Sample Of One

You need to hear a few stories before a full picture of the viva comes into focus.

One bad story could convince you (wrongly) that you’re in for a bad time.

One good story wouldn’t explain enough of what to generally expect.

Listen to the stories of PhD graduates generally to get an overall sense of what happens. Ask two or three friends from your department about their vivas to begin to get a sense of the process, expectations and experiences that candidates have in the viva. Vivas are generally fine. They can be challenging but not negative, difficult but not something that needs to be endured.

A sample of one isn’t enough, but a few stories can help you feel good for the challenge ahead.

Connecting In A Video Viva

It makes a difference that you’re not in the same room as your examiners if you’re over Zoom. Delays due to a poor signal, tech failure or less body language to read could all make it harder to engage with your examiners. These factors might even create a sense that there’s something wrong with the viva.

You can make a positive difference too though. You can practise with friends or in a mock viva to get a feel for delays in communication and grow comfortable with the video format. You can explore options to help your tech situation. You can read your examiners’ work to help you connect with them. You can prepare for your viva to be as confident and ready as you can be for the situation. You can do a lot to build yourself up.

Don’t forget that whatever might interfere – tech, signal, the size of the screen on which you see your examiners – everyone involved wants the viva to go well. The online element shouldn’t interfere with any good will when it comes to connecting with your examiners, or interfere with the outcome of your viva.

More Things I Don’t Know

Two years ago I shared this little post about things I didn’t know about the viva. Two years on and I have thoughts about some of these!

  • What percentage of candidates fail their viva? Around 0.1% is my estimate, based on lots of conversations with doctoral college staff.
  • How well does a viva over Skype work compared to an in-person viva? What’s Skype…? Online vivas seem to work well, all things considered, and like anything just require a little adjusting to.

I’m still wondering about thesis-by-publication differences, and the vivas of full-time and part-time researchers.

I also realise that I don’t know for sure how common a presentation is at the start of the viva (they seem to be quite rare). It’s unclear whether or not the switch to Zoom vivas is going to be remain common in the long term. I don’t know if there is a universal viva prep help idea that can make a difference for every candidate (though I keep working on it!).

I’ve accepted that there will always be things I don’t know about the viva. Some I can find out, some I can explore and make sense of, and some things might always remain unknown. I can keep exploring a little but I also have to focus on what I do know, what I can share and how I can help.

Consider your research. There are things you don’t know. You can explore that a little, to be sure of what you don’t know and why – but keep your focus squarely on what you do know, how you can be certain, and how you can best share it with others.

There’s always more. But by now you must know enough.

Once Upon A Time

There’s a fairytale aspect to the viva.

Generally there’s a rhythm and sense of how one will unfold. More often than not, a clear sense of beginning, middle and end, patterns by which the story comes together.

Only a few important people in the story, a clear protagonist, a series of challenges – though thankfully no goblins, ogres, giants or trolls.

And like fairytales, when you ask around you discover that nearly every viva has a happy ending.

Nervous Correlates

If you feel nervous before your viva there is typically a simple explanation: you’re recognising that the viva is important.

You need to pass, you’ve invested a lot of work to this point, and even though the vast majority of candidates pass, there’s still that little quiet voice saying, “Come on, you’ve got to do this!”

You will. It’s important, so you feel nervous. You can choose what you put your attention on. Let your actions focus on doing the viva well, rather than on beating away your nerves.


The viva process could perhaps best be described as non-obvious.

It’s not obvious what the process is like because viva experiences haven’t traditionally been shared all that much. It’s not obvious what to expect because regulations only tell one aspect of what goes on. Your examiners’ questions won’t all be obvious; it’s not possible to second-guess what they might latch on to or want to dig into. And there’s no way to find out everything that will get rid of the sense of not knowing what to expect.

But if you want to get rid of uncertainty you don’t need to find out everything. Read the regulations to get the big picture, and ask a few friends for their experiences to fill in the details. Learn about general viva questions and formats, and find out about your examiners’ research and interests to explore where their particular questions might come from.

Explore a little and you’ll see that a lot of what was odd or unknown about the viva is obvious with hindsight.

Like Your Viva

Because even on Valentines Day it might be a bit much to hope that people love their viva!

You could like your viva because…

  • …you’re almost done!
  • …you get to talk with two academics about your work!
  • …you know you’re good enough and it’s going to work out just fine!
  • …you’ve prepared and know you’re ready!

Or you could have another reason. It’s reasonable to hope and expect a candidate would like their viva. Whatever happens, tell your story afterwards. If you liked it, say why. If you didn’t, say why.

Share your experiences to help others hopefully like their vivas in the future.

The Unmysterious Viva

The viva experience might be sometimes unclear, but it’s not mysterious.

There’s a variety of experiences, but a clear range of common expectations.

There’s structure from regulations, academic practice and norms from departmental procedures.

Every viva is necessarily unique, but it’s simple enough to find a useful set of expectations to work towards.

Learn a little to take away any idea that your viva is a mysterious event in your future.

No Peeking

You can’t somehow look ahead and know the outcome of your viva.

You can take a good guess that it will be a pass and minor corrections. You can’t grab hold like a birthday present and give it a squeeze – it’s a book/DVD/socks/chocolates!! – and know for sure what it will be like. You might have a sense that a chapter has a few typos that need fixing, or that a section will need rewriting in some way, but the details will be beyond your reach.

Rather than guess and wonder exactly what will happen, focus on doing what you can to be ready. Get your thesis done, prepare well, find your confidence, be ready to engage with your examiners’ questions. Leave the outcome and the corrections for later. Save your focus for what’s right in front of you.

No peeking!

The Next Normal

We’ve not quite found the new form of the viva. In the UK, they’re all over video for now, but it’s too soon to say if that’s going to be normal from now on.

There’s definite benefits: potentially greater choice for examiners; more opportunity for making your own space a confidence-boosting environment for the viva; perhaps even new opportunities for participating in the viva itself that wouldn’t have been possible in a small seminar room. But reading body language and making small talk might suffer in the viva. I wonder if vivas-over-video will remain popular as people head back into the world.

I can recall telling seminar rooms not that long ago – very confidently – that any changes to the viva would come slowly. Academic culture was a ship that takes a long time to change course; the viva would continue to slowly evolve and change. I was so sure!

Wherever things go with the viva, the purpose will remain the same.

Examiners will want to explore your research contribution, be sure that you did the work and be certain that you’re a good researcher. They don’t have to do that in person though. As change comes, perhaps the viva will be broken into specific sections. Maybe formal presentations will become much more common as a start to the viva.

Our current situation is not normal, it’s different. The next normal is still coming.

It’ll take time, but it will get here. Underneath any differences though will be the same questions: What have you done and why? How did you do it? And can you show us how talented you are?