Superstitions Are Stories

Stories can be very persuasive.

Do you have a story that says you need to do this or that in order to be ready for the viva? You might be unable to not listen. You might have to wear those socks or listen to a certain song in order to feel right to talk with your examiners.

Or do you have a story that says you can’t do certain things? You might need to avoid drinking coffee because you feel it makes you twitchy. You might need to avoid a colour because of an association you have with it.

Perhaps you even want to avoid walking under ladders, seeing black cats or scheduling your viva on Friday the 13th!

Superstitions are stories. They can feel true, but they are only stories we tell ourselves. Rather than do this or avoid that before the viva, perhaps it’s better for you to try to create some new true stories.

What’s the story of your PhD, for example?

How did you get from the start to where you are today?

What are the things you could do to boost your confidence?

What stories are you telling yourself before your viva?

The Decision

Before the viva, your examiners will have an idea of the outcome. They’ve read your thesis; they have thought about it; they have experience. They will have an outcome in mind before the viva based on what they think of the thesis.

But it’s not set in stone. It’s an outcome they think is likely, but you still have to show up and show them what you know, what you think, what you can do.

In very rare cases examiners tell candidates the result at the start of the viva. In those cases they are so sure of the viva outcome that they want to put the candidate at ease to then have a great discussion. But those cases really are rare. Don’t expect it for your viva.

Expect that your examiners will have an idea: they do their job in the preparation and come prepared to do their job on the day. They come with a decision that they look to see confirmed by your actions and your words.

You can make a decision too. You can decide to be ready for your viva. You can decide how you will show up on the day.

So decide.

Don’t Know, Do Know

Candidates often worry about “what they don’t know” but frame it as a nebulous fear that waits out of the corner of their eye… What they don’t know is something that examiners do know, and examiners are looking to use that against them perhaps. What they don’t know is unpredictable, unclear and uncertain. That makes it something to be afraid of.

It can seem unclear, but I think we can examine this more clearly by contrasting what you don’t know with what you do know.

What You Don’t Know

  • Everything.
  • What your examiners think about your thesis.
  • What questions they want to ask.
  • What the outcome of your viva will be.

What You Do Know

  • Enough – you’ve read enough papers, done enough work, built up enough knowledge.
  • What you think of your work, what your supervisor thinks of it, what others have told you about it.
  • How to answer questions: you’ve built this talent up throughout your PhD.
  • What the most likely viva outcome is, and why that happens.

Seth Godin has truly timeless advice on this sort of thing: you get to choose which list you focus on.

In this case, the second one is much, much more useful.

7 Confidence-Boosting Questions For The Viva

Confidence isn’t like flicking a switch. Confidence has to be fine-tuned by practice and experience. Confidence in your own ability can be dented by the importance of a big event (like the viva) and the nervousness that can come with it.

While I don’t recommend trying to “hack” your confidence or fake it, if you feel you need something to boost your confidence you could start with some of the following questions:

  1. What have you done well during your PhD?
  2. What skills or talents can you see improvement in?
  3. How did you find your biggest results?
  4. When have you been at your most confident as a researcher?
  5. What music helps you to feel happy?
  6. What could you wear to the viva to help you show your best self?
  7. Who could give you positive feedback to help boost your confidence?

No tricks, no hacks, just questions. The answers might help you find a little more confidence for the viva.

Make Your Jar Of Awesome

A Bank Holiday PhD Craft Project.

You need a jar, some small pieces of paper and decorations: fun stickers, labels and so on.

Stick a label on the outside that proudly says, “I, Future Doctor insert last name here, am Awesome!”

On the pieces of paper write things that have been awesome during your PhD so far, one thing per slip. When have you succeeded? What have you done that has been cool? When did you get the right answer? When did you master a skill or process? When did you make a breakthrough? When did you do something well? When did you feel proud?

Put all the slips in the jar, and put the jar somewhere prominent in your workspace.

From now on, when you do something awesome, write it on a piece of paper, add it to the jar and shake it up.

If you find yourself having a tough day, feeling unsure, losing confidence – particularly close to submission or the viva – take a slip out to remind yourself how great you are.

Because you are great. You have to be, to be doing this.

You don’t get to submission and the viva without filling your jar full of awesome.

(big thanks to an idea I read in Tim Ferriss’ Tribe Of Mentors for this post!)

Stories & Statistics

Both have a place in shaping your expectations of the viva.

Stats can give you an outline, a pencil drawing that is a reasonable shape of the viva experience.

Stories can help to colour in that picture, give you details to help you see what vivas are like and how they feel.

Both have a place: your outline might vary a little, you might paint with different colours, but listening to stories and putting them together with the statistics for viva experiences should give you a useful blurry picture for your viva.

Squint and maybe you’ll see your future! Ask for advice, ask to hear about experiences, and then see how they make sense with where you are. No-one needs to go to their viva with a blank page for expectations.

Manage To Keep Going In Difficult Circumstances

You can survive the viva, but you don’t just survive the viva.

Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” suggests someone has been doing this for a while.

“Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” tells you someone has experience.

“Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” is encouraging, not overwhelming.

“Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” is honest, but not the full story.

Surviving doesn’t just happen in the viva: you survive because of the knowledge, skill and experience you take to the viva.


The viva at the end of the PhD is a unique set of circumstances in your doctoral journey – but there are other events like the viva.

Most candidates will have had to pass a transfer or upgrade viva at some point (for full time candidates this is often around the end of the first year). In some institutions and departments this might be like a mini-viva, testing everything that you’ve done to that point in a similar style to the end of the PhD viva. In some places, the transfer viva is more like a simple conversation.

(I remember two defining questions from mine: “What have you done?” and “Are you happy?”)

Your transfer viva might only have a superficial resemblance to the main viva, but you must have passed it to get to submission. That counts. You were upgraded.

And you must have answered difficult questions in meetings, after conference talks and while you were doing your research. You upgraded then too.

A lot of focus is given to your thesis and research, but it is worth remembering that a far greater output of your PhD journey is you.

A new you, a more talented, more knowledgeable, more capable you.


The Last Thing

One of my favourite questions to ask final year PhD researchers is “What’s the biggest challenge in the way of you finishing?”

It’s good to focus. It’s good, even if it is something scary, to get it out in the open. Once it is acknowledged, it can be worked on. Once you’ve said, “This is the biggest, most important thing I still have to do,” then you can start to plan what actions need to be taken. Maybe you won’t work on it every day, but you know what your biggest priority is.

It could also be a good way to frame your viva preparation.

Maybe, “What is the most important thing I need to do before the viva?”

Or, “What is the biggest gap in my preparation?”

Or, maybe try asking yourself, “What’s the best thing I can do to continue my success?”