Mind Your Manners

It may seem like an odd thing to post about, but I’ve been asked about the topic many times before by PhD candidates!

“Is there anything I mustn’t say or do in the viva???”

I don’t think there’s a real danger of being impolite in the viva. You don’t need to look out for anything that wouldn’t occur to you ordinarily about watching what you say, or behaving improperly.

  • Try not to swear maybe? (unless curse words and their origins are the topic for your research!)
  • Don’t insult your examiners? (hopefully obvious!)
  • Don’t be arrogant?

There’s a little ray of worry in the last one. There is a difference between confidence in your work and arrogance at being right. There could be difficulty in balancing talking about the rightness of what you’ve done, as you see it, against questions about alternatives or being sure. That could be tricky. But it doesn’t mean that it should be avoided or obsessed over either.

Talk about alternatives before the viva, in preparation for perhaps needing to talk about it in the viva. Get more comfortable in the trickier parts of your methods and results, then you won’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing.

No Spoilers!

A few weeks ago I was patiently (at first, then impatiently) waiting for Avengers Endgame to be released at the cinema. Tickets booked, clock ticking down in my brain to when I could go and find out what happened. I expected that the heroes would win, but was desperate to know how…

…but not so desperate to read any reviews or leaks or spoilers. That would be heresy. I wanted to be as spoiler-free as possible. The trailer might have shown me some odd sequences, made me wonder, “Well, how did they get to there? And who are they talking to? And…” but that was just to whet my appetite.

There are no spoilers for the viva, of course. Unlike a movie it can’t be spoiled by someone telling you what happens in advance because it’s not happened. It’s not a spoiler to know you’re very, very likely to pass.

A spoiler would be knowing what questions were going to be asked, or what your examiners exactly thought in advance. And I think those would be spoilers: they would spoil the conversation, the viva would be less of a test of your talent and more a test of your memory. A viva spoiled like this would be a sad conclusion to a PhD journey.

Thankfully, there are no spoilers at all for the viva. The hero of the story will win. We might not know exactly how, but there are some pretty good reasons why…


Let’s make some assumptions about your PhD:

  • you didn’t plagiarise;
  • you didn’t falsify results;
  • you didn’t try to misrepresent anything in your work.

All fair? Then there can’t really be any skeletons in your research closet. Maybe there are realisations you feel you “should” have had sooner. Maybe there are questions or ideas that you groan at having considered. None of these are shameful secrets though. You might not feel like telling everyone about them, but they don’t disqualify you.

Fundamental question about your PhD: were you honest? Yes?

Good. Then everything else helped you learn. Your mistakes have helped you grow to be the talented researcher you most definitely are.

What If They Don’t Get It?

A question born of worry: the fear not that your examiners won’t like something or agree with something, but simply that they won’t understand your research.

It’s unlikely your examiners would not understand your whole thesis, but possible that a detail or idea isn’t as clear as you think it is.

As with liking and agreeing, if there’s a problem of getting it then a good approach is to ask your examiners why. Ask why they don’t understand. Ask what the gap is. Ask where you lost them. The root “why?” invites more from your examiners. When you know what didn’t get across you’ll have an idea for what you might need to say.

Then speak. Engage, share, and help your examiners to see what you see in your research.

Why Is It Called The Viva?

Viva voce, is often translated as living voice or word of mouth. In the viva you have to answer questions and engage with your examiners. You have to demonstrate that the expertise that created your thesis is lodged in your brain.

There are other terms – thesis defence, oral exam – but I don’t think we stick with viva for tradition’s sake. A special name makes it a special thing. It’s the viva and not something else because the name makes it more important.

Calling it the viva adds something to the special status of the final exam.

You’re special too to be there.

Bad Eggs

If you break eggs to make an omelette, you never really expect any of them will be rotten. There are processes in place that mean a box of six free range eggs on a supermarket shelf are as good as they can possibly be when you buy them. Treat them right and they’ll be fine when you need them.

A bad viva is like a bad egg: it’s a possibility, but it’s rare.

You shouldn’t expect your viva will be bad or you will fail. A good, successful viva isn’t a fluke, it’s the norm.

Expect to pass and work towards that outcome.

Wants & Needs For The Viva

Wants and needs are two different things, but they can be easy to confuse.

  • You might want to submit a perfect thesis, but that’s impossible. So think, what does your thesis need to have?
  • You might want the best possible examiners, but they might be busy. What do you need in a good examiner?
  • You might want to be 100% free of nerves for the viva, but how likely is that? What do you need to do to be as ready as you can be?

As your PhD comes to a close, it’s not wrong to think through all the things you want – for your thesis, for your viva prep, for the viva itself – but make sure you ask yourself, “What do I really need to do this?”

Engaging With Criticism

If your examiner tells you they don’t like something in your thesis you have options:

  • You could say sorry, and do whatever they say as a result.
  • You could stare them down, insist that you’re right, and see what happens.
  • You could argue with them and try to show you’re right.
  • You could discuss things, listen to what they have to say and put your best case forwards.
  • You could ask them, “Why do you think that?” and listen before responding.

And you could do a lot more. I’m not suggesting you could have 100% control over how you feel or what you would automatically say as a result of criticism. It can cut deep, you might not know what to do. But there are different options open to you.

How you engage with your examiners can lead to very different ways of being in the viva.


Years ago I worked in a discount store every Saturday. I showed up at 9am, went home at 6pm, and got paid £20 for my troubles. At 16 it seemed like a good deal! Those Saturdays dragged though, because between 11 and 5 we had to “watch the shop”. The owner wanted all of us to be a physical presence, a deterrent against thieves. We stood on our aisles, waited and watched for six hours.

I watched the clock. I made games of it. Another minute gone. Another ten. I broke hours down into quarters. I worked out my pay per hour. Then per minute. Watching the time didn’t make the standing around easier, quicker, better or less boring! If anything, it just frustrated me. The clock just ticked on as always. Clockwatching never helped.

A decade passed and I was in my viva, and I found myself watching the clock again. I stole a glance when we finished talking about my first chapter and felt worried: 45 minutes on one chapter… I had seven! We took a break as we finished chapter four and we were two and a half hours in! At least in the discount store there was a time the clock was moving to when work would be done. Two and a half hours… Was this good? Was this bad? How much longer would it be?

I stopped watching after that point, kept my eyes on my examiners and the room. Watching the clock didn’t help. Clockwatching in the viva never helps. Knowing the time doesn’t help you to answer a question, to think or to be engaged with your examiners.

Take off your watch. Take down or cover the clock. Don’t worry about how long the viva might be. Put your attention on being your best self.