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.

If & Then

Hypothetical questions are a pain for PhD candidates thinking about their vivas.

If. If this happens, I’ll be stuck. If that happens, I won’t know what to do.

Except it’s not just if. There’s always a then. In worry, a candidate might not see it, but it’s always there. There is always a course of action. It might not be something you prefer. It might be tricky. It might be uncomfortable.

There is always something you can do.

  • If you find a typo, then you can correct it.
  • If you are forgetful, then you can write notes.
  • If you are worried about how to answer questions, then you can have a mock viva.
  • If you are concerned about your examiners, then you can research them.
  • If you aren’t sure about whether or not something is a normal part of the process, then you can check.

There are always hypothetical questions, and they always have actionable answers.

The Problems

What will they ask?

What will they think?

What will they say?

How long will it take?

What corrections will I get?

What if I freeze?

What if I don’t know?

What if they don’t like it?

You can’t answer any of these questions before the viva. For some of them, there might not be an answer at all as circumstances don’t go that way. You can definitely spend your time thinking, maybe worrying about these problems, trying to anticipate different outcomes. That’s one approach.

Another approach would be to disregard these problems entirely. Instead, spend your time preparing for the viva and reminding yourself how you got this far.


What if your examiners ask you a question and you go blank?

What if you forget something?

What if your examiners don’t agree on the outcome of the viva?

What if you arrive late?

What if you don’t know the answer?

And so on. The consequences for some of these situations seem bad. Some of them are easily coped with in the moment (if you go blank, think more; if you don’t know something, discuss it with your examiners), and some aren’t. But none of these will necessarily happen in the viva. Some of them are not likely at all.

You can’t always control how you feel, but rather than obsess over what-if scenarios, try to give your attention to preparation that helps.

What if you invested your time and energy in being prepared for the viva? What would happen then?