You’re Not The First

You’re not the first person to have a viva.

You’re not the first person to feel nervous, anxious, worried or afraid. You’re not the first person to worry that you could or should have done more. You’re not the first PhD candidate to feel you needed more things to go right. You’re not the first candidate to have vague worries or specific concerns about the viva.

You’re also not the first candidate to pass with all of these being true.

You’re not the first person to feel this way but that doesn’t make it any less real or hard. Thankfully it means there are others who will know what it is like to be in your position and be able to help you.

You won’t be the last person to have a viva either – which means that you’ll be able to help others as they get ready to meet their examiners.

Get help now as you need it. Give help later when you can.

The Many Names Of The Viva

People use lots of names to describe the PhD viva.

Viva voce. Thesis defence. Final viva. Thesis examination. The viva.

It’s quite common, in my experience, for candidates to capitalise the V in viva!

“…my Viva is next month…”


Words matter. The name we give something influences how we think and feel about it. In turn this influences what we do about it. The viva is important – your viva is important – but it’s just one day. One day after over a thousand spent on your PhD journey.

If you find that preparing for your thesis defence is giving you doubts, then consider that you’re getting ready for a thesis examination.

If you stress over your Viva then perhaps you will feel better about your viva.

What’s in a name? There are so many ways to describe the conversation you’ll have with your examiners at the end of your PhD. What name will be right for your viva? Make a good choice for yourself.

Whatever They Ask

The simplest way to describe your role in the viva is that you are there to engage with your examiners’ questions. Whatever the question is – easy, hard, expected, unknown, hoped-for or unwanted – engage with it. There’s space for you to ask your own, of course, but for the most part you play your part by responding to questions and being a full participant in the discussion.

Whatever they ask, think and respond. There’s useful prep that can help but keeping that thought in mind once you get to the viva can do a lot to prepare you.

You have one job. Engage and respond, whatever they ask.


You can’t know exactly what will happen at your viva before you have it.

But you can know about the many vivas of your friends and colleagues. Use stories of vivas in the past to help get ready for yours in the future.

From these stories you can see that vivas range in length. They’re fairly structured conversations. You can expect challenging questions. You can also know who your examiners are and what they do. You can’t know what questions they will ask, but you can get a sense of what they might want.

Altogether you can have a good idea of what your viva will be like. You can build up a realistic set of expectations rather than worry about the unknown aspects.


Is the viva unfair?

It might help if you knew what your examiners thought about your thesis before the viva.

You could benefit by knowing what questions would be asked, or how long it was going to take.

You might feel there are certain things you would want to control about the situation.

Or perhaps you really wish that during your research more stuff had happened the way it was supposed to.

Even taking all of that into account the viva is pretty fair.

You get several years to do the work and one opportunity to have a conversation with your examiners. The process isn’t hidden. There are regulations for your institution and expectations more generally: if you don’t know, you can find out. There are kinds of work that help someone get ready, and they’re not too onerous: if you don’t know, you can find out and then get ready. If you need more support for any reason then it will be there. The viva is a challenge. It could be difficult – in a way it’s supposed to be.

But it’s also fair.

First & Final

My work – the sessions I run, the things I write and do – is focussed on the final year viva. The last big milestone of the PhD journey. But earlier in a postgraduate researcher’s story there might be another viva.

It’s sometimes called a first-year viva, a transfer review or some other set of words that means we’re checking in that you’re on track now that you’ve been doing this for a while.

I don’t know a lot about them.

A lot of what motivates the final viva is comparable to the first-year viva. My knowledge is limited though and I can’t offer the same certainties: I don’t know about expectations for lengths or questions. I can make educated guesses; the best people to talk to are the people you know already. Your supervisors and your friends who have been through the process. Local knowledge is going to beat anything that the person on the internet can say.


A participant at a webinar last year asked me, “What do I do about my final viva if I had a bad experience at my first-year viva?”

It was a brave and generous question. Brave because even in a webinar it can be hard to share something like that. Generous because they were probably not the only person to have a bad experience during their PhD, at their first-year viva or otherwise, and their question allowed a space to talk about that issue.

I didn’t know a lot about that person. I knew nothing about their first-year viva. I felt confident saying this though:

“You don’t have to be defined by that one experience. That happened. But that doesn’t have to be what you take forward. That doesn’t have to be the thing you keep in mind for your final viva. It was probably hard, but you can move past that. Despite that you kept going. Focus on that instead. Your first-year viva and your final viva are two completely different events, with different people involved. And now you are a different person to who you were then. Focus on everything you’ve achieved over the course of your PhD, and not one day that didn’t go to plan. Keep going.”

Well, I said something like that! I wish I had had this set of particular words arranged just so on that day a few months ago.

I offer them here instead, in case they can help anyone else.

If your first-year viva was tough, or if you had another difficult meeting or conversation during your PhD, remember: that was then and now you’re not the same person.

You’ve done more, know more and can do more. You’ve done enough to prove yourself. Keep going and succeed in the viva.

Prepare For The Challenge

The viva is most likely the final challenge of your PhD. Corrections are work, but in most cases they’re simply editing or amending what you’ve already finished. The viva is the big thing you need to focus on and get ready for.

So prepare. Find out what’s involved. You have a lot of skill and knowledge when you submit: you need to know how to apply that to the challenge. You need to know what the viva is all about. You need to know how you can be your best in that situation.

You’ve risen to so many challenges over the course of your PhD. You can rise to and succeed at this final one.

Take a little time to get ready. That’s all you need.

Winning The Viva

When your viva is all done there’s no gold medal for no corrections. You don’t get a little asterisk on your certificate for minor corrections.

No corrections, minor corrections, major corrections. Different outcomes that mean the same thing: you’ve passed.

Different outcomes mean different amounts of work involved. It’s worth knowing what the different outcomes mean in terms of deadlines for completion or the scale of work involved. It’s worth getting a sense of what your supervisors think about how likely different outcomes are (and for what reasons).

No corrections, minor corrections, major corrections: you’ve passed.

Two Pictures

I wanted to call this post…

The Picture In My Head Is Not The Picture In Your Head

…but even I have my limits!

This phrase came to me recently when my daughter was trying to explain something from school. She was getting frustrated, starting to tire of my questions until just before she got angry I thought to say, “Sweetie, the picture in my head is not the picture in your head. I don’t understand yet what you mean, so I have to ask questions to try and imagine what you’re seeing.”

And she stopped and considered; then we started again and after a few more minutes there was understanding.

Your thesis has tens of thousands of words, and the picture it puts in your examiners’ heads may not match the picture you have in yours. So they have to ask questions.

The picture of a viva in your mind might be muddled or unclear compared to the stories your friends tell you. Asking questions and listening to the responses helps.

Your description of your contribution to research, while clearly matching the picture in your head, may be lacking detail when a reader sees it in their mind.

The picture in my head is not the picture in your head. And the picture in your head is not the same as the picture in your examiners’ heads, your supervisor’s mind and so on.

Patient listening helps. Careful questions help. Practice before the viva helps your performance on the day.

You can’t simply will someone to see the picture you see.

You can learn how to guide someone to a closer understanding of your picture though.

Setting Expectations

Happy New Year from Viva Survivors!


I’m often asked “What are vivas like?” I can help with that, as can a candidate’s friends and colleagues. No-one can guarantee what a viva will be like beforehand but there are enough stories that we can piece together expectations.

Vivas tend to be a certain length; they tend to start with these sorts of questions; vivas are structured, and so on.

That’s one kind of expectation. Another kind are the expectations you have for yourself at the viva.

You will be prepared. You will pause when you hear a question. You will take your time to respond. You will use every opportunity to share your research.


There there are the big picture expectations you set for yourself. What kind of researcher do you want to be? How are you going to get your PhD finished? And what kind of person do you want to be?

There are pros and cons for setting New Year’s Resolutions, but I think it’s a good idea to start a new year by setting expectations for oneself. What do you want to demonstrate and do as you go through the next 365 days? How could you do that? What kind of a difference are you trying to make?

Here’s to a good year, with very best wishes from me and my family to you and yours 🙂

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