What could you do if an examiner was harsh?

Nevermind that they’re supposed to be fair, professional and so on. What if they weren’t? It’s easy to say don’t worry, they’re not supposed to be, but what could you do if you felt they weren’t fair?

  • …I don’t believe you!
  • …I don’t agree!
  • …What about my work?
  • …But don’t you think that such-and-such has a more important idea than this?

What could you do?

Listen. Breathe. Take a step back. Think. Ask yourself why. Ask them why. Remember that the viva is not a Q&A. Remember who the expert in the room is. If they’re harsh, push their tone to one side and respond to their ideas or questions.

It’s extremely unlikely that an examiner would be harsh, but it’s possible that they may have an opinion – fair, balanced and appropriate – that still catches you off guard. A question that throws you. Pausing, listening just to the question and not the tone, setting your feelings aside for a second – all of this can still help.

Event Horizon

At a workshop in December, a PhD candidate told me he couldn’t see past the “event horizon of his viva.” This put into words, quite beautifully, something I’ve felt for a long time about the important events in my life. Some things seem so massive that they draw you in completely. There’s no escape from thinking about them.

Time and space breaks down at the viva. Perspective gets skewed. The viva feels so big it distorts everything. What can you do as it draws you in?

  • Look back: you’re getting close, but you’ve come a long way to get to these few hours (and must have done a lot to get there)
  • Look forward: make plans for afterwards. Focus on the post-viva reality. This isn’t the end.
  • Look around: there are people who can help you in all sorts of ways, even if that’s just to help you get a bit of perspective.

Steer your focus. The viva doesn’t have to be a black hole.

Defending or Defensive?

In the viva you may have to defend your work. Ideally, you need to do so without becoming defensive.

Defending: “This is why I made this choice…”

Defensive: “I made the right choice!”

Defending: “…that’s a fair question. I think…”

Defensive: “…that’s not relevant because…”

Defending: “…well, I think I addressed this point in Chapter 3…”

Defensive: “…oh yeah? Well what would you know!”

Stay on the right side of defending in the viva. No thesis or PhD is perfect. You can defend, explain and explore your decisions and conclusions, of course, but don’t make it personal. Make your examiners’ comments about the work.

Take a step back and breathe if you feel that you’re being criticised. If your examiners don’t agree, ask them why. Listen and then bring it back to what you did and why. That’s what will help your answers.


There are lots of things people think will have an impact on their viva or their prep. Here’s a partial list of factors people think could make a difference, for good or bad:

Your examiners. Your institution. The number or types of awards or results. Whether you were part-time or full-time. Home or international. Number of supervisors. Time spent on your PhD. Do you have a Masters? How long between submission and the viva? Will you have an independent chair? Have you cited your examiners? Number of references in your bibliography. Number of chapters in your thesis. Number of published papers during your PhD. Number of hours spent on prep. Will you have had a mock viva? Have you read a book about the viva? Did you go to a workshop about the viva?

I’m a mathematician and there’s part of me which would love to take all of these variables and make an equation. But there’s far too many. Lots of them could make a difference.

So why not focus instead on the constants? The things that are always there.

You did the work. You made the choices. You steered yourself. Your examiners are capable researchers, who know what they’re doing in the viva. You are a capable researcher by the time you submit, and have the time to prepare yourself for the viva.

Focus on the constants that hold true for everyone.


The wind blows. That’s what it does. Some days it’s fast, some days it’s a gentle breeze, and some nights it sounds like it is bringing the end of the world.¬†Depending on the situation I might wear a coat, bunker down, pick up the bins in our garden, or just go for a stroll and try to smile as my hat flies off.

Experiences shape perceptions and responses.

Back to the blog about viva help!

The viva is questions. Questions about your work. And you’ve been asked questions before. Maybe not this or that, but you’ve been asked questions. And you’ve answered them. You know how to deal with difficult questions about your research. You know how to explain your work. You know how to think around your research area.

You can worry about a unique or novel situation, but you can also still prepare for it. You did the work, you wrote your thesis, you can succeed in the viva.

The 99th Percentile

“Excuse me, can you reach that?” Usually, yes. I’m six feet and four inches tall and in the 99th percentile for height in the UK. I didn’t have to work on it much, it just happened.

PhDs don’t just happen. Nobody gets onto a PhD programme, or gets through one, by being lazy or unskilled. You have to know things and you have to do things. Yet you compare yourself to others and you grow to doubt yourself. The viva comes around and you wonder, “What will the examiners think? What will they ask? How will they rate me?”

There’s a background fear in some candidates that examiners are just better. And not in a small way. “Examiners are at the 99th percentile!”

They’re six feet four, looking down on you.


I’m not so sure. It matters what you measure. Does it matter, assuming that it’s true, that your examiners are at the 99th percentile? Are you being examined on your total knowledge of your field? And if you were, wouldn’t you comfortably be in the top 90% or higher?

And what percentile are you at when it comes to more than your field? Where are you when it comes to you niche? When it comes to your research? Your thesis?

Your examiners may know a lot, and they may have experiences and knowledge that you don’t – but they don’t have YOUR knowledge and YOUR experience, or YOUR considered perspective from years of study.

Strikethrough to Simple

The viva is not a mysterious unknown cobbled together from the worst-case scenarios that keep you awake at night about your research. There are regulations and best practices, a structure that rests on and comes from your own work. It’s not thrown together in the moment or something that jumps out of left field. Yours will be unique, but based on a common structure with others, and if you ask the right people the right questions then you can prepare for it.

Vivas don’t just happen. You can learn about them and prepare for them.

Effective preparation is based on a continuation of the types of work you must have done throughout your PhD. The kinds of work that create good research are the kinds of work that will serve you well on the run up to the viva. Asking questions and making summaries, finding opportunities to discuss your work and answer questions, making space for deep thinking – all will be valuable, you just apply them a little differently.

You know all the stuff that you did to do your research? Keep doing it.

A PhD thesis can vary in size wildly between disciplines, and academic language in your field may allow for or necessitate a grandiose usage of words, sentences and other meaning-bearing symbols. But you don’t need to focus on every single word in order to feel fully prepared for your viva voce: what if you took some parts of your work and actively crossed things out, leaving only the most important and needed ideas? Do you need everything, or would it be good to strikethrough and make it simpler? Would that be an effective tool for you in order to help figure out what matters most? There could be a great freedom in doing it – although perhaps you might want to use a separate copy of a chapter to help, rather than obliterate parts of your thesis!

Strikethrough to simple: cross things out and leave the most important material. But maybe use a spare printout!

Counting Chickens

Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched

…especially with the viva…?

Don’t count them.

Spend your time counting something more worthwhile.

Count the number of days you’ve spent on your PhD.

Count the number of papers you’ve read and referenced.

Count the times you’ve made breakthroughs.

Count the times you’ve heard someone say, “Interesting…” after you’ve told them about your work.

Count the times you’ve stood up and presented.

Count the ideas that you’ve come up with.

Count the ways that you’re a better researcher now than when you started.

What does all of that add up to?

Nothing poultry.

(sorry, couldn’t resist!)

Don’t expect there to be nothing to challenge you in the viva, don’t expect to fail; know that you’ve got the tools and talent to meet the questions of your examiners. Instead of assuming you’ll pass, or worrying you won’t, do what you can to remind yourself of why you’re there and how that happened.

Boss Battle

A possible screenshot of the viva has people imagining it’s like facing end-of-level baddies in a computer game.

After all of the trials and tribulations of doing research, your examiners appear through the fog, two mysterious and challenging foes! Whatever you’ve done before, the rules don’t apply to them!! They’re bigger than the other baddies, tougher, hit harder and if you’re not careful you’re doomed!!!

Well. That’s one way to look at things.

If we accept it then we have to accept everything else from the picture: you’ve reached the end of the level. You’ve fought your way through, and you’ve got there, and it’s not by accident. While a boss battle can seem much tougher, they’re based around all of the same moves that you’ve done in the rest of the game. There’s a different focus maybe, and a different challenge, but it’s well within your capabilities.

There are no cheat codes in the viva – but you don’t need them if you’ve got there.

Internal Vs External

Candidates focus on the distinction between internal and external examiners a lot. Have you heard these nuggets of examiner-related folk wisdom before?

  • Your external is likely to be more of an expert in your field than your internal.
  • Your internal will ask the easier questions.
  • Your external is going to take the lead.
  • Your internal is on your side.
  • Your external and internal will act differently.

They sound right, but from all of the conversations I’ve had about vivas, I’ve only seen some evidence to support the first point.

And really, when you break that down, it’s wholly dependent on the candidate, their research, their field and who is available in your department and elsewhere. The other four bits of wisdom sound like neat ways to sum up your examiners, but aren’t accurate and wouldn’t help all that much if they were.

Two simple truths that help:

  • First, your examiners are prepared: they read your thesis, are ready to examine you and are competent to do the examination.
  • Second, your internal is local: they know what the requirements are, and while they’re not on your side exactly, they are there to make sure it’s fair. (some institutions go a step further and have independent chairs in vivas, to ensure candidates get a fair exam).

Forget folk wisdom. Focus on what’s true about your examiners.