Follow The Leader

I don’t know there is much scope for candidates to lead in the viva. In the stories I have been told, I don’t hear tales of examiners sitting back and waiting for the candidate to direct questions, or steer them towards conclusions, or evade lines of discussion. It’s not for the candidate to dictate what happens (nor should it be up to examiners to dictate things either, of course). It’s for examiners to steer discussions, examiners to fairly ask questions, suggest ideas and examine the thesis and candidate.

As a candidate though, you can lead yourself. This isn’t a throwaway, simple, nice-sounding thing. You can lead. Set the tone for yourself. What do you expect? What standards are you aiming for? What direction do you want to go in as a researcher for the viva, and how are you going to get there? Ask yourself what “prepared” might feel like – then ask yourself what you are going to do to lead yourself towards feeling confident on the day?

You have to lead yourself. So what are you going to do?

Behind The Scenes

I love movies. I sometimes go through periods where I watch a movie every day. A couple of hours of story, tension, excitement, wonder, hopefully interesting dialogue, emotions, and occasionally incredible special effects.

I love learning about the making of movies too: how were the actors cast? How did the script develop? Where did that cool idea come from? And how did they get that amazing shot to look so good? It’s rare that finding out these things breaks the magic for me. It’s possible, for me at least, to appreciate a movie and marvel at all of the hard work that went into it.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the viva too, but it’s easy to forget that, easy to focus on just that one person on the day, hoping to pass. We have to remember…

  • …all of the hours spent by the candidates doing the work.
  • …all of the time spent organising thoughts and ideas into words on the page.
  • …all of the work invested by many others (supervisors, academics, universities) to get things to this point.
  • …the work of the examiners to get ready to give a good viva.
  • …the preparation work that a candidate can do to get ready and feel ready.

The viva is a couple of hours of dialogue, tension, excitement, maybe wonder, emotions – maybe few special effects, but it is certainly a special event! And it doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot that has to happen behind the scenes first.

Choose Confidence As A Goal

Confidence is not a destination. It’s not a permanent state you can arrive at, but a goal to be pursued.

You can’t flick a switch. You can’t simply hack or trick yourself.

But you can make a choice: what do you want to feel? What do you want to be?

Once you’ve made a choice, you have to act. For your viva, what would a confident version of you be like? If they’re not much different than where you are now, then you don’t have much work to do. If you feel that you could be more confident then choose to go for it. That doesn’t just make it so, but you’ll then see paths before you, steps you can take that lead you to your goal.

Choose confidence.

Hands On Hips

I really like Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk: the highlight is that there is evidence that adopting a pose of confidence can improve your confidence. Something as simple as setting your posture can have an effect on how you feel. Standing like a superhero can give you a real boost…


Only maybe, because science isn’t as simple as that. Anecdotally, I’ve had feedback from PhD candidates who have tried this and found it’s worked for them. Researcher developers tell me it has helped their confidence before big presentations or meetings. I can’t guarantee it will work for you, but you won’t know either way until you try it.

Confidence doesn’t begin and end with putting your hands on your hips. Confidence is action. What will you do to build and maintain your confidence? Big and small things help, long term practice and short term boosts.

Surprise Questions

Surprise questions might not be critical, they could simply be unexpected. By your viva you have plenty of talent for responding to questions, but a surprise question might still stun you.

If you are worried about surprise questions:

  • Decide on how you will respond to questions in the viva: will you make a quick note? Will you pause and take a breath to think?
  • Practise answering unexpected questions: will you have a mock viva? Could you give a presentation and take questions?
  • Write down a list of when you’ve answered questions in difficult circumstances: what conference talks have you given? When have you been in seminars and engaged with tricky discussions?

Preparation and reflection can help you to see that surprise questions can be manageable. They could surprise you, but the surprise doesn’t have to be bad.

Ask The Experts

Look around you. There are lots of experts, able to share ideas, advice, experience. All you have to do is ask.

Ask specific questions about viva experiences to learn what they’re like.

Ask your supervisor and other academics how they approach being examiners.

Ask your graduate school about regulations and expectations.

Ask friends and colleagues for helpful questions to practise.

And ask yourself who the real expert on your thesis must be.

Who knows more about your research than anyone else?

Probably Not

It’s the answer for many questions around the viva…

  • Will you remember everything?
  • Will you forget something important?
  • Will you go blank?
  • Will your examiners like everything?
  • Will they hate everything?
  • Will you demonstrate perfection?
  • Will you be cool, calm and collected?
  • Will your nerves get the best of you?
  • Would any of these things really make a difference on how things might go?

You don’t need to be perfect, and you don’t need to recall everything; you don’t need to fret over forgetting or going blank; you shouldn’t expect your examiners to rip your work to shreds and you can’t realistically expect that they won’t have questions or comments.

You can be ready. You can have realistic expectations. You can go prepared to meet any challenges.

Will you face another challenge like this in your life? Probably not.

But will this be the biggest thing you ever do? Probably not.

The Tightrope

Let’s imagine you get good at walking on a tightrope that’s six inches off the ground. Weeks of practice, perfect balance, good footwork. You can do it in front of people with a smile on your face, step, step, step, all the way to the other side.

You’re brilliant.

So let’s put you twenty feet in the air. Walk the tightrope now. Just step, step, step to the other side. It’s exactly the same, you have the skills, you have the practice, so just get to it!

………but of course it’s not the same. Of course there’s a great big difference. Even with all the practice, even though the practical, physical skills being used are the same, the situation makes it very different. The potential outcomes make it very different.


Like the viva. The skills being used are the same as if you were in conversation with friends. The same as if you were answering a question after a conference talk, or in a meeting with your supervisor. You need to know about your work, about your field, and have what it takes to do research in an appropriate way. And you’ve got that covered. You have plenty of experience by the viva.

But there’s a big difference because it’s important.

It’s important, important in a way that coffee with friends is not. Way more important than just another meeting with your supervisor. Important because of the consequences.

None of that importance takes away from your skill, talent and knowledge though. You have all that practice. The importance doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

You’ve walked across the high wire many times during your PhD. You can do it one more time with your examiners watching.

Must Read?

There’s probably hundreds of references in your bibliography. There are possibly dozens of papers written by your examiners. Many pages in your thesis. There are several books on viva preparation. There are thousands of posts and articles about the viva (almost a thousand on this site alone!).

Is everything must read? Do you have to read everything in order to get ready for the viva?

Of course not, but you have to find the balance right for you.

You need to read your thesis. You need to be familiar with your literature and what your examiners’ interests are. And it will help you feel confident knowing that your prep follows good ideas and principles. You have to see where the gaps are for you, and find good sources to bridge them.

It’s not all must read.

What Are You Missing?

A key question to ask during your viva preparation, not about your thesis but for yourself. What are you missing?

  • Do you find it difficult to remember key references?
  • Do you wish you could remember where things are in your thesis?
  • Do you need to know more about what to expect?
  • Do you know nothing about your examiners?
  • Do you feel unconfident?

All of these problems can be solved. There are posts on all of these topics on this blog, and lots of people around you will have helpful advice too. If you don’t know what you’re missing, ask a PhD graduate what they think was missing for them; tell them what you’re doing or plan to do to see if they see anything missing.

Whatever is missing can be figured out. Whatever the problem you can find a solution before your viva.