The Path To The Viva

There is a weird disconnect for some people around submission. They imagine submission is like jumping over a ravine between here and there, between almost- and now-submitted. They take a breath and jump and hope it will all work out, hope they’ll land on the other side.

It’s really not a leap of faith though. It’s the same path to the viva they’ve been on for years.

At submission, you’re striding over a bridge, not jumping and hoping.


They matter. But the little things that evade memory or fast recall probably don’t matter as much as you think they do.

You’re primed to notice the little things you forget more than you notice all of the things that you easily remember.

If nerves about remembering everything before the viva appear, banish them by thinking about all of the things you do know, rather than the tiny fraction of details that don’t snap into focus.

Process of Elimination

Luck or random chance don’t dictate the outcome of the viva. It’s not down to the examiners’ whims. It’s not an exam about “some” book and research. That book and research didn’t just appear. You didn’t just wake up to discover it was viva day. Candidates don’t just “suddenly” fail.

Eliminate the impossible and we’re left with the truth.

You created your thesis through talent, work and time. You earned your place in your viva.

You pass because of who you are and what you’ve done.

Big Deal

Anyone who tells you the viva is no big deal is wrong. It comes at the end of years of research. It’s huge life achievement. It matters for many, many reasons.

Anyone who tells you the viva is the biggest deal ever is wrong. There’s more you will do, more you can be and more that matters more.

Also: anyone who tells you how to feel about your viva is wrong!

You get to decide how you feel and what it means to you.

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.

The Finale

I’m a fan of genre TV shows. I have been for years, so many, many long stories. I heard someone describe Lost as a ninety-hour movie and that seems pretty apt to me. Partly it’s the characters, the settings, the ideas but more than anything it’s the sheer scale of the stories being told. Heroes become villains, bad guys become unexpected allies, a late dramatic reveal upturns everything we know…

…and then there is the finale.

Things come to an end. A resolution is needed, but we need fan service too. Both characters and audiences need to be satisfied. All threads have to be tied up neatly.

With that much expectation is it any wonder that so many finales fall short?

The viva is the finale of the PhD (corrections are the credits rolling). So much has happened to get to that point, and so much is expected, wanted, needed from that event – is it any wonder that candidates sometimes feel it’s a bit of an anticlimax? That they were thinking it would be longer, or tougher, or that there would be something more about it?

If yours feels like that, don’t worry. You’ve not missed something. Your expectations were so grand that maybe they could never match the reality.

You’ve done it now. Reflect on the journey that got you here, look ahead and keep going.

The Magic Feather

(Do I need to give a spoiler warning for a movie that is over 75 years old?!)

In Dumbo, the little elephant with big ears is given a magic feather to help him fly, and off he goes. When he loses it he suddenly believes he will crash! Thankfully his good friend tells him he could fly all along: the feather was just something that gave him the confidence to do it.

And with that he flies again.

If you’ve done the research, written a thesis and submitted it, you don’t need a magic feather for the viva. You’re supposed to be there, you have the talent. If you have a ritual, be it three coffees or good day socks, and that helps, then do it – use whatever confidence you can find.

You don’t need one, but if a magic feather will help then get looking.

First Questions

There are lots of ways your examiners could begin your viva, lots of questions to start the discussion.

It could be “how did you get interested in this topic?” or “how would you summarise your findings?”

Maybe they’ll ask “what’s your most important result?” or “why did you decide to follow this line of enquiry?”

Or maybe they’ll simple ask “how are you feeling today?”

There are no trick questions in the viva, especially with whatever your examiners ask first. The first question is likely to be something you’ve thought about before; you can’t guarantee what it will be exactly, but you can be sure it’s something you can answer.


Doing a PhD and writing a thesis is like finding your way to the centre of a maze. You might have some ideas about how to get there when you start, but it will still take work to make it through. You can go down wrong paths, get lost, but with time and effort you’ll get there.

Preparing for the viva is finding your way back out of the maze. It takes less time, but you have to check your way as you go. Just because you made it in, it doesn’t mean you know the shortest way back. You can still get lost. But you have a lot of experience to draw on now.

Describing the maze is the viva. How it looks. How you got there. Why you decided to walk it in the first place.

Walking back out of the maze will help you make sense of how you got in. Checking back over the twists and turns will make explaining the route to someone else a much easier task.

The Worst

“Can you explain how to make a genus 2 handlebody?”


I was really confident on the results of Chapter 5, but the background was shaky at best in my mind. I had a great result, proved an open conjecture, but couldn’t explain the background with confidence.

And I knew it. I knew it as I was reading my thesis and making notes in prep for my viva. I knew what the worst question was just from reading my thesis. I could have spent more time trying to unpick it and prepare. Instead I hoped it wouldn’t come up.

In workshops I’m regularly asked, “What’s the worst question that your examiners could ask?” It varies for every person. I think each candidate knows what the worst question is, because they’ve already encountered it. In preparation for the viva it’s an area to definitely spend time on. Don’t just hope it won’t come up.