The First Viva

The first viva must have been really awkward.

What questions would the examiners ask? How might the candidate know what to expect? How would the examiners know what to expect?!

Who decided what made a good thesis? Or if the candidate had done enough? Or if they did enough in the viva?!

Why were they even having a viva???

Of course, the viva as we know it today is an evolution of former practices. Structure given to culture, rules to rhythms. That’s not a bad thing: it may be tricky to pinpoint exactly when and where PhD vivas started, but we know where they are now.

For your viva you can know what to expect. There are regulations, expectations and experiences to frame your understanding. Your viva might feel a little awkward and uncomfortable, but I’m sure it will be much better than the experience of the candidate at the first viva!

Discuss, Explain, Demonstrate

Examiners have three important things to do in your viva:

  • Explore your significant, original contribution;
  • Unpick the hows and whys of your research;
  • Examine your competence as a researcher.

They ask questions to motivate discussion. If they’re satisfied by your thesis and the discussion then you are awarded your PhD.

You have to assume at submission that your thesis is good enough. Then, in the viva, the three important things your examiners have to do prompt three important challenges for you. You have to…

  • …discuss your significant, original contribution;
  • …explain the hows and whys of your research;
  • …demonstrate your competence as a researcher.

Discuss, explain, demonstrate – the three core verbs to have in mind for your viva.

What could you do to better prepare yourself to discuss your contribution?

How well can you explain how and why you did your research?

And how can you demonstrate your competence – your talent – as a researcher?

Video Viva Checklist

When you submit, you’ve done a lot already that helps you in the viva. After submission you have an opportunity to do a little more work to help you get ready. If your viva is over video, you can do a little extra to help you be ready for that particular situation. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that could help.

  • Practise with the technology. Ask friends to do rehearsal calls. Find the location of basic on-screen buttons and prompts. Don’t assume that it will simply run fine on the day.
  • Find a space and setup that works well for you. What do you want to have behind you? Do you need to elevate the camera that you’re using? For all my webinars I have to put my laptop on top of a boxfile so that I’m not looking down at the camera!
  • Check your connection. See if you have a stable connection over wifi. Explore whether or not you need to use an ethernet cable.
  • Be certain of the plan for your viva. Know which software, what time and so on. Know what the backup plan is or how to get in touch if something unexpected happens.
  • Decide how you might support your verbal responses. Will you use an onscreen shared whiteboard? Or use a small whiteboard at your desk and then display to the camera? Or perhaps even use a second camera to show sketches?

Like most in-person vivas, video vivas are typically fine. They’re not meant to be ordeals. Preparation can ensure yours won’t be.


What assumptions are you making about your viva? Here are some I think are generally valid for the viva.

  • Assume your examiners will be prepared.
  • Assume you’ve written a good thesis.
  • Assume that perfection is out of reach.
  • Assume you have enough time to get ready.
  • Assume that you have what it takes.
  • Assume your viva will follow the general pattern of vivas.
  • Assume that it will be different to every other viva you’ve heard of too.
  • Assume that you will pass.

I like to assume – and think it’s fair to assume too – that once you’ve passed you’ll go and do something even more impressive.

Slicing Carefully

Don’t attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity.

According to The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts – a book I mentioned a month ago on the blog and which is still echoing around my brain – this little line above is Hanlon’s Razor.

I wonder if stupidity is a little tough, maybe we could say carelessness? Oversight? A slip?

For the viva and viva prep it’s very easy to see something wrong and see (incorrectly) bad intentions behind it. Try not to. Instead of seeing negativity in your past actions, acknowledge that you could have made mistakes, or your supervisor could, or your examiners could be now. Not out of malice, just out of error.

Pause to appreciate motivations and intentions by all concerned in the viva – and definitely don’t call anyone stupid…

Imagine That

There’s a lot of negative possibilities that candidates imagine for their viva.

They worry they won’t be ready. They fear potential questions. They’re concerned in case something bad happens.

The viva’s important, so it’s natural to have concerns. But passing is way more likely than failing. A good viva is far more probable than a bad on. It’s far more useful to imagine all the good that could happen.

So imagine that you’re prepared. Imagine you get interesting questions. Imagine getting minor corrections. Imagine passing, smiling, breathing a sigh of relief maybe, but being done.

And remember that not everything is out of your control. What will you do to make your imaginings a reality?

Major, Minor, None

You’re most likely to get minor corrections. Check to see how much time your university allows for them to be completed. Passing usually means, “passing subject to completing these” – so find out the timeline in advance for the most likely outcome and figure out what that could mean for you.

You don’t need to plan for no corrections. If it happens, great! That’s it. Your only bonus is to be completely done probably a little sooner.

You’re least likely to get major corrections, but some candidates do. Doing a PhD is hard, writing a thesis is hard. It’s to be expected that sometimes, despite best efforts, the thesis does not quite match the standard needed even if the contribution is sound. It’s major because it takes more time than minor, because there is more to do. But it’s not a fail, and you shouldn’t expect it for you.

If you do, genuinely, expect to get major corrections then talk to your supervisors about why you’re thinking that. Get a second opinion and explore your options.

Poorly Prepared

Poorly prepared for your viva means you didn’t bother, or you didn’t take it seriously.

Poorly prepared for your viva means you relied on hope rather than work to get you through.

Poorly prepared means you didn’t find out about what was involved with the viva.

You didn’t ask graduates about their experiences to help set your expectations.

Poorly prepared means you didn’t read your thesis or practise or do anything really after submission.

Poorly prepared maybe even means that you just submitted any old thing and hoped it would pass!

The actions (or lack of actions) that could lead to someone being poorly prepared for their viva are pretty clear.

So are the actions that could help candidates be ready.

Unique, Not Unknown

Your viva, in a nutshell.

A unique exam, arising in response to a unique thesis, written by a unique candidate. There has never been a viva the same as yours before; there will never be another the same again.

But there are regulations: the rules that frame how vivas have to happen. There are academic practices: ideas from research culture about what makes a viva good. There are expectations: built up from all of the stories of past candidates, relatively probable situations, structure and outcomes for the viva.

Your viva will be unique, but not totally unknown, not totally unexpected. You can never have total certainty for it, but the more light you can shine on the probable circumstances the better you will feel for your once-in-forever experience.