Vivas and Sandwiches

If you order a sandwich in a cafe, you know there’s a certain set of expectations. Bread of some sort, in some shape; often two pieces or parts with a filling between them, generally simple and quick to produce.┬áLots of variety, but through experience you know the kind of thing you’ll receive.

The same is true of vivas, even if you’ve never had one before. You can ask others about theirs to get a sense of what to expect. Read the regulations for your institution, especially if your viva will be over video. Listen to stories to find out the common experiences for your department.

Questions vary, but vivas follow patterns that aren’t too hard to learn about. Every viva has qualities you would nearly always expect, like an internal examiner and an external examiner. Together they facilitate a discussion – with you and your work sandwiched right in the middle.


The Packet Mix Viva

There are clear contents: a candidate, a thesis, a research journey, some examiners, some preparation, some expectations.

Shake them all up, just add questions.

Unlike other packet mixes, you won’t know exactly how this confection will turn out in advance. You won’t know how long it will take to bake!

You can be pretty sure of the outcome. The ingredients are all there for a good viva.

Stars and Black Holes

We can see stars directly. Some are big, some are small (relatively speaking), some are bright, some less so, but so long as nothing is in the way, they’re there. We can’t see black holes directly. They’re tricky, difficult to describe maybe, possibly destructive if we get too close and you don’t want your examiners to talk about them-

-oh, yeah, this is a thesis metaphor!

The stars are your contributions. They’re in your thesis, and so long as nothing is in the way (clunky writing, obscure terminology, confusing structure) your examiners and anyone else reading your thesis will see them. They might still have questions about them, but they will see clearly that there is something valuable there.

The black holes are things you can’t see clearly. Problems, Issues, Gaps – things you don’t want your examiners to ask about because it’s hard to talk about them. And you worry that once you’re in the conversational gravitational pull you won’t be able to escape the crushing forces at the heart of the matter!

The stars and black holes in your thesis are made up of the same stuff though: ideas.

Get back to ideas in your preparation. Stars or black holes, what are the ideas that make them up? Why do they matter in their respective way? How can you best describe them?

Get used to the brightness of your stars. Grow comfortable being in orbit of your black holes.

Profiteroles & Preparation

A good hour of viva preparation is like a short stack of profiteroles.

What? What are you talking about?

Consider a profiterole.

A little globe of choux pastry, a delicious cream centre and a set chocolate top.

Take a few for a dessert. Separate parts that combine into something more.

But eat too many and you’ll be sick.

……..O-kay, and viva preparation?

Consider preparation for the viva.

All you need is a little structure: targeted tasks aimed at reflection, checking ideas and annotating your thesis.

Do several small pieces of prep – annotate a chapter, reflect on a question, check on a paper – and the benefit you get builds up.

Do too much and you’ll get tired and confused. You can undo your good efforts by doing too much.


See, profiteroles and preparation!

…….OK, you just about saved this blog post……..

Two or three profiteroles of viva preparation is enough for any sitting. When you’ve done a few small tasks, take a break before you do more.

(from the mind that tried to make something of salmon swimming as an analogy for the PhD!)

Making A Cup Of Tea

How do you make a cuppa?

I prefer it from a teapot, served in a cup with a saucer. I add milk after I’m sure it’s strong enough.

Most of the time though I make it in a mug, a couple of minutes steeping, quick stir, splash of milk, stir and take the teabag out.

I used to take two sugars! (can’t quite believe it)

And my mum often makes her tea in a cup but puts the milk in first, then the teabag and hot water. A great-aunt insisted you have to do it that way, to “scald the milk”.

The end result of these and so many other similar processes? A cup of tea. This one’s stronger, that one’s milkier, and some might not be to your taste at all, but they’re all undeniably cups of tea.

The most important question though is what does this have to do with vivas?

Some vivas are long, some are short. Some start with a presentation, while others are a long conversation from the start. Some will have an independent chair, some might have a supervisor present. Some people will relish the thought of their viva, some will tie themselves in knots for months in advance. Most will get minor corrections, some will get none.

And at the end of all of these variations you simply have a viva. Many possible differences, all producing something recognisable as the exam for the end of a PhD.


In Jenga, whatever your intentions, you might knock the tower down at any moment. Your actions or a misplacement by the last player might make things so unstable that the tower can only fall.

It’s tempting to think of the viva is a precarious situation, but your thesis is not a Jenga tower, and the viva is not a game.

Questions from examiners aren’t like pulling bricks out. Your answers aren’t going to make your work fall apart. Discussion can bring in some wobbles, but your work is more than a tower of bricks. You designed this structure, it didn’t just come together out of a box.

Cosmic Viva Prep

Think of your thesis as a star. It shines, it’s powerful. It’s there because you’ve set it out in the cosmos of your research field.

Somewhere in that vast space are the works of your examiners. They’ve done more; their contributions might make constellations. Patterns of lights in your discipline.

Don’t think negatively of yourself by comparison. Instead, just look at the constellations. What do they look like? What does a constellation tell you about what an examiner thinks?

And what might your thesis-star look like from their constellation?

The Viva Train

The viva is, in some ways, a bit like a train journey…

You have your ticket (thesis), you know your destination (graduation) but it’s right that the conductors (examiners) check you’re supposed to be there.

There’s clear norms about what’s involved. It takes time. It’s rare for something to go seriously wrong. If sometimes it might take a little longer than expected it can be coped with. Even if it was cancelled, there would be another at some point.

Thankfully, unlike a lot of trains, the viva is not too crowded and you have space to stretch out a little and think.

You should probably still keep your feet off the seat.