Questions for Graduates

To find out more about vivas ask people who’ve had them. Talk to graduates from your department. If you ask, “How was your viva?” you’ll likely get an answer along the lines of “Fine!” This will be true, but it will be short: the person you’re asking probably thinks you want reassurance; they think you want to know others have succeeded and felt fine in the viva.

You do, but if all you get is “Fine!” then you’ll feel unsure later. To get more from your friends, ask them specific questions. Ask them questions that will give you details. Start with:

  • How did your viva begin?
  • What surprised you?
  • What was the tone like?
  • How would you describe the structure?
  • How long was your viva? Did it feel like that?
  • What questions do you remember?
  • What was challenging?
  • How did your viva end?

Ask about how they prepared and what helped them. Ask about what corrections they got and how they completed them. Get as much help as you can from the people around you; there’s a lot of help available.

Be prepared to help others when your viva is past too.

Ask For Their Opinion

Your examiners’ job is to examine you. (well, of course!)

But to do that they have to be experienced, they have to read your thesis carefully and they have to think a lot. While most of the questions in the viva will be aimed towards you, there’s no rule that says you can’t ask questions too.

So ask what they think. Ask what they would do next. Ask about publications and funding and monographs and anything else that you really want to talk about and get help with.

The first step is to think about what questions you would like to ask if you had the chance. Prioritise them and write them down on an index card for the viva.

The prompt can prompt you. (well, of course!)

It’s useful just in case you get so involved in answering the examiners’ questions in the viva that you forget there were things you wanted to ask too.

What Do You Want Them To Ask?

As part of your viva prep spend ten minutes listing everything you’d like your examiners to ask.

Reflect for each one: why do you want them to ask about that thing?

Do you feel confident? Why?

Do you feel happy? Why?

Do you feel proud? Why?

It’s useful to dig into things that trouble you and ask why. Once you’ve unpicked the feeling you can start to do something about it.

It’s just as useful to reflect on the things you’re happy with. You can build confidence for the viva on those whys as well.

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.


What’s New?

You have to make original contributions in your thesis. It’s good to reflect on this before your viva. There are lots of questions that can help stimulate ideas and connections:

  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • What is different in your work from other work in this area?
  • How did your work build on earlier research?
  • What have you learned?
  • What are the outputs of your research?
  • What new questions do we now know to ask?

If one question doesn’t spark an answer, see if another will. What’s new?


There are lots of big picture questions that seem natural for the viva.

  • “Why did you choose this topic?”
  • “How do you describe your main contribution?”
  • “How would you summarise your thesis?”

These aren’t unexpected questions exactly; you’ve probably thought about them during your PhD. Another question that shows up on lists of common viva questions is “Why do you deserve a PhD?” I’m not sure how common this question actually is, but at first glance, answering it could be a little trickier than the other questions mentioned so far.

“Why do you deserve it?” Deserve. You could look at this question and wonder if it is a trick or not. Are your examiners trying to trap you somehow? It feels a little like a trap…

Or perhaps we can find a similar question that makes it easier to answer. Perhaps, “What have you done that merits a PhD?” or “What have you done to achieve a PhD?” That’s what we’re really getting at. And when you look at that phrasing, actually we’re not far away from “How do you describe your main contribution?”

The work, the result, the outcome, the contribution, the talent, the knowledge – all of these are because of what you’ve done. They’re what you’ve achieved, they’re why you deserve a PhD. It may feel uncomfortable to think about why you deserve something…

…so get comfortable with it. Not in a proud or boastful way, but in an honest sense of your own accomplishments. Explore how you would describe what you’ve done, and you’ll find a way to talk to your examiners about your contribution: something that merits your PhD.

You might just start to believe it yourself!

The Challenging Questions

Two types of questions can seem challenging: unexpected questions and tricky, topic-related questions.

You can’t prepare an answer for an unexpected question, but you can be prepared to answer. You can build confidence through a mock viva or by just finding situations where you can talk about your work and take questions. You’ll never predict every question, but you can at least get comfortable with thinking in those kinds of situations.

Tricky, topic-related questions could be more challenging to some candidates than unexpected questions. Tricky questions are the ones you’re aware of, or the aspects of your work that leads to them. They can seem challenging because there’s something there to focus on, something to worry about. Maybe it’s how you explain something, or a contentious detail, an idea that’s not 100% proved.

You can build your confidence for unexpected questions through practice, and you can improve how you think about tricky, topic-related questions through reflection and writing summaries. Take the topic apart, explore it and find the bits that you need to address. Thinking is good, but writing will help you shape those thoughts into something concrete.

Both types of question – the unexpected and the tricky, topic-related – can be challenging in the viva.

Thankfully, both types of question can be prepared for.

Time For Prep

There’s no meaningful viva prep that needs to happen before submission. Given the kinds of tasks involved – reading your whole thesis carefully, making notes, having some kind of meaningful practice with questions, and so on – an estimate of around 20 to 30 hours of work seems reasonable. But rather than simply block that much time out in your diary, I think it’s better to ask more useful questions about the post-submission period:

  1. How long might you have between submission and the viva?
  2. How busy is your life, or how much of your time is already accounted for?
  3. What do you think you need to do in order to feel happy about your viva?
  4. How long do you think that might take? (and how certain are you of that estimate?)
  5. Given the answers to the previous questions, how much time can you regularly commit to your preparation?

And finally given the answers to all of these questions, when do you likely need to start preparing for the viva?

Twenty to thirty hours could be right, but it depends on many factors. Pay attention to your situation and how you feel. Make a little plan and then take the time you need.

The Best Way To Say I Don’t Know

I don’t know could be your answer to a question in the viva, but it doesn’t have to be all of your answer.

Say why.

It can be as simple as “I didn’t do that” or “I didn’t read this.” Or perhaps, “I’ve not thought about it that way, but let me have a think…”

If your first thought is “I don’t know,” say why and engage with the question.

Best of Viva Survivors 2018: Lists & Questions

To finish 2018 I’m sharing my favourite posts from the last year. I find lists helpful. I find questions helpful. A list of posts about lists and questions should be super-helpful! Structure helps, and having organised sets of tasks can make prep or thinking about the viva better. Useful questions to dig into topics helps a lot too.

A real mix of topics in today’s post. What did you like? What other areas would you like to see me explore? Drop me a line and I’ll add it to my musing for 2019. Do share this post if you think it will help someone else!