Today marks five hundred daily posts for the blog(!), and so I wanted to pause and say something about what I see as the biggest, trickiest and most persistent problem surrounding the viva:

In general there is a great mismatch between the expectations and feelings of PhD candidates in advance of the viva, and the reality of the viva and the usual outcomes.

Most people worry in some way that they won’t pass, but most people pass the viva with no problems. I ask candidates in workshops how they feel about their viva. Over 80% say something like nervous, anxious, worried, unprepared, unsure and so on. Yet over 90% of candidates typically pass their viva with minor or no corrections.

Horror stories of incredibly long inquisitions, terrifying examiners with egos as big as buildings, complete railroad questions and total thesis rewrites permeate the space around vivas – and they don’t match the general reality of what happens in the viva and what happens as a result. Thousands have a viva in the UK every year. That’s a lot of people who invest time, energy and focus in being worried about a terrible thing that never happens.

What can be done?

We need to challenge the spread of misinformation, urban legends and negative experiences that surround the viva. We need to help candidates feel prepared for the reality of the viva, partly by making sure they have realistic expectations, partly by helping them see what could be useful to be practically ready.

Some ways forward, because this is a problem that everyone can chip away at:

  • Had a viva and it’s gone well? Find an avenue to share your experience. Write a blog post. Tell colleagues. Tweet about it.
  • Know someone who needs help? Help them! Don’t just say “you’ll be fine,” do something practical.
  • Share resources that help. There are lots of them out there. See what your university provides, see if it’s good, and pass it on.

Over time we can crack the Viva Mismatch Problem. It’s not intractable. We can get to a point where PhD candidates will expect that at the end of their research they are ready for the reality of the viva, not a nightmare, but a conversation – not torture, just talking.

As for me, I’m going to keep writing, keep making things, keep sharing what I do in workshops and sessions. If you think what I do is useful, then do think about subscribing to get the daily posts in your email. Tell someone about it if you think it will help them.

…500 posts! That’s a lot.

Onwards and upwards…


A red sky in the morning, a black cat, what your horoscope says, spilling salt or breaking a mirror…

…all could mean something bad will happen. If you believe. If you attach particular significance. Otherwise, they’re just events.

Similarly, examiners who are expert in your field, typos, unresolved problems in your research, unanswered questions from your data, and so on…

If you want them to be ominous, if you want them to be problems, then they will be. If they’re just facts or things, then maybe you can do something about them. You can look into something more, think about it more, do something and probably keep things that seem negative in some kind of perspective.

“Omens” are just events. It’s our interpretation that means something.

If your interpretation of your viva situation seems ominous, your next step is to think, “What can I do to change my perspective?”

Not Sure

There are so many things PhD candidates could be unsure of…

I’m not sure what the rules are for examiners, who can and can’t be one.

I’m not sure how long I could get to do my corrections.

I’m not sure what to do to feel ready.

I’m not sure how to get rid of my doubts.

I’m not sure if my supervisor will run a mock viva.

These uncertainties drift around. It’s not unexpected that you could be unsure of something related to the viva.

The solution, thankfully, is straight-forward. Find out. Ask. Get sure.

The 99th Percentile

“Excuse me, can you reach that?” Usually, yes. I’m six feet and four inches tall and in the 99th percentile for height in the UK. I didn’t have to work on it much, it just happened.

PhDs don’t just happen. Nobody gets onto a PhD programme, or gets through one, by being lazy or unskilled. You have to know things and you have to do things. Yet you compare yourself to others and you grow to doubt yourself. The viva comes around and you wonder, “What will the examiners think? What will they ask? How will they rate me?”

There’s a background fear in some candidates that examiners are just better. And not in a small way. “Examiners are at the 99th percentile!”

They’re six feet four, looking down on you.


I’m not so sure. It matters what you measure. Does it matter, assuming that it’s true, that your examiners are at the 99th percentile? Are you being examined on your total knowledge of your field? And if you were, wouldn’t you comfortably be in the top 90% or higher?

And what percentile are you at when it comes to more than your field? Where are you when it comes to you niche? When it comes to your research? Your thesis?

Your examiners may know a lot, and they may have experiences and knowledge that you don’t – but they don’t have YOUR knowledge and YOUR experience, or YOUR considered perspective from years of study.


Stress and nerves are not penalised in the viva. If you’re anxious or hesitant you don’t get extra questions or corrections. Your examiners will not think less of you if you’re worried on the day.

The real question is what are you going to do about your nervousness for your own sake? Do you need a couple of butterflies in your stomach to help you? Or would it be good to banish your anxieties entirely?

It’s not enough to say “I feel nervous” or “I feel worried” for the viva. There are two questions that follow when you feel something negative about your viva. First, why do you feel that way? Second, what are you going to do?

Relatively Important

Was my viva important? Yes, but…

  • Have I had worse days before or since? Yes.
  • Have I had better days? Yes.
  • More stressful? Yes.
  • Have I worked harder? Yes.
  • Have I thought more deeply? Yes.
  • Have I felt more pressured? Yes.

Was my viva important? Yes, but it’s not in the top ten most important days of my life.

It’s not even in the top ten most important days of my PhD.

Your viva is important, of course it is, and it may feel like the most important thing ever. But are you framing it as too big of a deal? Are you making it more important than everything you’ve done? Are you attaching more stress to it than you need to?

Reflect a little for yourself. How you feel about your viva can be a tricky problem to solve. A guy on the internet saying that you’ll have better, worse and more stressful days doesn’t magically solve how you might feel…

…but it’s a start. Where do you go from there?

Eight Thoughts About Viva Stress

It’s normal to be a bit nervous about the viva. If you’re persistently feeling stressed as you approach the viva, you need to do something. Here are several ideas to help:

  1. Take a break. Step back from prep and do something you know helps you to relax.
  2. Reflect on how long you’ve been doing your PhD. You’ve not got this far by being lucky.
  3. Reflect on how short the viva is compared to how long you’ve been doing your PhD.
  4. When you can, gently read your thesis and focus on all of the good stuff to begin with.
  5. Visualise yourself crossing the stage at graduation. It’s not far away.
  6. Talk about it with someone you trust, someone who will listen before they offer advice.
  7. Write down exactly what is stressing for you about the viva. What can you do?
  8. Make a list of five things that help you to feel confident. Which of them can you do regularly between now and the viva?

Some people see stress as an endpoint. I try, not always successfully, to use it as a motivator: “I feel stressed. What do I need to do about that?”

Do you feel stressed about the viva? If so, what are you going to do about it?

Fear Doesn’t Matter

It’s alright to be anxious or afraid of the viva. Maybe you feel it, maybe you don’t; maybe a little, maybe a lot. It could be specific or vague, keep you awake with “what ifs” or sound asleep with uneasy dreams.

Do nothing and let it fester, or explore why you’re afraid and figure out what to do about it. Viva fear is a sign you recognise the viva is important. Once you figure out the root of your fear you can do something to help.

Fear doesn’t matter; your actions do.

Balancing Acts

How much work do you need to do to prepare for the viva? How do you get ready when you have so many other things going on? How do you deal with anxiety?

It’s all about finding a balance.

Balance the prep work against what you know and what will help. See what other people do and what resonates with you.

Balance your day job and family life against the time you need to get ready. Find strategies that allow you to work effectively and fit the work around your commitments.

Balance your nerves against the work you’ve done. Your thesis didn’t appear from nowhere.

Simple solutions can work when you focus on them rather than problems.


Werewolves can be taken out with silver bullets. Vampires fear garlic and the sun. To kill a zombie you go for the brain. Scary things all have weak spots.

Scared of the viva? What scares you? What can you do about it?

Confidence can be built. Answers can be found. Read more, think more, learn more, talk more.

Applying the same talents you’ve built up during your PhD can make the viva seem less daunting.