The Baby Viva

I was talking with someone recently about the first-year viva. Sometimes it’s called a transfer viva or an upgrade viva. The person I was talking to referred to it as “the baby viva” and in that second I smiled and could see exactly what they meant.

  • The baby viva because it’s smaller.
  • The baby viva because you’re still concerned: just because it’s small doesn’t meant that it’s not important to get it right!
  • The baby viva because there’s still a long way to go.
  • The baby viva because a lot of the fundamentals are still the same as the final viva – research, preparation and discussion.

I’m not sure that the term “baby viva” will catch on! But it helps to frame things.

It’s Complicated

If your research wasn’t complicated then it probably wouldn’t be up to the standard needed for a PhD. It will help you, however, to explore how you can express your ideas clearly, simply.

The process for getting ready for the viva isn’t a straight-forward linear process; deciding when to start and what to do can be a complicated business. You can simplify things by asking simple questions and doing simple things.

Knowing what to expect from your viva is a very complicated question. It depends on what field you’re in, what university you’re at, whether your viva is in-person or over-video, who your examiners are, what time of year you submit and many other factors. Or simply, you can expect a conversation for several hours or so, lead by examiners and their questions.

Ask anything about the viva and the honest first response is: “It’s complicated.” If you find the right help and explore a little though, you’ll probably find that there are simple things to consider which will really help you.


Acceptable is a funny word. It means that things are fine, but it sort-of sounds like they’re only just alright. Like if you think about it more you might decide that actually you’ve changed your mind.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions related to the viva with the word “acceptable” in them.

How much do I need to write for an acceptable thesis?

Who would be an acceptable examiner?

What’s acceptable to say if you don’t know something?

I know the feeling that flows behind these kind of questions. Fear and concern, a little worry that perhaps something isn’t good enough but might just pass the standard.

I recommend candidates remove ideas of perfection from the PhD and the viva: there isn’t a perfect thesis, no perfect candidates, examiners aren’t perfect – none of these need to be for someone to find success in the viva.

In a similar vein, we need to get rid of acceptable from the PhD and viva lexicon. You can’t have things be perfect, but you should expect a lot more from yourself, your thesis and your viva than acceptable.

You can aim a lot higher and do a lot better than acceptable.

Falling Into Place

I think there’s a hope that everything just falls into place at the end of the PhD process.

A hope that everything just lines up perfectly like a big row of dominoes.

The idea you were missing hits the notion you needed to write, which completes the paragraph that was holding you up, so that the chapter which didn’t have a conclusion is finished, now your supervisor can give you feedback and your thesis gets submitted on time, and your examiners can judge everything to be right enough, and you enter the viva with a completely calm mind ready to respond – even to that one tricky question – and then you’ve passed and it’s done and you’ve finished.

The final domino falls over, you are a PhD.


But it won’t work like that.

Because you’ll miss a typo in the proofreading stage, meaning that that page is now a little muddled, and your supervisor will be rushed – because they will be at the moment – and while you’ll submit on time (probably), you’ll still feel a bit pressured because everyone’s feeling it, your examiners too, and they’ll be convinced by your thesis but still have questions you need to respond to, questions on the whys and hows and “What’s this?” – which you can reply to, because if you can’t, who can? – even that tricky question and you will pass, and it will be done and you will have finished.

The dominoes won’t be a neat straight line, but you’ll be a PhD.

It’ll be an explosion of fallen dominoes that somehow still make it to the end.

Things don’t just happen, everything won’t just fall into place. There’ll be friction and problems and despite all of that you’ll succeed. The imperfections won’t stop the clear outcome you’re on track for at this stage.

PhD and Viva Needs

The wonderful Jennifer Polk@FromPhDtoLife on Twitter, and someone you should definitely follow – prompted a neat little discussion a few months ago by asking “What do you need to be creative?

This got me thinking at the time about what I need to do this daily blog, which I could summarise as:

  1. My little book of ideas – where I capture ideas for posts
  2. A plan for a few weeks ahead of which posts will go on which days
  3. A “routine” for how/when I write – start of the week for first drafts; end of week for polishing
  4. Cups of tea!
  5. Creative stimulus – I need to keep my eyes and ears and brain open and carry my book around with me to capture ideas
  6. A deadline – a new post has to go out every day, but I tend to work at least ten days ahead. That time pressure works for me!

But not all of these are true needs. I need a certain level of caffeination, but I don’t really need a cup of tea next to me when I write. That’s more about ritual. I have a plan, but sometimes I get to a writing day and realise “I don’t think I have a handle on that topic today, I’ll have to write something else.” And then I have to.

What did you need to do your PhD? Which of those were real needs, and which were things that helped?

Which of them do you still need, in either sense, to help you prepare for your viva? And what else might you need?

These might seem like odd questions to ask, but your research didn’t just happen. Consciously or otherwise, you made the environment to help the work happen. What environment do you need now to help you be ready for your viva?

Chekhov’s Thesis

My wife and I are both writers. We’re also fans of stories: if we’re watching a mystery film, we try to figure it out. If we’re reading a sci-fi novel we’re thinking about how problems might be solved. If there are zombies involved we think about how we might get away!

And we cannot help but see Chekhov’s gun everywhere. Any time a the story makes a point of drawing attention to something we just know it is going to either be a problem or solve one later.

If a character says that they were a gymnast in high school, we know they’ll be backflipping out of danger before the end.

If someone remarks that their car is low on petrol, that means we know they are not going to reach their destination.

The movie Home Alone has Chekhov’s gold tooth!

Quite rightly, your viva has Chekhov’s thesis – OK, it’s your thesis, but the principle holds: it’s there to be used. It’s not just a ticket to get into the viva. It’s a resource that you can rely on to help you. At any point you can check something, clarify details and be sure of what you’ve presented.

In the earlier acts of your PhD you laid out your research in your thesis. In the final act, you can use it if you need to.


There’s a lot of light cast around during the PhD process.

You shine a light on a topic you found, and create more when you write your thesis.

You brighten up your thesis when you prepare for the viva.

Your examiners bring your work into full sun, although hopefully it won’t feel like a harsh glare.

And fingers crossed you won’t have to burn the midnight oil to add a little more light with your corrections.

Every step of the way you illuminate something because you’re making it easier for someone else to see the value of what you’ve found.

Keep on shining.