Not Ideal

There’s so much about your viva that might not be exactly how you want it to be.

You find typos or a clunky paragraph after submission.

You’re busy and struggle to find preparation time.

Your first choice examiner can’t do it.

You feel more nervous than you want to be.

You worry there’s something missing in your thesis.

You worry you should have done more.

Worry and mistakes and missed opportunities are all not ideal. But the best thing to do is ask, “What can I do?”

Then act. Do something. Don’t diminish how you feel, or just stress about would be better: work to get closer. Work to do something that helps.

So underline your typos or pencil in a correction.

Make a plan for your prep and do what you can.

Learn about your examiner’s research.

Ask yourself why you feel nervous and work on the root cause.

Examine whether there’s really something missing, not just a worry.

Ask why you didn’t do more – probably, because you were doing something else in your thesis!

If something’s not ideal, you can feel disappointed or cross or upset.

But then act. What can you do?

Nervous or Excited

Like a lot of important things in life, candidates tend to be nervous or excited for their viva. Two sides of the same coin, the currency that marks out something as a big deal, and your viva is a big deal.

Which side of the coin is showing?

  • If you’re nervous, why? What has you that little bit concerned? And is it only a little bit, or something more? What could you do to help how you’re feeling?
  • If you’re excited, why? What sounds good to you? What are you doing to get ready to meet your examiners? Is there anything else you need?

Being nervous isn’t “bad”, but I’d personally prefer to be excited rather than nervous – generally it feels better! If you’re nervous, what could you do to flip the coin to excited?

Afraid, Nervous, Worried

What do you do if you feel something like this – afraid, nervous, worried – about the viva?

Let’s ask another question: what would you do if you were unafraid, not nervous, not worried about your viva?

You would prepare – and if you don’t feel great, you need to prepare too.

  • If you’re afraid, you need to prepare. If you’re not, great! But you need to prepare.
  • If you’re nervous, you need to prepare. If you’re not, that’s cool – but you need to prepare!
  • If you’re worried, you need to prepare. If you’re not, I’m happy for you, and you still need to prepare for the viva.

However you feel about your viva, the courses of action you have to take are the same. You need to read your thesis, write and think about your work, find opportunities to practise unexpected questions and do what you can to be confident.

You might feel that you need to do more or less of things because of how you feel. Doing something won’t just help you get ready, it should also help you feel ready.

Nervous Is Normal

I haven’t met many PhD graduates or future viva candidates who weren’t at least a little nervous. Nervous is very common; if you feel it before your viva then you’re in a pretty normal state.

But nervous doesn’t usually comfortable.

We can distinguish between good nerves and bad nerves, the former before a happy event, the latter before something unwanted. In both cases there’s probably a degree of importance with the event. Nervousness and importance are correlated, two factors braided together in life’s tapestry. What if… something unexpected happens? Or what will happen? What if something goes wrong?

So nervous is normal for the viva. Nervous is sort-of expected given the nature of the viva.

Nervous doesn’t have to be all you feel though. You can feel excited: the viva is one of the last big things to do before the end of your PhD. You can feel knowledgeable: you know your work and your thesis. You can feel talented: you must be capable to get this far.

You can feel confident you are in the right place, ready to act.

Nervous is normal for the viva. Many, many more emotions could be normal too.

You’re Not A Failure

You’re not a failure if you don’t answer every question you asked during your PhD.

You’re not a failure if your thesis is smaller than your friend’s thesis.

You’re not a failure if you’ve not submitted papers for publication.

You’re not a failure if you find typos in your thesis after submission.

You’re not a failure if you’re asked to complete major corrections.

You’re not a failure if your confidence wobbles before the viva.

You might feel nervous, or scared, or worried about any of these.

But not every question has an answer. Theses vary in size. Plenty of candidates opt not to publish during their PhD. Most candidates have typos. Some candidates are asked to complete major corrections to make their thesis better. And feeling a lack of confidence is not uncommon before important events.

The way you feel doesn’t mean you automatically fail.

Sleepless in New Brighton

The red digits on my bedside clock radio say 02:30.

I’m tired, my head’s empty. Sleep is a stranger on a hill far away.

My viva is in seven-and-a-half hours – correction, seven hours and twenty-nine minutes. I’m not worried. I don’t feel stressed.

I have two questions that keep running through my mind in a loop: Am I asleep yet? Why can’t I sleep?

Seven hours and seventeen minutes now.

What. Is. Happening.

I did the work. I’ve done weeks of prep. I’m really as ready as can be. I’m a little nervous, but not worried.

So why am I awake?

Six hours and fifty-nine minutes.

Seriously? Seriously! This is what I’m going to do? No sleep. No sleep before my viva. No sleep! No…





It’s almost 7am…? I got some sleep? I got some sleep! I’ll be OK! I’ll feel it later I’m sure, but I’m OK for now!


And I was OK, a bit tired, but OK. Years later I figured out that I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t really know what to expect from the viva. I was nervous, but didn’t want to look too much at that feeling, I wanted to avoid thinking about it. If you feel nervous, ask yourself why. See what you can do to explore the root causes and address the situation. It’s not wrong to feel nervous about the viva, but do everything you can to put those nerves in perspective and address any worries.

The Big Red Button

Let’s say you could take a big red button to the viva: a kind of game-show like buzzer, and whenever you wanted to you could press “pause” on everything. Would you use it, if you had one? Why might you press pause? What circumstances would have to come up?

  • A quick press of the button could give you a few seconds to remember something that’s slipped your mind.
  • You could use a moment to prepare a devastating response to a critical question from your examiners.
  • Or take as long as you like to compose yourself if your mind goes completely blank.

You don’t have a big red button. But you can still imagine situations where you might want one. So what will you do instead?

Think: what can you do now to prepare for things that might stress you out? What can you do in the viva to help be your best self?

The Big Day

If it helps you to think of the viva as a one-shot, once-in-a-lifetime super-mega-event then keep going.

If that motivates you then stay motivated and do what you can to get ready and be present with your examiners.

But if thinking that way leaves you stressed out, then figure out a new story to tell about your viva. You don’t have to downplay the importance, but you can remind yourself you got this far by working hard and being good at what you do (there’s no other explanation).

The viva is a big day, maybe a challenging day, but it’s just one day. It comes after many other challenging days of your PhD.

Past, Present, Future

An upcoming viva, like any major life event, can come to dominate your day-to-day life. There’s likely nervousness, possibly excitement, a slight melancholy at another chapter of your life coming to a close. There’s wondering if you’re ready, wondering what will be asked, wondering how it will go…

The viva is important, but it’s not the biggest thing you’ll do in your life, or even in your PhD. If you feel like your viva is really starting to take over then you could:

  • look back at your PhD for evidence that you’re exactly where you need to be;
  • make a plan for the prep you’re going to do in the near future, and restrict it to only certain times;
  • think about everything you’re going to do after your PhD is done.

The viva is important, but it’s vital for your own wellbeing that you keep it in the proper perspective. Consider the past, the present and the future to keep you grounded and sure of your talent.