Putting The PhD Together

The process of doing a PhD is like doing a really hard jigsaw when you don’t have the picture to start with.

It takes time to get going. You have to find the corners, establish your boundaries, and make sure that everything fits in place.

Progress can be slow for a long time, but you start to see patterns, and slowly the gaps are filled.

When you’re done you might have ideas about what you could have done differently – but you don’t need to do them. You have what you need, and it works or you wouldn’t have the picture that you do.

The viva is telling someone about the jigsaw; they don’t have to go through the same process, but they want to know what yours was like, and what the picture was that you got at the end. Take time to think back over how you did it and what you got, so you can be clear with your examiners.

Whatever you ultimately feel about your picture, remember that your PhD jigsaw wouldn’t be finished if it wasn’t for your efforts.

Edge Cases

The vivas that take place over Skype.

The third examiner in the room, or the second external.

The examiner that isn’t an academic.

These aren’t what most candidates would expect, but they don’t make your viva unique and unpredictable. Your viva is unique because you’re unique, your thesis is unique – no-one will ever have the exam that you do. If you have a viva over videoconferencing, or if your examiner doesn’t have a PhD, you shouldn’t worry. These things don’t happen all the time, but they aren’t happening for the first time in your viva either.

They’re not common but the edge cases still have expectations. You can ask and find out about them.

No Spoilers!

A few weeks ago I was patiently (at first, then impatiently) waiting for Avengers Endgame to be released at the cinema. Tickets booked, clock ticking down in my brain to when I could go and find out what happened. I expected that the heroes would win, but was desperate to know how…

…but not so desperate to read any reviews or leaks or spoilers. That would be heresy. I wanted to be as spoiler-free as possible. The trailer might have shown me some odd sequences, made me wonder, “Well, how did they get to there? And who are they talking to? And…” but that was just to whet my appetite.

There are no spoilers for the viva, of course. Unlike a movie it can’t be spoiled by someone telling you what happens in advance because it’s not happened. It’s not a spoiler to know you’re very, very likely to pass.

A spoiler would be knowing what questions were going to be asked, or what your examiners exactly thought in advance. And I think those would be spoilers: they would spoil the conversation, the viva would be less of a test of your talent and more a test of your memory. A viva spoiled like this would be a sad conclusion to a PhD journey.

Thankfully, there are no spoilers at all for the viva. The hero of the story will win. We might not know exactly how, but there are some pretty good reasons why…

Formally Informal…

…or Informally Formal?

How do we classify the viva?

  • Are there regulations that spell out that the viva is relaxed and has a format which allows for variation?
  • Or is there an understanding among everyone involved that this is serious, but that the rules are agreed on by the “community” rather than someone at the top?

Which is it? Could it be both? Or neither? Does it matter?

I think what matters is that candidates check the regulations, find out about experiences and expectations, then think about what they need to do to meet them. The classification for how formal the viva is or isn’t is just one more piece of baggage, that doesn’t help unless we know what’s really involved.

Begin With The End In Mind

I love that expression, but find it hard a lot of the time to put it into effect. Very often I’m in the middle of something before I realise the end that I’m looking for; I’m working on something I find interesting and then see what it needs to be (or what I want it to be).

I think most PhDs don’t know what the end of their research or the end of the PhD will be like until they’re somewhere in the middle. That’s fine too. You don’t need to start preparing for the viva until you’ve submitted, but once you have a sense of what you’re aiming for you can begin to steer yourself in that destination.

  • You can think about how to make your thesis better. How can you communicate your research? How can you anticipate the needs of your audience? How can you structure your thesis well?
  • You can find out about the viva. What are realistic expectations? What are the regulations for your university? What are vivas really like?
  • You can think about what you need to be ready for the viva. What little steps can you take? What do you need to do? What would a confident you look like?

You don’t need everything all at once. You don’t need to start preparing for the viva until your thesis is done. But once you know where you’re going you can start to lay the foundations for the end of your PhD.

Begin, in the middle, with the end in mind…

Wants & Needs For The Viva

Wants and needs are two different things, but they can be easy to confuse.

  • You might want to submit a perfect thesis, but that’s impossible. So think, what does your thesis need to have?
  • You might want the best possible examiners, but they might be busy. What do you need in a good examiner?
  • You might want to be 100% free of nerves for the viva, but how likely is that? What do you need to do to be as ready as you can be?

As your PhD comes to a close, it’s not wrong to think through all the things you want – for your thesis, for your viva prep, for the viva itself – but make sure you ask yourself, “What do I really need to do this?”

Reasons You Could Enjoy Your Viva

You could enjoy your viva. A lot of people do, and many do even if they’re nervous.

You could enjoy your viva because…

  • …it’s your work and you know it better than anyone.
  • …you wrote your thesis and you know what it took to make it.
  • …you’re meeting two experienced academics, not two people who know nothing.
  • …the viva is the last big thing you have to get done for your PhD.
  • …you get to demonstrate how talented you are.
  • …your PhD is almost finished and soon you can start something new.

It’s not wrong to have your reasons for being nervous, but also look for reasons why you could enjoy your viva.

Assumptions About The Viva

I’ve heard candidates confidently assume and then assert that…

  • …new academics make terrible examiners and should be avoided!
  • …short vivas are best!
  • …corrections mean you’ve failed!
  • …the viva is a trial by fire!
  • …you can’t really prepare for the viva!
  • …the viva is a great big messy unknown.

Are these true? For the most part, no, I don’t think so. But they’re common assumptions that people make.

Challenge any and all assumptions about the viva. Check with graduates’ experience and reasons, not just surface beliefs. Check with regulations and academic practices. Don’t just accept something scary and then worry. Check your assumptions.

What do you think about the viva? How do you know that’s right? Are you sure it’s right?


In the viva your examiners have freedom to ask about everything in your thesis. They can also ask about anything that isn’t in there.

You have to have boundaries for your research. You can’t do everything, but you’ll probably think about a lot more than you finally include in your thesis. Your answer can simply be, “That was out of the scope of my research,” but that might not be answer enough for your examiners.

So explore the why with them. Why didn’t you do it? Don’t take the question as a criticism; questions explore. Give your examiners your reasons – lack of time, lack of interest, lack of resources, lack of information, deliberate choice to focus on something else… Whatever it is, but be real. Don’t bluff. Be honest.

There might be interesting, exciting things that you’ve not done, but you must have done something good to be in the viva.

Ask For Opinions

Ask your supervisors what they think about your examiners, your work and vivas in general.

Ask friends who have had their viva what they think you should do to prepare, what their viva was like and how they felt about it.

Ask friends who haven’t had their viva about your work, your field, and generally anything you think will help.

You can always ask for opinions, but remember you get to choose what to act on.