Things I Don’t Know

There are lots of things I don’t know about the viva.

I don’t know if there’s any great differences between the vivas of part-time and full-time PhDs.

I don’t know how well vivas over Skype work compared to vivas in person.

I don’t know what percentage of people submit a thesis-by-publication.

I don’t know all of the regulations for all of the universities in the UK. (but I’m working on it!)

And I don’t know what percentage of candidates fail their viva, because universities are very reluctant to share that sort of data.

I have theories or ideas about all of these; hunches based on incomplete information, or ideas about how to get more stats. I’d like to explore these topics and many others, I just need to find the time to do it.

But the information is out there.

On smaller scales, your personal scale, the information is out there. There are regulations for your institution. You have a supervisor who can help shape your expectations. There are graduates you can talk to about viva experiences.

Figure out what you don’t know about the viva, then get to work finding out more.

(and I’ll do the same!)

The Big Day

If it helps you to think of the viva as a one-shot, once-in-a-lifetime super-mega-event then keep going.

If that motivates you then stay motivated and do what you can to get ready and be present with your examiners.

But if thinking that way leaves you stressed out, then figure out a new story to tell about your viva. You don’t have to downplay the importance, but you can remind yourself you got this far by working hard and being good at what you do (there’s no other explanation).

The viva is a big day, maybe a challenging day, but it’s just one day. It comes after many other challenging days of your PhD.

Why Do Vivas Vary?

Because every set of circumstances is unique. The candidate, the research, the supervisors, the results, the thesis, the examiners, the day, and so on…

There are common aspects. Regulations, academic culture and people’s experiences suggest probable outcomes and eventualities.

Check the regulations, explore the way vivas happen, listen to your friend’s story – but don’t expect their story to be your story.

And don’t expect your story to be completely unlike any other story you might hear.

Emerging Discussions

It’s possible to overthink about viva questions. Yes, you need to prepare for them; no, you can’t prepare for every question or anticipate everything that might come up.

Your examiners might not know which direction the conversation will flow either. They have questions, but not a script; they can’t see all possible twists and turns that you might take together.

The discussions will emerge from the questions they ask, and you can’t know them in advance…

…well, not exactly.

Their questions are a response to what you’ve set out in your thesis. This is the end point of the questions you’ve been asking yourself all through your PhD. So a good starting point to be ready for the emerging discussions in your viva is to return to your original questions.

Reflect on those, then think about how you might approach the viva’s questions.


I’ve love the six honest serving men – who, what, when, where, why and how. The six proto-questions are handy for finding the root of interesting questions. They’re also valuable for unpicking the logistics of your viva day…

Who? Who are your examiners? Who else is going to be at your viva?

Where? Where is the viva taking place? What is the room like and what is in there?

When? When is it taking place? How will you be sure you’ll be on time?

What? What do you need to take with you? What will help you to feel confident on the day?

How? How will your viva be? How do you feel about it?

And finally, most importantly, why? Why are you doing all of this?

Whatever else happens, whether or not you feel nervous, focus on why you’ve been doing it all.


So much worry is put on the viva, that many candidates overlook the idea that it could be really, really good.

How good?

You could get new ideas for future research. You could get validation from high-standing members of your community. You could get feedback and opinions that will help. You could get ideas of how to be a better researcher.

You could even enjoy it.

If you spend a little time worrying about your viva, at least try to balance that and spend some time thinking about how good it could be.

Needs & Examiners

You need to talk about them with your supervisors.

You need to know why they’re a good choice.

You need to know why they might be interested in your work.

You need to explore their research.

You need to think about how their work is related to yours.

You need to believe they’ll be fair.

You need them to do their job.

And you need to accept that they’re just people, same as you; they’re not on a great high pedestal, they’re just humans, filling a necessary role, and doing it because they’re highly qualified to meet the needs of your viva.

Answers To “How Long Will My Viva Be?”

One of the most common concerns of PhD candidates is how long their viva will be. It’s a question that I can give no definite answer to for any particular candidate, but one that generally has many relevant answers:

  1. About two to three hours in many cases.
  2. As long as is needed.
  3. Typically less time than you worry it will be.
  4. Typically more time than it actually feels like on the day.
  5. Rarely less than one hour; rarely more than four.
  6. Several orders of magnitude shorter than everything you’ve done so far for your research.
  7. It doesn’t matter.

That’s the big picture: it doesn’t matter. Maybe it feels important, but it’s more important to focus on being prepared, feeling ready and approaching the viva with as much confidence as you can, rather than spend time concerned about how long it will take.

There are lots of answers to “How long will my viva be?” – including the most honest one, “You’ll find out.”

There are far more interesting questions to spend time unpicking and answering.

Perfectly Impossible

I got a note from an anonymous seminar participant:

I have written the perfect thesis. Should I worry about the viva?

If the first statement was true, I could see no reason why they should. If their thesis was perfect, really, why would they need to worry? If I had a perfect thesis, there wouldn’t be much point!

Small problem: there is no perfect thesis. Imperfection is inevitable. The perfect thesis is an impossibility.

But an imperfect thesis doesn’t automatically mean that someone should worry. They might anyway, because they have doubts, or questions, or 101 concerns. And there could be a problem in any imperfect thesis that leads to tough questions or tricky corrections: both are part of the process, neither “should” be worried about.

An imperfect thesis doesn’t mean you failed. It means that you didn’t achieve the impossible.

You have a thesis. You have you. You have everything you need to beat back your worries and succeed in the viva.

What To Wear

Wear whatever helps you present the best “you” that you need in the viva.

If you feel you need to communicate you’re serious, or you know your stuff, or you recognise this is important then wear something that shows this. If you need something to act as armour to protect you, or even a superhero costume then pick something that helps in this way.

If you just want to be really cool then go for it!

In any situation, not just the viva, what you wear can send signals to others about who you are, who you want to be and what you think about the situation.

Of course, you pick up on those signals too. You can reinforce the truth you want for yourself.