Filling In The Blanks

There’s lots of blanks that could occur around the viva.

Key information you don’t know. Something you can’t remember. Before and during the viva, the feeling of suddenly knowing that you don’t know something can be uncomfortable, even stressful.

In both cases, before and during, the best thing you can do is ask questions.

Before the viva your question at encountering a blank might be one of the following:

  • Why don’t I know this?
  • Who could I ask for help?
  • Where could I find help?
  • What do I really need to know?

Any one of these questions might be the springboard to finding what you need to fill in the blank or gain more certainty about a situation.

In the viva, feeling blank is probably more stressful, but still the best thing to do is ask questions.

If your first response to a question or comment in the viva is “I don’t know” then ask yourself “Why?” Find out what’s in the way. Explore what’s stopping you. Ask “Why?” to prompt you to see what you need to do next.

Maybe you need to ask your examiners something. Maybe you need to pause and think more. Maybe you need to acknowledge a point before you can move past it. Maybe you need to check something in your thesis.

Encounter a blank, before or during the viva, and ask yourself “Why?”

Then find a way forward from there.

Blank, During and Before

Going blank in the viva isn’t a big problem. The potential for it might feel worrying, but typically it doesn’t happen that much. If it does happen there are things you could do. You can take your time, you can think and something will come. Going blank doesn’t mean you’re not talented, it means you’re human.

Your viva isn’t a test of perfection.

If you go blank in the viva, sit with it, pause, relax and try again.

Going blank before the viva is also a small problem. If you realise you don’t know much about your examiners, or you’re unsure about the procedure for the viva, those are small problems. If you try to think about a certain chapter or theory and your brain doesn’t supply ideas, you have a small problem.

Small problems often have many solutions – generally either thinking, reading or asking.

If you go blank before the viva, ask yourself what could make it better, and the answer to that question will probably resolve things.


Every computer I’ve ever owned, every phone, every console has glitched at some point. From the blue screen of death to Netflix stalling, Firefox not responding and Open Office encountering an error, sometimes things go wrong. It just happens; reboot, restart and then things work. They work correctly 99% of the time…

…just like you. It’s understandable to worry about freezing, going blank or saying “I don’t know” in the viva. It’s important, you want it to go well. If you glitch then the solution is the same as your favourite expensive electronic device.

Reboot, restart and things will be fine:

  • if you go blank, pause, take a sip of water.
  • if you freeze, smile, think and move on.
  • if your only thought is “I don’t know” then ask yourself why, and you’ll see a way forward.

Glitches don’t happen all the time. When they do, you can take steps to overcome them.

If you glitch in the viva, you can do something about it.

Why You Don’t Know

You’re not getting the context.

You’ve not considered the question before.

You mis-heard the examiner.

You don’t know a key piece of information.

You’ve gone blank.

You got distracted by a sudden thought or idea.

You’re just not making a connection.

It’s only been two seconds since the question was asked and your brain hasn’t leapt to a response yet.

Going blank or not knowing what to say in the viva is among the top fears of PhD candidates. None of the above are reasons for failure. None of the above are insurmountable, although if they occur in combination they can seem very scary. Nearly all of them are situations that can be improved by asking questions – either of yourself or your examiners. That extra breath, that extra pause, that extra idea, whatever it is, can be useful to shake some ideas loose.

Not knowing something is not the end of the viva. Pause, think, ask questions and work yourself away from “I don’t know…”