One Weird Trick For The Viva

Alas! There isn’t one.

No shortcuts. No hacks. No loopholes.

No tricks. No weird little things that will just make it all better.

But you don’t need them.

You need someone who has done the work. Someone who has put in the time and dedication. Someone who takes things seriously. Someone who takes the time to get ready.

Someone like you.

You have all the magic you need for your viva.

The Key Expectation

There are lots of things we could expect of the viva. A particular length, certain questions, the tone of the discussion, the expertise of the examiners…

And the most fundamental expectation: that the candidate is up to the task. That they have done the work. They have written a good thesis. They are a capable researcher.

If your viva is near, or submission is soon, it’s reasonable to expect you are up to the task.

It’s also common to feel that you’re not. It’s common to be nervous, anxious or worried that you are missing something.

If you feel doubts about your ability then take a deep breath and ask yourself three questions:

What am I really worried about? What can I do to work past that worry? And could I really have got this far if I wasn’t good enough?

You can’t simply be lucky. You’re expected to be good.

And really, you must be good by this stage.

In Case You’ve Forgotten

If you’re working towards your viva now you are so close to being finished. And to get this far you’ve already successfully completed many major milestones. Some you will share with other candidates, they’re part of the general PhD journey; some will be your own, and no-one else will have had to rise to the challenges that you have.

If you’re nervous, concerned or afraid then at least remember that you are good. You can do this. Don’t forget how far you have come. Don’t forget how you have succeeded despite living through strange and challenging times. You’re so close. You can do this. Keep going.

A Little Extra Is Enough

Another way to think about viva prep: it’s the extra time you get to do a little bit more.

Not a lot of time. Not a lot of work.

The work you’ve already done – research, writing and development – is what gets you through the viva. You’ve written a good enough thesis to share your research. You’ve grown enough in your talent and knowledge to be a capable researcher in your field.

Prep is that little extra to help convince yourself that you’re good enough.

Learning & Growing

It’s not wrong to reflect on what you might do differently if you started your PhD again.

No thesis is perfect. No PhD journey can be completed without encountering problems or making mistakes. The PhD process is one of learning, so it’s natural to complete it and realise you might do things differently.

Some things could be because you realise a choice was made in error. Or perhaps you know that something went wrong. Maybe now, with the benefit of hindsight and greater knowledge, you know you would take another course of action or understand something with more clarity.

Considering what you would do differently is a great way to remind yourself that you’ve learned more than you knew at the start of the PhD. Don’t think about differences as a way to give yourself more problems and doubts. Reflect and see that your talent, knowledge and skills have grown.

It’s Not One Day

Hundreds and hundreds of days over the course of a PhD.

Thousands of hours of learning, discovering and knowledge-building.

So much personal development, growth and talent.

And, yes, you need to share all of this for a few hours of one day in order to pass your viva – but the test is not one day. It’s all the days you’ve invested; all the times you’ve stayed determined and kept going.

If you’re nervous, anxious or worried about your viva then consider how far you’ve come. Reflect on how you’ve made that progress and then find a way to keep going. Keep going until it’s done.

People Like You

People like us do things like this.

Seth Godin‘s definition of culture is useful to reflect on when unpicking expectations for the viva. How long are they? How do they start? What happens?

Regulations tell you some of the details, but the rest comes from looking at what examiners do because of how they are trained, their experience and also the practices of their department or discipline.

People like us do things like this.

What do you do? What do people like you do? What does the culture say about the kinds of things that a postgraduate researcher does?

  • Postgraduate researchers do things like becoming more skilled and knowledgeable.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like showing determination.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like getting ready for the viva.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like passing the viva.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like making a difference.

So what will you do? And what could you help your community – your us – do as you and they get ready for their viva?

A Supervisor’s Faith

At one of my final sessions before my summer break, a participant commented that supervisors wouldn’t let a candidate submit their thesis if they didn’t have faith that their thesis was good enough.

I think the core of this is true: good supervisors are invested in their researcher’s success. Good supervisors care enough to give guidance and feedback. Good supervisors make sure their researchers have an idea of what to expect from all stages of the PhD process, including the viva.

You have to believe, but you also have to ask. If you need more – guidance, feedback, information – then you have to take the first step to find out more.

You can have faith, but you can also take certainty from their support too. If your supervisors support your thesis submission you can be confident they think you’ve done enough and you’re good enough.


With thanks to soon-to-be-Dr Stewart McCreadie for his observation at a 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva session!


The viva’s not the first time you’ve had to respond to questions about your research.

The viva’s not the first time you’ve been asked about your contribution.

The viva’s not the first time you’ve really had to think hard about something.

And it’s unlikely that your viva is the second time you’ve had to do any of these, or the third, or the fourth.

Again and again throughout your PhD, in small and big ways, you grow, you learn and you become better than you were. Again and again you demonstrate that you are a talented, capable and knowledgeable researcher.

In the viva you have to do it again. One more time, but with all of that experience behind you.

You can do it. You’ve done it before, you can do it again.

Good Fortune & Hard Work

In my PhD I can remember times I was lucky. Lucky to be at a particular seminar and see an unsolved problem that I knew I could solve. Lucky to suddenly make a breakthrough and get the result I needed.

Except I wasn’t. I was in the right place at the right time perhaps, but I couldn’t have spotted the first solution without all the results I’d already achieved. I couldn’t make my breakthrough, everything slipping into place, without three weeks of background reading and calculations first.

Words matter.

In all my seminars I remind PhD candidates they’re not lucky to have finished their thesis or to have got results – they’re fortunate. Fortunate is when hard work pays off. There might not have been a certain outcome, but it could only have happened thanks to someone taking the actions that they did.

None of your PhD success is luck. It’s good fortune, when your hard work has paid off.

Remember your good fortune. Remember too the hard work that has got you there.