Thought Experiments

I like thought experiments, both philosophically and in fiction. It can be fun to ask what if? and then follow that thinking to see what might happen next. It’s useful in the kind of work I do too, thinking through how a session might run or how a new webinar might help someone. It can identify issues that need addressing in advance – or eliminate headaches before they happen!


Thought experiments allow us to get ahead of problems sometimes, but they can also be a distraction. A lot of what if questions about the viva are completely understandable but can also be very distracting:

  • What if my internal asks about something I didn’t do?
  • What if my external asks about something I can’t remember?
  • What if someone disagrees?
  • What if I lose my train of thought?
  • What if I feel nervous?

I have specific advice for each of these, but the general response to all of them is: “Then you would pause, think and ultimately respond to the situation in the moment in whatever way seems best.”

Because that’s all you can do.

You can prepare, you can practise and you can ask yourself what if – in the end you have to stop worrying and wondering about thought experiments.

Remember who you are, what you did, what you can do and what you bring to the viva.

How To Finish Well

Look back over the progress of your PhD journey. Your progress.

Realise that there is something new that now exists – and the only reason it does is because you made it happen.

Prepare for your viva carefully, invest time to make sure you are ready and confident.

Listen, think and respond to your examiners; make the most of your viva.

And when all of that is done, take a moment to think about what you take with you beyond your PhD. When it is finished it’s not the end for you and who you are now.

The Unfair Viva

From time to time I’ve been told that the viva is unfair because candidates are at a great disadvantage due to the position they’re in. Examiners can ask what they want, they have more experience, they get to decide the outcome, candidates don’t know what’s coming – and so on.

I’ll admit, there are things that a candidate won’t know at the start of their viva – but does that really disadvantage them?

There are regulations that govern the viva. There are consistent expectations – patterns of experience – that are derived from countless viva stories. The viva is a custom exam every time, but it springs from the seeds of the candidate’s work. The viva is an exam on their thesis and their journey. A candidate might not know every question, but they know everything they need to be able to respond to them.

A candidate is in a different position to their examiners. They have a different role in the viva. They have different information. But that doesn’t mean they are at a disadvantage.


It’s understandable that the nature of the viva could make a person worry. It’s understandable, given what any PhD candidate has to do to get to the viva, that the person being examined might be concerned or worry about how to do their best.

Or better than their best!

And it’s perfectly understandable why the thought of being asked this question or that question – or any question – might make someone feel nervous, concerned or stressed.

To simplify the situation, in the viva, questions are just questions. When you hear a “?” at the end of the sentence that’s your cue to talk. Your cue to talk about what you did, how you did it, what you know or what you think. It’s your cue to say something: to ask a question, to share a response, to say you need to think or to say you’re not sure.

Your examiners have to ask questions to find out what they need. You have to respond to those questions to try to meet those needs.

There are no good or bad questions, although it’s reasonable to expect challenging questions that you have to think about. It’s understandable for you to be nervous about being asked, but also reasonable to expect you to rise to the challenge of responding.

Presenting To Start

If they’ve read my thesis, why would my examiners need a presentation from me to start my viva?

This was one of the last questions I was asked at a webinar before I started my summer break.

There are many possible reasons that particular examiners would ask:

  • They want an overview to begin the viva process.
  • They want to see what the candidate really things is important – where do they put the focus?
  • They think that a presentation is a good way to begin the viva.
  • They think that a presentation could help the candidate to be less nervous at the start.

If examiners ask for a presentation it’s for a good reason. You might not know exactly what the reason is for them, but you can be certain that it’s good for you – even if it involves a little preparation on your part.

Second Chances

I have heard stories of candidates that are asked to correct and resubmit their thesis after their viva. Resubmission is a formal process; it can mean that the candidate has to have a second viva. It could be that the thesis was incomplete or in some way “not right”. It could be that on that occasion the candidate needed to say something in particular – but didn’t.

It could be this or it could be that, but one thing that is certain is that the “second chance” of resubmission and a second viva is incredibly rare. It happens and it happens for specific reasons. If you’re concerned about it in advance of your viva it might help to read the regulations for your university or talk to your supervisor to see if there is anything in your work to really be concerned about.

Again, it is incredibly rare for all of this to happen. While it might help to find out more about resubmission and second vivas just in case, it’s probably better that you focus on other things instead: your research, your thesis, your preparation. These are certainties that can help you to succeed – a far better focus than a hypothetical that will only serve to distract you.

A Collage Of Expectations

Viva expectations are a collage of different kinds of information: possibly dry regulations glued next to stories heard on the grapevine that then line up with the boundaries of firsthand, close-to-home experience.

Often, you simply need to realise that your viva will be unique but not an unknown. There’s a range of possible experiences but nothing outlandish that you’ll be unprepared for. The collage of expectations won’t present a clear picture of your viva, but it will show you how things are supposed to be.

Details Matter

Details matter in the viva but you don’t need to have perfect recall of everything you’ve ever read, done or written.

Details matter but you can take your time to think about how to explain them.

Details matter but you have lots of time to focus in advance of the viva on the details that matter more.

Details matter but your examiners want more than the facts.

Details matter but you need to be able to talk about them, not simply know them.

Describe The Ideal

How would you describe an ideal examiner for your viva?

Think about the qualities or attributes that they might have. Describe their research.

There might not be an individual you know of who meets these criteria. It may be close though: someone who satisfies three or four out of five points you might write down.

Now, what could you do to share this idea with your supervisor? You can’t choose your examiners, you can’t find perfection, but can you find someone close to the ideal you have in mind?

Necessary, Not Evil

Too often the viva is thought of as only a negative experience.

Questions, Examiners, The End, Stress, Worry, What If, Failure, The Unknown…

In advance of the viva, for many very understandable reasons, a candidate could expect it is going to be a bad experience. The viva is a necessary part of the PhD process in the UK, but also one that is a little unclear. It’s an exam so thinking about it can be a little worrying. It involves examiners and discussion – which can make thinking about engaging with the viva more than a little concerning.

The viva and the outcome really matter. The viva is important. Hypothetical questions about what might happen and worry about failure are reasonable.

You can’t simply change a negative opinion of the viva. You have to find out more. Ask friends about their experiences. Check the regulations and prepare yourself to meet the expectations you find there. You might still continue to think of the viva as hard or difficult, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience.

Your viva is a necessary part of your PhD journey. It doesn’t have to be a bad part.

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