Three Simple Words

Are you prepared to say “I don’t know” in your viva?

There’s only so much information, knowledge and talent you can build up before your viva. You’ll have enough, but you might not have everything. Perfection isn’t required: but do you feel comfortable enough saying “I don’t know” so that you aren’t worried if you do need to say it?

To help build that comfort, and the confidence that goes with it:

  • Make opportunities where you can be asked real, relevant questions for your research, thesis and competence. You can’t predict in advance what questions you will be asked in the viva, or what questions will prompt a response of “I don’t know”. The more times you practise being in a similar situation to the viva, the more experience you will have and the better you will feel.
  • Review your work to convince yourself of how much you do know. You don’t know everything, but you know a lot. It would be impossible to write an exhaustive list of everything you don’t know, but you can reassure yourself that you have a good knowledge base.
  • Learn about viva expectations. Examiners could ask questions to which you can only respond “I don’t know” but they don’t do it out of malice or some attempt to belittle you or your work. They don’t ask unreasonable questions.

I don’t know what you might have to say “I don’t know” to. You can’t know that in advance either. But you can know that it is OK.

These three simple words don’t have to define you, your viva performance or how you feel going into the viva.

In Theory

It’s one thing to know all of your research really well, and to know generally what happens in the viva (expectations, structure and so on). You can have a good picture of it all in theory – but then stumble when you come to the reality of being asked questions and being forced to think, ponder, respond and engage.

So practise.

Mock vivas, meetings, seminars, presentations, conversations, impromptu Zoom-meetups, mini-vivas – take and find every opportunity you can to share your research and be asked questions about it.

Theory will only take you so far. Build confidence for the reality of the viva.

Read, Do

I’ve been sorting through ten years of notes and ideas I’ve collected from countless workshops, seminars and articles. I smiled a few days ago when a quote from an old friend jumped off the page at me:

No amount of book-reading by kittens on “How To Be A Cat” will help them.

My friend Adrian would often say things in workshops that would make me smile and learn at the same time. Kittens can’t learn by reading, they must do things. They have to play their way to being cats.

By contrast, reading a thesis will help PhD candidates get ready for their vivas, but I think the principle of my friend holds. Reading your thesis is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking is essential, but writing will make those thoughts clearer. Anticipating questions can be useful, but answering them is much, much better.

You can read your thesis, you need to read your thesis – but what else could you do?

Answering New Questions

Every step of the PhD has new questions, from the first time you read a paper through to the end of your viva. Answers don’t always come immediately. They might take a little time and thought, or during the PhD real, practical research to bring an answer to life. Sometimes there are no answers: you can offer ideas, theories or reasons why no answer comes to mind.

New questions aren’t a problem by the end of the PhD. Questions can be unexpected, but your mechanism for answering – the knowledge, the talent, the skill at thinking things through – is the best it could be.

Any time you get one, a new question is an opportunity for demonstrating what you can do.



There are countless questions you could be asked in the viva, but you’ll only be asked one at a time.

Preparation doesn’t mean somehow considering every question, but feeling comfortable considering and responding to any question that comes up.

Find opportunities that will help you practise and give you confidence, but remember you don’t need an answer for everything.

Just each question as it comes up.


The mock viva is generally valuable because of the kind of practice it provides. Your supervisors might have some clear ideas about what a mock should be like. But if you think about it, the mock is a sort of test run for later success.

So think: what do you need to succeed?

  • Are you looking for certain types of questions or a particular focus for the discussion?
  • Do you want practice or pressure?
  • What kind of feedback would be most useful from the experience?

Think about what might help you. Everyone has different needs. It’s not wrong to think about how you can make the most of the opportunity.

Different Audiences

Here’s a thirty minute viva prep exercise. It aims to help you think differently about your thesis by considering how you could communicate your work with other people. All you need is something to write on and write with.

Take 5 minutes to make general notes, first thoughts about your research and how you share it with others.

Take 5 minutes to plot out a conference talk about your best work. What must you include?

Take 5 minutes to sketch a thirty minute talk at a local high school. How would you begin?

Take 5 minutes to brainstorm for a Three Minute Thesis talk. What would you have to cut out of your normal explanations?

Take 5 minutes to think about your elevator pitch. What would you say if you were in a lift with the head of your university?

Finally, take 5 minutes to review. What ideas or themes consistently showed up? What surprised you? What can you do with these ideas now? How does this help you to frame your work for others?

Exploring different perspectives and looking at your work in a fresh way is valuable. Make time to take a step back in your viva preparations and consider what someone else might think of your thesis. And think: you have the outline for four or five different kinds of talks about your work now. Why not give one of them?

Record Your Mock Viva

I came across this tip while listening back to episodes of the podcast: if you have a mock viva, record it so that you can review it later.

Listen to check whether or not you paused to think about answers. Listen to think about whether or not there were other things you could say. Listen to see if, with hindsight, there were questions which surprised you or which you might want to practise further.

Listen to hear someone who is just around the corner from passing their viva.

8 Thoughts About Viva Questions

I’ve written a fair bit about viva questions before. I’m exploring different angles on the topic at the moment for future posts and workshops.

Here are eight short thoughts that might be useful:

  1. There are lots and lots of lists of common viva questions. Google it. There’s no reason for anyone to go to the viva ignorant of what could come up.
  2. There are lots and lots of questions you could be asked about your thesis which won’t be on any of those lists.
  3. You can’t practise every potential viva question.
  4. You could reflect and practise a few in particular on explaining your research or methodology.
  5. You can practise answering unexpected questions so you get comfortable in thinking through questions you’ve never considered before.
  6. You don’t have to answer a question immediately without pause or asking for clarification.
  7. You don’t have to answer a question without making a note of it first.
  8. Every question in the viva is being asked for a reason.

Number 5 is important. You can gain confidence by knowing that you can answer questions in viva-like conditions. Mock vivas, conversations with friends, giving seminars – there are lots of opportunities. Go find them.

Field Tests

It’s great if you have read your thesis, made notes, created summaries. You’ve probably got a beautiful mental model of your research. Can you use it though? How will you do in the viva?

Find opportunities to field test your knowledge and your skills. The mock viva is a great opportunity to do that, as are discussions over coffee and seminars for interested friends. Get confident answering questions by getting people to ask you questions.

Sounds simple; is simple.