Worst & Best

It’s normal to be nervous for your viva. It’s understandable if you have worries or feel anxious about what could happen. It would be very human to think about what might go wrong – but rather than focus on the worst case scenario, think about what you could do to be at your best.

You can’t control what happens in the viva – your examiners’ questions or opinions, what it might feel like moment to moment – but you can take charge of what you do to get ready. You can take practical steps to prepare and build your confidence. Your preparations can help you present the best possible you in the viva.

The worst case viva scenario is extremely unlikely. You being at your best for the challenge is almost guaranteed.

Managing The Mock Viva

A key part of viva prep is using opportunities to rehearse for the viva.

You have to read your thesis to prepare, make notes, check references you might have forgotten, and so on – but in the viva you need to talk. You’re not called on simply to present but to respond to questions. You have to be ready to be a participant in the discussion your examiners are facilitating.

A mock viva is probably the best opportunity you could have to rehearse. By design it is supposed to be like the viva you’re expecting. It’s run by your supervisor and maybe a colleague of theirs; while they may not have had the full prep time your examiners will have, they can draw on their own relevant experience to help you prepare.

A mock viva doesn’t have to be a big deal to arrange but there are key questions to consider first:

  • Do you really want one? They’re a great opportunity but not for everyone. Think carefully about yourself, your relationship with your supervisor and what you need for your prep.
  • When could you have one? Talk to your supervisor about their availability and schedule a time that will suit you both – giving plenty of time to debrief and build on your rehearsal.
  • What do you need to do to be ready for the mock? Probably everything you’re already doing to get ready for the viva at that stage, so nothing else!
  • What do you want to get from the experience? If you just want to have something like the viva, then you don’t need to ask for anything else. If you want questions on a specific topic or aspect of your work then prime your supervisor.

Remember that this will not be a run-through for your real viva. Your real viva will be different. Your real viva will matter more, have different questions and come with the real expectations and anticipations of the day. A mock viva helps you rehearse how you might feel and behave on the day, rather than allow you to test responses to questions.

There’s not a lot to manage to have a mock viva. Think ahead a little and you can manage your expectations, then do something to help with your viva preparation.

First and Last Questions

The first question in the viva is likely to be simple: it’s something you will be able to respond to. A question that asks about an aspect of your work that is familiar – maybe a big picture, “How did you get started?” or “How would you summarise your research?” Simple to understand and asked by your examiners to help start the viva well.

Sometimes the first question is characterised as easy, in contrast to an expectation that questions get much harder. Is the last question of the viva supposed to be hard? I’m not sure.

The last question could be, “Have you got any questions for us?” Whatever it is, the last question comes after all of the others. Nervousness should hopefully have faded away. You might be tired from the effort, but you could also be more relaxed than you were at the start of the viva.

All questions in the viva could be challenging. All questions could be well within your capability as a researcher. First and last questions deserve the same attention and focus as any other.

Forget easy and hard. Remember who is being asked, what they’re being asked and why they’re being asked.

On This Day

You probably have at least one account with a major internet entity that backs up your photos, or where you share what you’re up to in some way. It’s likely that you post or tweet or save a photo away in an archive.

If something good happens today or tomorrow – in fact, whenever something good happens for your PhD – take a picture. Write a post (keep it private if you like), but do something to mark a good thing in your research or PhD journey.


A year from now you’ll be minding your own business when your phone, tablet or app will remind you that you have memories: “On this day you did this…”

You’ll remember what you did and you’ll know you are making progress. You’ll see how far you’ve come. Maybe a year from now it will even be after your viva! But that’s OK. The need for recognising achievement and benefitting from confidence doesn’t stop with the viva.

Find a way to remind yourself of your work, your progress and your success. You’ll find confidence in your ability when you do – and help feel even more ready for the challenge of your viva.

A Long Time

In the year before your viva you don’t need to do much to get ready. Your focus is on finishing research, finishing your thesis and thinking about life after the PhD.

In the month before your viva you can start your prep. Read your thesis, make notes, check details and take opportunities to rehearse.

In the week before your viva make a to-do list of anything that remains. What are your priorities? Who can help you? Remind yourself of what you’ve done to get his far.

In the day before your viva you might want to do some final prep, but equally it could just be time to rest and relax.

In the hour before your viva it’s a good idea to check one more time that you’ve got everything you need. Remember as well that you have a challenging couple of hours ahead – but you are ready for this challenge.

In the minute before your viva remember to breathe. Any nerves are about the importance of the day; they are not a negative reflection on your talent or contribution.

In the second before your viva you might blink-

-and then realise that it’s all done. Your viva flew by. You were there, but you were engaged and weren’t thinking about how long it was.

Success in the viva is a long time coming, but doesn’t take very long on the day.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer is asked this, at least from time to time. Postgraduate researchers are asked this too, particularly in the viva.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“Why did you want to follow this research topic?”

“How did you know to do this?”

In your viva you have to be willing to talk about what started your process, how you knew to do something, why you wanted to do it and so on.

Ideas could come from reading. They could come from your supervisor. There might be a highly personal story or a really mundane, practical reality to them. It may be that on the way to working on one project you spotted something interesting that you needed to explore. There are so many routes to inspiration.

You need to be able to talk about the origin of your ideas in the viva, but don’t forget that as interesting as those ideas are they are nothing without the work that has developed them. Your work might be inspired by 100 papers, a chance encounter or by a funding advertisement – but it’s your work that has created your success, not the idea itself.

Wherever your ideas came from, it’s your work that has taken you so far.

Confidence & Nervousness

These are not opposite ends of a spectrum. Nervousness is a response to importance; we tend to feel nervous about an important event, good or bad. Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance, certainty or capability.

Nervousness says, “I hope this goes well!”

Confidence says, “I’m pretty sure it will.”

It’s likely you would feel nervous about the prospect of your viva because passing it is important. It’s possible to feel confident for it because of all of the work you’ve done, all of the things you know, all of the talent that you must have. Reflecting on all of these things can help you to find and feel confident. It’s a far more useful thing to do than to try to squash nerves.

Nervousness is about the event. Confidence is about you.

Show What You Know

Your viva prep does not need to be confined to book work and solitude. While a mock viva is the most notable prep activity that involves others, it’s not the only task that you could involve others in.

  • Sit down over tea or coffee and describe to someone how you have done your research. See if you can share something that will help them.
  • Give a talk. Split your time equally between showing what you have done and taking questions to dig deeper.
  • Write a summary for someone else. Not a cheatsheet for you, but a page or two about a method or process that you have needed for your research.

During my PhD years I noticed that my own understanding of a topic grew whenever I had to explain it to someone else. I found better words, more useful metaphors and gaps in my knowledge. Take a little time in your viva prep to show others what you know, so that you can practise for the viva, build your confidence and show yourself what you know too.

Long Term Prep

Viva preparation is a short term project. You don’t need to start getting ready before you submit. You don’t need to focus your final year on building up for the viva. If you have a long time to go before submission you need to focus on finishing your research and your thesis. That has to be the priority.

You do not have to do anything to prepare for your viva until after submission. However, confidence plays such a big part in feeling ready for the viva it feels right to suggest a few things you could do over a long period of time. If in your final year you want to build your confidence then try some of the following:

  • Make opportunities to present your work.
  • Reflect on your progress once per week.
  • Record your successes as they happen.
  • Write down any tasks, activities or situations where you feel confident.

As you get closer to the viva, reflect on all of these. Presenting and discussing work gets better with practice. The more experience you have the better you will feel. Reflecting and recording your PhD journey will help to highlight that you are doing well; you’re building a firm foundation for confidence. Finally, if you know the times when you feel confident you can use that to your advantage in your viva preparations.

Short term prep is the work of weeks. Read your thesis, write a summary or two, have a mock viva. Long term prep is the work of your life. Pause, reflect and realise that you are a lot better than your worst moments.

You have done well, you can do well, you will succeed in the viva – and beyond.

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