The last time I was terrified was watching Get Out. I’m not going to spoil it, and if you intend to see the movie I suggest you stay spoiler-free.

I saw it at a lunchtime screening. Afterwards I walked out of the cinema with my heart pounding. I spent the rest of the day on a big adrenaline high. I’m really serious: it took about ten hours for the terror to go away. It’s a great, scary movie with a compelling story that leaves you with a lot to think about.

Nathan, this blog is about the viva and viva prep, where are you going with this?

I ask in workshops how candidates feel about their viva. Worried. Nervous. Unsure. Excited.

Sometimes they tell me they’re terrified. When they do I can tell they mean it, it’s not an exaggeration. They are beyond scared. The thought of the viva makes them terribly afraid.

I don’t have an easy answer to this problem. If scary movies make you terrified, you can avoid them. If the viva makes you terrified, you still have to have one. I’m a huge fan of Seth Godin and this post from March is really helpful if you’re facing viva fear. The level of fear or terror we get in the modern world is disproportionate; we’re not being hunted by large predator animals, but we can still have strong fear responses. But as Seth says in the post: “As soon as we give it a name, though, as soon as we call it out, we can begin to move forward.”

That’s the not-easy answer: if you have viva-fear, figure out what it is that makes you afraid, and then you can start to change.

Scared of what the examiners think and how you’ll respond? Get feedback from others so you have practice.

Worried that you’ll forget everything? Read your thesis carefully and make some summaries for yourself.

Terrified that you’ll freeze when asked a question? Have a mock viva or get friends to ask questions.

Once you name your fear you can do something about it.

Sip & Pause

The viva is questions: your examiners want to talk to you about your research and there’s 101 things they could want to know.

The viva is answers: if you don’t talk about your research you’re not going to get very far.

It’s 100% fine to pause before answering – questions deserve a little thought at least, not just an automatic response – but social conditioning tells us that we have to answer as quickly as possible. In workshops people say things like “Won’t my examiners think I’m rude if I pause?” and “My examiners will think I don’t know anything!” Either could be true if you were pausing for minutes, but we’re talking about seconds.

Still, sitting in silence in an exam like the viva can be uncomfortable. I like Dr Claire O’Callaghan’s suggestion in Episode 27: take a big bottle of water to sip after each question is asked. That way you can take those seconds to get the question straight in your mind, start thinking about a response and answer well.

A Good Choice

In most institutions PhD candidates can talk to their supervisors and discuss possible examiners. There may be hundreds of names that could fill the roles. What makes for a good choice? Who do you pick? How do you pick?

I like creative thinking tools. There’s a lot of them, and many approaches aimed at finding a creative solution to a problem propose divergent thinking – trying to find as many ideas as possible – followed by convergent thinking – using tools to narrow down possibilities to the most suitable choices.

Some questions to open up the space of possible examiners:
Who have you cited?
Who have you met at conferences?
Who has particular interest in the kind of research you’ve done?
Who has a reputation for being excellent?

Some questions to narrow the field:
Who is just an absolute no? (for whatever reason)
Whose name would be a useful reference?
Whose work have you criticised?
Whose work do you find particularly influential?

These questions can be useful, but I think you first need to have some idea of good examiner qualities. The overall question is far more personalised than people usually take it: instead of “what qualities should you want in a good examiner?” the question needs to be “what qualities do I want in my examiner?”

Your Greatest Hits

Examiners and graduates tell me that the viva typically starts with a question like, “Can you tell us about the most important parts of your research?” or “What is your work all about?” It’s a question worth practicing when the opportunity presents.

It is a big question though, so if you’re preparing for the viva, here are five questions that will help unpick it.

When were you most engaged during your PhD?
What do you want people to refer to in your thesis?
What would you most like to build on?
Which of your chapters or results is closest to perfection and why?
What parts of your research are least important? (followed up by “What’s left in your thesis after this?”)

You’re a talented researcher to have the viva in your future. You can think of more questions which will help you unpick this possible viva-opener.

Just Another Day At The Office

Which is better, treating the viva as a Special, One Of A Kind, Big, Important, This-Is-It Event Day – or going to university like it’s a regular day? Is it better go in thinking that it’s make or break, or acting as if the outcome is certain? Hard questions to answer.

Better questions to answer: What is the story that you tell yourself about the viva? Is it a helpful narrative? Would it be better to change the story?

Episode 64: Q&A Special 2


This episode has been a long time coming through one thing and another. I had to get a new laptop in the last few weeks, and then configure everything, so while I had this second Q&A Special recorded I couldn’t edit it. But hurrah, I’ve done it!

I got a couple of questions via email for this episode, and decided to add to those by sharing some answers to interesting questions I got at workshops in the last few months. I’m going to put an open call for questions out on Twitter and on the podcast from this point on! So whenever I get, say, six or seven questions in the list I’ll record a new Q&A Special and put it in the schedule.

This episode also marks a change of music! I had been thinking about a new theme tune for some time, and then heard of Jukedeck, a service that uses AI to compose music. I found a tune that it had composed and tweaked a few parameters, and it gave a really cool new piece of music that I’ll be using from now on.

Would you like to come on a future episode of the podcast? Email me, tweet at me or leave a comment on the site and I’ll reply. Send questions about the viva for a future special and if you’re looking for more help with viva preparation, you could also check out my books and ebooks.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)