Expecting Different

Whatever you have heard about vivas, good or bad, specific or vague, your viva will be different.

You may have expectations about the length, about the general outcome, about what questions examiners tend to ask or themes they tend to be interested and all of these are useful for being confident in the process and in yourself.

Still, your viva will be different. Every viva is unique, building on a singular thesis and candidate. A candidate has to balance the knowledge that there are general expectations and unique experiences. And different is OK!

  • Different-not-bad: an experience that doesn’t match expectations doesn’t mean it must be negative.
  • Different-but-fine: maybe slightly longer than expectation doesn’t mean that the outcome is in jeopardy.
  • Different-but-not-to-be-concerned-about: a viva over video, or where you’re asked to give a presentation, or if something is unusual because of the kind of research you do – it’s just different!

If you listen to enough stories you can see the common experiences that are worth paying attention to, but also notice that each viva is different. Yours will be too.

Different but not bad; fine, and not to be concerned about.

Luck and the Viva

Luck could be a factor in your viva, some strange twist of fate that determines the eventual outcome. But in the same way that sunlight and water stimulates plant growth more than playing Mozart, there are other factors that are far more important. For example:

  • The work you did in your PhD;
  • Getting help from others;
  • Knowing what to expect from the viva;
  • Taking steps to prepare for it;
  • Feeling confident about your ability.

Don’t rely on luck winning through for you; instead, focus on factors that you can actually influence to steer your success.

Hope is not a strategy; luck is not a resource.

Viva Expectations: Facts & Feelings

There are two kinds of expectations you might have for your viva, facts and feelings. In the swirl of thoughts about the end of the PhD, and anticipation for what might happen, it can be difficult to determine whether an expectation is one or the other.

Is it a fact that vivas are long, or is that a feeling?

Are you certain your examiners will be looking for problems or do you just believe it?

Reflect on whatever expectations you have. What do you think you know about the viva?

Which are facts? What do they then mean for your viva?

Which are feelings? What do they tell you about what you might need to do?

What can you do to fine-tune your expectations, to know more facts and to have better feelings for the viva?

Stretch Now

I’m a big fan of the Comfort, Stretch, Panic way of framing challenges. If something is well within your capabilities, it belongs to the first category; if it requires more effort but you can approach it with some confidence then it’s a Stretch. And if it fills you with Panic, then perhaps it’s not something to try for just now.

I think a lot of PhD candidates worry that their viva will be firmly in the Panic Zone. They’re concerned that questions will be beyond them, that pressure will break them, that perhaps the relationships in the room (or over video) will make them feel awful.

It doesn’t matter that most vivas go well – hindsight is great – but what about now? What about when someone is headed for the viva?

Candidates anticipating panic need to stretch themselves. Hoping that questions won’t be too tough won’t help defeat panic. Avoiding more difficult challenges is a way to store up pressure for later. Viva preparation should involve stretching.

For the pre-panic candidate, find new ways to reflect on your work; take time to rehearse for the viva; be open to developing yourself just that little bit more – it might only take a little stretch. Stretching now might help a candidate see that the viva doesn’t have to be a cause for panic.

In fact, it might even be a comfortable experience.

Cast Your Mind Back

What did you not know at the start of your PhD that you know now?

What could you not do at the start of your PhD that you can do now?

You had to start somewhere. There had to be gaps you needed to bridge, things you needed to discover.

Reflecting on your progress should help with confidence for the viva, because you appreciate just how much you must have developed to get the work of your PhD done. You did it, and you must be good enough.

Still, when you look back it can raise the odd worried thought. Perhaps something is unfinished. Perhaps there are gaps in your knowledge. Perhaps there was more to do.

If you have unanswered questions or unpolished skills, it won’t be because you’re lazy. A PhD is long, but doesn’t give enough time to learn everything or become proficient in every method. Perfection is not the standard required for you, your thesis or your viva.

You did the work to get you this far, and you must be talented, you must be good enough. Look back to the start of your PhD to get a sense of just how far you have come.

Little Reminders

On Thursday March 19th 2020 I was nervous. The next day I was going to deliver my first Viva Survivor webinar. Lockdown hadn’t started but you could tell it was coming. I knew I would need to move my work to Zoom, so decided to go early. Thankfully, my clients were happy to accept my proposal.

Still, the webinar had been rushed together in three days. I knew the material but had lots of worries about the tech, the pacing and so on. Would it all work? Were my slides OK? I didn’t do slides when I presented!

My daughter, who had just started home schooling, asked me what was wrong, and so I tried to explain. She listened and gave me a hug and wandered off.

The next morning, a few hours before I was to begin, I was nervous but practising my introduction when there was a knock at my office door. My daughter was stood there, with a smile and a gift:

My little friend!

“This is for you Daddy – this is you! You’re going to be fine today. He’s smiling and you can too.”

“Little Nathan,” as I’ve come to call him, has joined me on every webinar since. He makes me smile, and tends to make participants smile too, but more importantly he is a reminder of what I can do and how I want to be when working.

You can’t have Little Nathan, but you can make your own reminders. What will help you remember your talent? What could remind you of your confidence?

What could help you to smile on the day of your viva?

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

My daughter used to be obsessed with Pokémon.

We watched every episode of two series, bought books about them, played with toys, looked through cards, role-played being in the world…

(she drove this process)


Pokémon has the famous tagline, “gotta catch ’em all” – which refers to collecting all the different creatures in the world of Pokémon. It’s an attitude I see expressed all the time around PhDs and the viva. People think they have to catch every typo before they submit. Anticipate every question. Read every paper. Perform every test. Do everything for their research, their thesis and their viva.

And none of this is possible. This is fine. You’re not expected to have done everything. Perfection is not the standard.

In case you ever confuse Pokémon and PhDs, remember:

  • Pokémon: gotta catch ’em all!
  • PhD: cannot catch ’em all!

Myth & Truth

There are lots of myths about the viva: they’re impossible to really prepare for, they’re unfair, unknowable, harsh, a hazing, and not that fun.

There is lots that is true about the viva: the vast majority of people pass, regulations and expectations can be found out quite easily, preparation is possible, examiners don’t aim to be harsh – and a viva might not always be fun but it’s usually fine.

Myths circulate among PGR (candidate) communities. The truth is known in PhD (graduate) circles.

You have to ask the right people to find out the truth about the viva.

Viva Survivor, Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, nervous, optimistic, uncertain but happy-to-help, I stood in front of a room of PGRs in Manchester and said, “Erm, hi, I’m Nathan, and today I want to help you explore getting ready for your viva…” I had no plans to do another one! Halfway through the session a colleague from the university said, “Oh, there was a big waiting list – when can you do another?”

I did a few for Manchester that year, then a few more the year after. Another university asked me to do one. Then a few more. All word of mouth. I started Viva Survivors as a podcast in 2012 so I could share stories and learn more for myself; I used the site as a platform to research and learn even more. More universities asked me to help. Then more!

In 2010 I did the session three or four times I think. In 2019 it was over fifty times!!!

The Viva Survivors blog has become a place for me to experiment, to share, to test ideas and refine how I express them. There’s been a lovely symbiosis between the blog and the Viva Survivor session. A question in a session becomes a new line of thinking for the blog; a neat idea on the blog becomes a cornerstone in the session.

On July 21st 2010 I was thinking, “Oh gosh, please let this go well, I hope this works, I hope people get what they need, phew this will help to pay for my wedding…” Today I’m thinking, “That went by fast! OK, how can I help candidates get what they need for their viva?”

(And, “Oh wow, it’s my tenth wedding anniversary in a few months!”)

If I’ve met you on the journey so far, thank you. Thank you to the nearly-5000 candidates I’ve met at a Viva Survivor session. Thank you to all the readers of the blog, to all the amazing people who shared their story on the podcast and to everyone who has helped me share this blog over the years.

Facing Fears

If you’re not just worried about your viva but afraid, to the point where it is having an impact, you need to stop and find help.

The right person could be your supervisor, a colleague, a friend or family member. You have to pass your viva on the day by yourself, but you don’t have to prepare for it alone. If you feel fear before your viva it won’t be removed by simply sweeping it to one side.

Tell someone who could help. Get them to gently help you see what the issue is. Make small steps towards resolving it. For example, being worried about answering questions won’t be overcome by jumping straight into a mock viva – a short, sharp shock is not what this doctor prescribes! But one question is a start. Maybe even writing something down rather than speaking first.

If you’re facing fear: Who could help? What steps could help? And when will you start to make them?