Why Would I Be OK?

This is a question I didn’t realise I was asking myself before my viva.

All of my friends told me I would be fine. They’d passed their vivas, they told me I would pass mine. It would be OK.

Why? Why would it all be fine? Why would I be OK? I didn’t know.

I didn’t know that most candidates pass – and pass with minor corrections. I had no idea.

I didn’t know what examiners did in the viva. I didn’t know if there was a format. Were there expectations for vivas? I didn’t know.

I didn’t know what I might be asked about. I had a good understanding of everything I’d done, but I didn’t know if that would be enough. Would that match what my examiners wanted to know? I had no clue.

Everyone told me I would be OK. If I’d been a little more self-aware at the time I would have known to ask, “Why?”

Your viva can be fine. Find out more about what they’re like, find out what you can do to be ready. Then go and be fine.

You’ll be OK.

The Problem With Pass Or Fail

“Pass or fail” is too simple a story for the viva. Two outcomes plants the idea that both have equal likelihood. Even when a candidate knows that’s not the case, having a binary outcome allows for one (the negative one, of course!) to rest heavily in the mind.

There are many outcomes – minor corrections, major corrections, resubmission, no corrections… If we tell the story that the viva is pass or fail, the real outcomes confuses the matter. I’ve had many candidates ask me “Is major corrections a pass or not?” because they think the viva is only pass or fail.

Check the outcomes at your institution. Check what they mean. Focus on the fact that most people get some corrections to do, and that’s not a problem. They’ve not failed.

“Pass or fail” is a nice, simple story, but it’s not accurate. There are many outcomes, not just two, and most of them are a pass. There are conditions to the pass, and there are reasons why candidates get those outcomes. Find out why. Learn more. Understand the situation.

Not “pass or fail” but “pass and why”

Why Examiners Ask

No questions, no viva, no PhD. That’s fundamental, but there are many reasons for particular questions in the viva.

Your examiners might ask you that question because they need you to make something clearer. Maybe there is a typo and they want to check what you meant. A question may be exploratory, there’s something interesting to discuss. They might want to check a detail is correct or that you understand something.

A question might be asked because they think something is wrong; they’re asking to give you a chance to explain it more. A question could be an invitation, a way to start a conversation. A question could be used to change topic or pause. A question could be an opportunity for you to get excited and talk about something you love.

Particular questions have reasons. You might not be able to see those reasons in the moment, of course, but they are there. Your examiners use them to drive the discussion, to help you speak, to address their concerns and demonstrate that you did the work.

Questions give you the chance to show your talent.


The viva is important. Passing is important. Lots of things in life are important.

Getting your dream job.

Passing your driving test.

Publishing a book.

Being on TV.

Finding true love.

Living a long and happy life.

Going around the world.

Seeing falling stars on a summer’s evening in the middle of the French countryside.

Watching a dust devil swirl and twirl.

Seeing night turn to day in the middle of an intense electrical storm.

(seeing the previous three things on one holiday!)

Finding a problem.

Finding a solution.

Being reliable.

Being a parent.

Sharing things.

The viva is not the most important thing you will ever do. Wouldn’t it be a bit sad if it was? That would mean everything that came before, especially the research you did, would be a bit blah in comparison. And the same for everything that comes afterwards!

Let go of your viva being the most important thing ever. Then you can find and focus on what really is important about the viva, and get past it to whatever important things come next.

Comfort, Stretch, Panic

Three useful words for experiential learning. Before setting goals or planning out a project, it’s good to think about how you feel about different aspects of the work or the possible outcomes.

  • Comfort: what do you have no problem with? What would feel fine?
  • Stretch: what would be a challenge? What would be new to you, but feels within your capabilities?
  • Panic: what would make you afraid? What would be terrible for you?

These words are useful to frame planning and review of a project. They help with lots of parts of the viva too! In preparation, what feels comfortable about your work? What might stretch you while you review your research? Do any parts of your thesis make you panic?

On the day, how can you get comfortable or feel confident? What could be a stretch in the viva? Do you feel panicked at the thought of any particular questions? After the viva, take time to reflect and review. When did you feel comfortable in the viva? What questions stretched you? Did you panic?

(I hope not!)

Responses and Answers

I try to be careful in my choice of words. Recently I’ve started to use the word response instead of answer when I explore viva questions with PhD candidates. Because of talks, quizzes, game shows, tests and the basics of conversation, we expect that questions have answers.

When someone asks, you answer. When your examiner asks, you need to answer…

…except what if you don’t know?

What if you’re not sure?

What if there is no “True Answer” to a question?

A question might not have a definite answer, but you can always give a response.

Your response could be a hunch, a theory, an idea, a gut feeling, a reason, a piece of evidence. It could be saying, “I don’t know, and here’s why…”

Not every question in the viva will have an answer. Every question can be responded to.

What could you do to respond as well as possible in the viva?

Enjoy, Endure, Engage

I’d like to think that most people could enjoy their viva, but I know that some won’t.

I know most candidates won’t feel like they simply have to endure their viva, but sadly, some will.

More and more I think the best advice I can give to all candidates is to engage with their viva.

Engage with their preparations. Be active and take charge of how they feel and what they need to do.

Engage with their examiners and their questions. Don’t worry about going blank or forgetting. Instead, think about what they can do to best respond in the viva.

Engage with this great opportunity to discuss the valuable work they’ve done.

I hope you enjoy your viva, I hope it’s not a case of enduring it.

Remember that you get to control how you engage with your viva.

General, Knowledge

The viva isn’t just a big quiz.

Questions could be big. Questions can be about more than what’s in your thesis, but your examiners have more useful things to do than test you on your the general knowledge of your field.

Yes, you need to know about more than what’s in your thesis. No, you don’t have to know everything (remember, you can’t know everything).

(remember, your examiners don’t know everything either)

You know a lot. You needed to, in order to complete your thesis. Most of your examiners’ questions aren’t testing your memory. They want to see how you think. How do you think about your work? How do you think about your field? Knowing things about both is useful, but they know you can’t know everything. What you know will be enough.

The viva is lots of big questions, but not a big quiz.


There isn’t a standard viva format.

There are reasonable expectations, but no guarantees.

Probable durations, but very long and very short outliers.

A range of possible first questions, but no certainty for the exact start of your viva.

There’s no standard format, but there are standards: standards for your examiners, standards for the process, standards for what a good thesis might be like.

Be confident that you meet the standard for a good, talented researcher.