When The Light Doesn’t Come On

About a week ago, first thing in the morning, I opened the fridge to get the milk to make the first cup of tea of the day.

The light in the fridge didn’t come on.

My brain performed a complicated dance of thoughts and feelings:

  • “Oh no, we have so much in the fridge and freezer that will be ruined!”
  • “We’ve had it for over seven years, so of course it’s out of warranty…”
  • “Wait, it’s the weekend! Where are we going to get a new one from?”
  • “Can we save any of the food? Will my mum have room in her freezer? Can we give some to neighbours?”
  • “A new one? What am I thinking jumping to that, can we afford to just buy a fridge-freezer?!”
  • “Ugh, I’ve not even had a cup of tea!!!”

And then a quiet part of my brain whispered… Check the button.

There’s a little button that is held in place by the fridge door when it’s closed. When it’s opened it pops out and the light comes on. I touched it and it popped out and the light came on. The fridge was fine.

The button had just stuck in place for a second. That’s all. No problem. No solution needed. No cause for panic.


“Problems” sometimes aren’t really problems, but our first instinct encountering a potentially difficult situation is to panic.

In the viva, an examiner asking a tricky question might not intend it to be hard. If they say they have a different opinion, they are not trying to ruin you. If you don’t know what to say to a question, or haven’t spotted a typo previously, or just go blank, there’s no need to panic. These are all situations that you can respond to in the viva, but they might not be problems at all.

If you’re asked a question in the viva and the light doesn’t come on, stop and check: is this a problem?

Horses, Not Zebras

A few months ago I read a lovely little book called The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts – which is a long title for a quick read! Each chapter was a short discussion about different useful concepts, like thought experiments, thinking from first principles and so on.

In describing Occam’s Razor, the book introduced me to a wonderful phrase: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”

This is a great reminder for PhD candidates and the viva: I’ve observed many candidates to believe that the smallest hoofbeat could only be a great big zebra! For example:

  • A typo doesn’t mean you’ve made lots of mistakes – it’s just a typo and can be corrected.
  • A passage in your thesis that doesn’t quite make sense; now you wonder how you’ll pass – you will, you just might need to rephrase or explain it.
  • The difficult question you struggle to respond to – is just a difficult question that is difficult to respond to! It’s not a sign of failure.

Problems at the viva are likely to be small. Issues you spot in prep will not be overwhelming. It’s far, far more likely that the problematic zebras you think you hear around the viva are nothing more than horses trotting by, here today and gone tomorrow.

Disagreeing With Your Supervisor

It’s possible your research went down a path you didn’t choose. Your supervisor insisted. You followed. Whatever that meant for your research, you still disagree with the approach or idea now.


…That’s it. You disagree. That’s OK. Disagreement by itself is not a problem.

Did it stop you doing your research? Did it remove possibilities? Did it help the research but was tricky to do? Was it a tough conversation?

What’s the real problem?

If there’s something to explain in your viva as a result, you might want to think carefully about the words you use. If there is bad feeling, think about how you express that if you want to – but who would that help? You can still say you disagree with something from the course of your research.

Explore and explain. If there was disagreement with your supervisor about something, it would be good to reflect before the viva so you have key points to reference if you need to talk about it.

Disagreement by itself is not a problem: the situation might be, but the disagreement itself is not.


Take The First Step

You have to do this all the time for your viva.

Take the first step to the viva when you submit.

Take the first step with your prep by sitting down and getting your thesis out again; or by asking for help (plenty of people can help but you have to ask for their support).

If you find a mistake – more than a typo – you have to take the first step, however tricky or uncomfortable, to figuring out what makes it right.

If you want a mock viva, you probably have to email and ask when your supervisor might be free.

If, in the viva, you are stumped by a question, you have to take the first step to responding to it. That could be awkward, you might feel pressured, but you have to do it.

All of which is a long way of saying, that for all the puzzles, problems and challenges you find with your viva, you have to take the first step to resolving them.

There’s no-one else to do it, but also no-one else who could do it.

So take the first step.

(and if you don’t feel you’ve found any puzzles, problems or challenges, take the first step towards finding some, because they’re there…)