Pause, Don’t Stop

Pause in the viva to think about what you’ve heard.

Pause to gather yourself if you lose your train of thoughts.

Pause to check something in your thesis.

Pause to make a note.

Pause to take a sip of water.

Pause to break a question down because it’s really big and needs to be considered.

Pause, but don’t stop. Don’t stop because you are almost there. Don’t stop because whatever nerves you feel – whatever you feel – you have almost finished.

Pause whenever you need to in the viva. Ask for a break, a longer pause. Don’t stop.

Take A Day

It’s a Bank Holiday in the UK, which is always a good reminder to take time off. It might not be today for you: it may be that your situation means you have to work, research or do something that doesn’t allow for a significant element of rest or relaxation.

But you need it.

If your viva is somewhere on the horizon, taking a day off to do something else entirely can be helpful. Take a day for you, before you do anything for your viva. Pause, relax your thinking, rest your mind, leave – for now – all the prep and hustle that still needs to happen.

You have time to do all of that later and a need to look after yourself now. Take time for yourself as part of getting ready for your viva.

Pause, Think, Respond

The three words to keep in mind when you are in your viva.

Pause: take a moment to check you understand the question.

Think: invest a little time into organising your thoughts.

Respond: start talking, being clear to yourself and your examiners.

  • Big question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Little question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Easy question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Hard question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Know the answer? Pause, think, respond.
  • Haven’t a clue? Pause, think, respond.

Pause because you don’t need to rush. Taking time will help how you think and what you say.

Think because that’s the only way to get the ideas that you need to come out right.

Respond because you might not always have an answer, but you can always find something appropriate to continue the conversation.

In your viva: pause, think, respond.

A Little Pause, Here And There

A few seconds to make sure you’ve heard and understood something.

A few seconds to make a note.

A few seconds to check a detail.

A few seconds to be sure your examiner has stopped talking.

A few seconds that are a little awkward over Zoom.

A few seconds that feel like a lot more than a few seconds.

Or a few seconds that might need to be a moment or two, to really check something over.

A few seconds pause here and there are needed in the viva. Pauses are essential for getting your thoughts in order, for determining what’s next, for checking that everything is OK, or for just thinking and appreciating what’s going on.

And you’re not the only person who might need to pause in the viva.

When you take all those little pauses together they’re still just a small part of the viva.

Maybe one way to help you be fine with pauses in your viva is to think of them as a lot of little things that help the big things go well.

Time To Think

You had lots of time to think during your PhD. You had plenty during your prep. You have enough in the viva.

Your examiners want you to consider, ponder, debate, reflect, examine, muse, propose – to think! – and then respond.

This doesn’t mean long silences, longer vivas or almost-impossible questions. Just enough time to think about something important.

Take time in your viva. It’s there for you to use.

Comfortable Silence

There are many reasons for silence in the viva:

  • A moment while a broadband router buffers in the background.
  • Time while a page is consulted or a note made.
  • Processing time while someone thinks through the implications of a comment.
  • Thinking time in a candidate’s mind while they prepare a response.

The latter might feel unnerving, but none of these could feel particularly comfortable. Silence invites speculation. Knowing possible reasons doesn’t dissolve fears, it simple gives you something else to wonder about.

Rehearsals help. A mock viva won’t be a way to learn your lines like a play, but can give you the confidence to be in that space. Silence is just silence. The reasons don’t matter in a way. The silence is the space between the discussion. You have to wait for it to pass, or use it to help you think.

Practise and get comfortable with the little moments of quiet that you’re sure to find in your viva.

Off The Topic

It’s not impossible that a question or comment could seem irrelevant to you. It’s not impossible you could start responding to a question but go off topic from the discussion. However it happens, if you experience any confusion because you need to talk about something unexpected:




Think about what’s being asked or discussed. Then decide how you can best proceed.

In the case of off-topic questions from examiners, you might really believe a question is irrelevant. Totally off-topic, completely unimportant. You could say that…

…but will that help? It might be better to explore the topic and try to respond as well as you can, to begin with. You could still say you don’t think it’s all that important afterwards, but perhaps give it a little time first.

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.

Not A Sprint

I got that advice a lot during my PhD. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I had to pace myself for the long journey to success.

The viva’s not a sprint but it’s also not a marathon either. It’s not a race of any kind, you’re not being tested on how fast you answer but on how well you answer.

Don’t rush. Rushing to answer a question isn’t going to help you, your thesis or your research.

Pause. Breathe. It’s not a race, but the end of your journey is near.

Three Things Come Not Back

I remember my first lecture at university. Before Dr Gould started telling us about complex numbers he shared an old proverb he thought would help us as we started our degrees:

Three things come not back: the said word, the sped arrow and the missed opportunity.

He then urged us to make the most of our opportunities while we were at university, not to let things pass us by. I’m fond of this saying. It’s stuck with me for almost twenty years, and it resonates with me for viva advice too.

Think before you speak: pause before you answer a question. Make the most of your opportunities in the viva, both to show what you know and get ideas and insights from your examiners.

Thankfully there’s usually not any arrows flying around!