look at it, doesn’t mean that your examiners will avoid it too.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You might do the tricky stuff first, or you might set a particular time in your diary to look at it. But you have to do something.

You can’t always just have the fun stuff.

(having said all this, chocolate and books generally are fun and make excellent post-viva presents and rewards!)