Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances. In some ways I feel like this is quite a mundane definition, almost boring: it doesn’t capture the flavour of what people tend to think about survival. Over time we have skewed survive to only mean situations where life is threatened and nearly all hope is lost.

Survive implies, I think, a challenge that is being worked through. It feels like the best verb to describe the kind of challenge being overcome in the PhD viva: it’s not a new challenge, it’s not impossible, it’s not supposed to be a struggle. It applies to the PhD as well, of course, though the challenge is bigger, for longer and can take many forms.

Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances sometimes doesn’t capture the nuance of the difficulty or the challenge. It doesn’t account for how someone might feel about their PhD or viva. It’s still the best verb I can think of for describing how someone can engage with the circumstances of their viva.

Keep Going

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

I often tell candidates that getting ready for the viva could be summarised simply as “keep going”. If someone has got to submission they must be talented, knowledgeable and determined. Whatever challenges they’ve faced they have done enough: if they keep going then they will succeed at the viva.

Hence, one could simply offer advice on viva prep as “keep going”.


This advice doesn’t mean “just keep going without finding out more about the viva”.

It doesn’t mean “keep going even if you’re worried or anxious”.

You can’t simply “keep going” if you are overstretched or overwhelmed.

And I’m definitely not suggesting that anyone “keep going” alone when they need support.

Keep going is an encouragement: “Keep going because you made it this far.” If your situation now is such that you need help, support, advice, direction then ask for it. Find help and then carry on.

Verbs For The Viva

You will survive – manage to keep going in difficult circumstances – because you’ve done that throughout your PhD. You will most likely thrive too – grow, develop and be successful.

Prepare rather than perfect. You can get ready for the conversation you’ll have but you can’t be a paragon.

You can expect certain things will happen but you can’t assume that everything will play out that way.

You can respond to every question. You might not be able to answer every question.

Words matter. Verbs matter. Check that yours are right for how you think about the viva and how you engage with it when it’s your turn.

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Confidence

I finished my look back over favourite posts last year with the theme of “surviving” – a break with several years of tradition.

2020 was a hard year, 2021 has continued to be challenging, but it feels right to come back to confidence. Confidence makes a real difference for the viva and how a candidate engages with it. Here are some thoughts from this year:

  • Confident or Arrogant – the difference between the two. (it’s a big difference!)
  • The Basics – a lack of confidence for the viva sometimes comes, very simply, from not having a good picture of what the viva is like.
  • A Few Thoughts On Survive – while confidence is the theme for today, it feels appropriate to share a few thoughts on this too.
  • Clearing Out Viva Doubts – confidence blossoms when we remove doubts.
  • Be Brave – a little extra step you might need to take.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances”. If you’ve made it through the last few years and your viva is some time in 2022 then you can be confident that you can rise to the challenge.

If you have managed to keep going so far, you can continue. You’ve not come this far by being merely lucky.

Keep going.

Survive Sounds Scary

We hear survive and think of tragedy. Desperate situations. Almost impossible and yet somehow someone makes it through. Of course, given those associations, survive sounds scary.

Survive sounds scary but survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

Survive sounds scary but it doesn’t have to be life and death. It could be much less serious.

It could be difficult to meet with your examiners. All you feel about your work. All you’ve done. The anticipation and the nervousness making you uncomfortable.

But how difficult has your PhD been already? You’re still here. You survived. You managed to keep going in difficult circumstances.

Survive sounds scary. For the viva the simple thing to hold in your mind is you need to keep going.

A Few Thoughts on Survive

After many years of working in this area I still think survive is the best verb to associate with the viva.

Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

Survive doesn’t mean it’s going to be a struggle, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be hard.

Difficult is different for everyone. Manage might be harder or easier. Survive doesn’t come automatically.

The difficulty of the viva might be found in different things for different people.

Survive doesn’t mean you might not thrive in the viva. Survive doesn’t mean you will be scarred by the experience. Survive has a positive aspect for you: whatever the difficulty, whatever you did, you kept going.

Surviving doesn’t automatically mean the circumstances were bad. They were difficult. They were a challenge.

Not so great that you could not keep going.

Still Interesting Times

A year ago, just before the first UK lockdown, I wrote “Interesting Times” – an extra post for March 16th, recognising that difficult change was coming hard and fast.

A year later, it feels like that change has never stopped.

It’s strange to read that I thought I would be working from home and doing webinars for “a few months”. That became a year. That will most likely be the rest of this year too. And that’s fine.

In the UK we have dates in the diary for the coming months when restrictions might lift and things could change. They’re all provisional though, and things could change again – conditions in the autumn or winter might make things harder for many people once more.

A year ago I wrote this:

I’m going to continue to publish and share a post every day about the viva. I don’t know how vivas will change, temporarily or otherwise, but I know what examiners are looking for, I know what candidates can do to meet the challenges of a viva, and I can help people to see the kinds of work or ideas that can help them be ready.

If you are struggling, ask someone for help. Ask me: email me, tweet at me, and if I can I will help. I may not have an answer that solves things for you, but I’ve helped a lot of people. If you need to, just ask.

In and amongst everything this last year, that’s stayed the same. It’s no silver lining that the interesting times of the last year have opened interesting doors for me to connect with PhD candidates, but within all the chaos I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to help. I’m grateful for more time with my family. I’m grateful to friends and colleagues I don’t get to see in-person any more who do amazing work to support researchers and inspire me to do more.

I finished Interesting Times by writing:

Ask for help if you need it. Offer help where you can.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.”

Keep going.

Let me reframe: get in touch if you need help. Help your friends, family and colleagues. Survive, keep going.

Pause, reflect, reset – change tactics if you need to – but keep going.

Best of Viva Survivors 2020: Surviving

2020 hasn’t been an easy year, has it? 2021 feels like it’s going to be tough too.

There are still challenges and changes ahead of us all. As with the viva, to begin with, we’re called to survive – which means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances“. 

  • Interesting Times – I wrote this post on March 16th, before the first lockdown in the UK, but after we had started our own family lockdown. This was an extra post for that day, written out of a need to share something.
  • New Expectations? – the viva is all online now, for now at least. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad, but it’s different.
  • No Hurry, No Pause – not a post explicitly on surviving, but the linked resource resonates, as do some of the questions which are mentioned.
  • Fortunate Positions – I share a story that explores both why and how people survive in the viva…
  • By The Numbers – …and some questions to explore that idea a little more.
  • Is Survival Enough? – a question I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately.

Surviving might be uncomfortable sometimes. It might be at odds with your preferences or skillset. But there are reasons you’ve got this far; reasons that have helped you through these difficult circumstances. Remember them and keep going.

The Changing Whys

Why did you start your PhD?

Why did you keep going?

Why did you make progress?

Why were you ready to submit when you did?

Why are you going to be ready for your viva?

You had your reasons that got you started in your research. While those might change as you keep going, you still have your whys as you head to the finish.

Circumstances for your viva might change, pressures might rise up that you were not expecting. Keep a hold of your whys – why you’re doing your PhD, the fundamentals – and you’ll get through.

(remember the definition of survive)

Survive & Thrive

Let’s start with dictionary definitions:

  • Survive: manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.
  • Thrive: grow, develop and be successful.

I get into conversations on a semi-regular basis about whether or not survive is the right verb for the viva. Thrive sounds good. Thrive sounds better than survive in many ways. Perhaps it would be better to rebrand, both myself and my advice…?

I don’t think so: for one thing, “viva survivor” rhymes and there’s nothing quite like a good rhyme for latching into someone’s memory!

Secondly, more importantly, I don’t think survive and thrive are mutually exclusive. Why not do both in the viva? Who says you can’t manage to keep going in difficult circumstances to grow, develop and be successful?

The viva is an exam and a conversation. You play the dual role of expert and student. You can be prepared for it and yet unaware of what exactly is going to happen. The viva is lots of things, all at once.

There’s room for you to survive and thrive.