Not A Sprint

I got that advice a lot during my PhD. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I had to pace myself for the long journey to success.

The viva’s not a sprint but it’s also not a marathon either. It’s not a race of any kind, you’re not being tested on how fast you answer but on how well you answer.

Don’t rush. Rushing to answer a question isn’t going to help you, your thesis or your research.

Pause. Breathe. It’s not a race, but the end of your journey is near.

Good Answers

Good answers don’t just appear on the day.

Good answers to your examiners’ questions happen because you’ve done the work.

Good answers happen because you know things.

Good answers happen because you’re talented.

I think great answers in the viva come when you give yourself a few extra seconds to think…

…what else do I know?

…is that the best thing to start with?

…what did I say in my thesis?

…what did I do like this in my research?

A few seconds can make good into great, but don’t stress.

Good is enough.

Blank Feels Bad…

…but it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you or wrong with the viva.

You go blank and it’s uncomfortable: doubt, anxiety or fear. It’s not that common an occurrence though.

In the unlikely event it happens, breathe. Pause. Take a sip of water. Ask yourself the question again, or think about what’s just been said. And whatever you need will come to you.

A momentary memory lapse or glitch is not comfortable, but it’s not the end of the world, even in the viva.

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 common fear: what if your mind goes blank in the viva?

You could erm your way through a response: “Erm, well, I think, erm, hmm, that’s… Hmm, erm, if…”

You could waffle your way to freedom: “…in conclusion, as I said five minutes ago, in response to your particularly excellent query, that if we consider Foucault’s method – and there are several good reasons to do so, first of all…”

You could throw a smokebomb in the centre of the room and escape in the confusion: actually, no you can’t. Don’t do that.

Or you could: take a breath; ask your examiner to repeat the question; have a sip of water; breathe; think about your research; think about what you’ve done when confronted with a similar problem before; ask for a moment to think.

If your mind goes blank, then take your time. It’s OK. You can do this. It’s better than saying erm a lot or waffling to distract your examiners. And much better than throwing a smokebomb down.