Your Viva Is Not An Unknown

You can’t know in advance what your examiners will ask for every question. You can’t know how long it will be exactly. You won’t know what parts of your thesis they think need changing, amending or updating. You can’t know how you will feel when you’re there.

But you know what it’s all about. Your thesis is a guide to what might come up. A guide doesn’t tell a person everything, but it lays out what is important. You can know many of the topics that will come up in your viva because you wrote your thesis. You can know what happens in vivas because there are regulations for your institution and expectations in the wider academic community for what vivas are supposed to be like.

You can’t know everything about your viva in advance. That doesn’t mean your viva is an unknown.


For a change I want to write about fireworks today.


To begin with, a lot of hubbub and excitement beforehand, anticipation at what’s about to happen. Will it be like last time? Someone shares their thoughts based on what they heard from someone else. There’s a certain level of expectations and anticipation.

Right or wrong, fair or unfair, people have strong feelings about whether they like them or not.

When it begins there’s a lot of concentration! Everyone involved at the time offers something, sharing what they think as the event unfolds. There are pauses, lulls, and sometimes things are a little unexpected. It has to be, I suppose, because every time the factors involved are different. Different people, different materials, different day.

And for nearly everyone involved on any given day, it’s over much sooner than expected. The time just flies by.


I wanted to write about fireworks, but found myself writing about the viva as usual. Sorry!

Uncommon Expectations

Some viva candidates are told at the start that they’ve passed. Most aren’t.

Some viva candidates are asked to prepare a presentation to begin their viva. Most aren’t.

I’ve heard of some departments sharing a finishing time for the viva beforehand. Most don’t.

I was stood in front of a chalkboard for all of my viva – I know of no-one else who has had this experience.


Viva stories can help shape expectations but it’s always important to ask whether something is common, and thus useful to reflect on and prepare for, or whether it was a rare event – or even unique!

Uncommon experiences can create a false or worrying picture of the viva. To get the truth, find out about recent vivas in your department. Listen to lots of stories and figure out what are common or uncommon expectations.

Remember: your viva will be unique, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a total unknown.

Expecting the Unexpected

It’s right to learn about viva expectations. Get a sense of what vivas are generally like, read the regulations, listen to the stories of your friends to build a picture for what your viva could be like. Get a sense of what to expect.

And expect that yours will not follow that plan at all.

You won’t get the same questions. It might not be the same length. You won’t get the same corrections. You might not get the same first question and you won’t face the same challenges.

There’s no contradiction. Vivas are unique, but not unknown or unknowable. Vivas have structures and follow patterns, but never repeat. Expect that yours will be similar to many others. Expect that yours will be different in ways you can’t predict.

And expect yourself to be ready for whatever you’re asked.

Unanticipated, Not Unmanageable

Every viva is “unique, not unknown” – always different, but following patterns from regulations, expectations and even traditions within departments or universities.

We can also say with confidence that a viva could be “unanticipated, not unmanageable” in how it occurs. A viva could deviate from expectations in a way that no-one could expect from the outset: a question could be unpredicted, a comment could seem random, a line of discussion could even be uncomfortable.

All of which would be unanticipated – but not unmanageable. Given the time a candidate would spend working on their PhD, investing in their development and getting ready, the viva could be surprising, more than the expected challenge, but still within the capabilities of the candidate.

Unique, not unknown. Unanticipated, not unmanageable.

Which is the short way of saying that you can have reasonable expectations, and rise to the challenge of anything you can’t foresee.

Even shorter: you can do it.

It Might Be Weird

After years of work it could feel odd to be talking about your research in your viva.

Perhaps if you’ve had a break between submission and the viva, things might feel a bit rusty when you think or talk about your work.

Or if your viva has to be over video it could feel awkward if there are delays, nervous moments waiting silently to get a response.

It might be weird to have unexpected questions, or be weird in advance trying to figure out what questions you might be asked by your examiners.

There’s plenty of space for weird around the viva, but remember: weird doesn’t mean bad. Even if your viva is a little unexpected, a little strange or a bit weird, it will still most likely be absolutely fine.

Made To Measure

Your viva is a unique exam, tailored just for you and your thesis. No-one else will have this one-of-a-kind experience.

But like made to measure clothes, there are patterns. There are ways that things are done. Jacket sleeves stop at a certain point so the jacket fits well. A skirt would be no good if it wasn’t stitched properly. Vivas are unique for the individual candidate, but there are expectations for what they should be like.

Find out about regulations and expectations for the viva, so that when yours comes around you can be sure it fits you well.


The viva process could perhaps best be described as non-obvious.

It’s not obvious what the process is like because viva experiences haven’t traditionally been shared all that much. It’s not obvious what to expect because regulations only tell one aspect of what goes on. Your examiners’ questions won’t all be obvious; it’s not possible to second-guess what they might latch on to or want to dig into. And there’s no way to find out everything that will get rid of the sense of not knowing what to expect.

But if you want to get rid of uncertainty you don’t need to find out everything. Read the regulations to get the big picture, and ask a few friends for their experiences to fill in the details. Learn about general viva questions and formats, and find out about your examiners’ research and interests to explore where their particular questions might come from.

Explore a little and you’ll see that a lot of what was odd or unknown about the viva is obvious with hindsight.

The Unmysterious Viva

The viva experience might be sometimes unclear, but it’s not mysterious.

There’s a variety of experiences, but a clear range of common expectations.

There’s structure from regulations, academic practice and norms from departmental procedures.

Every viva is necessarily unique, but it’s simple enough to find a useful set of expectations to work towards.

Learn a little to take away any idea that your viva is a mysterious event in your future.

Unique, Not Unknown

Your viva, in a nutshell.

A unique exam, arising in response to a unique thesis, written by a unique candidate. There has never been a viva the same as yours before; there will never be another the same again.

But there are regulations: the rules that frame how vivas have to happen. There are academic practices: ideas from research culture about what makes a viva good. There are expectations: built up from all of the stories of past candidates, relatively probable situations, structure and outcomes for the viva.

Your viva will be unique, but not totally unknown, not totally unexpected. You can never have total certainty for it, but the more light you can shine on the probable circumstances the better you will feel for your once-in-forever experience.