Stretch Now

I’m a big fan of the Comfort, Stretch, Panic way of framing challenges. If something is well within your capabilities, it belongs to the first category; if it requires more effort but you can approach it with some confidence then it’s a Stretch. And if it fills you with Panic, then perhaps it’s not something to try for just now.

I think a lot of PhD candidates worry that their viva will be firmly in the Panic Zone. They’re concerned that questions will be beyond them, that pressure will break them, that perhaps the relationships in the room (or over video) will make them feel awful.

It doesn’t matter that most vivas go well – hindsight is great – but what about now? What about when someone is headed for the viva?

Candidates anticipating panic need to stretch themselves. Hoping that questions won’t be too tough won’t help defeat panic. Avoiding more difficult challenges is a way to store up pressure for later. Viva preparation should involve stretching.

For the pre-panic candidate, find new ways to reflect on your work; take time to rehearse for the viva; be open to developing yourself just that little bit more – it might only take a little stretch. Stretching now might help a candidate see that the viva doesn’t have to be a cause for panic.

In fact, it might even be a comfortable experience.

A Spectrum of Experience

I have complicated feelings about my viva. It was fine, it went well, but it wasn’t totally enjoyable for me; that has nothing to do with my examiners.

It was “bad” that I didn’t sleep well the night before. I got about three hours sleep; I had some nerves and adrenaline going in but a great background tiredness.

And then my viva was four hours long.

I started it tired.

I ended it exhausted.

And everything else about my viva was good: not good by comparison, but good!

My examiners were fair with their questions. They had clearly prepared. They had opinions, but asked me to contribute rather than just pass a decision. They didn’t like how two of my chapters were written, but discussed them with me rather than simply give me corrections.

My viva was four hours long, and I was shattered by the end, but in many ways it felt like it was over much too quickly. It was an anticlimax, as was the end of my PhD. I don’t think that’s universal, but I know I’m not unique in thinking that. After all, a viva is only part of one day: pressured, important, full of the good and maybe a little “bad” – but still only a few hours compared to more than a thousand days you might spend pursuing a PhD.

If your viva is in the future, ask others about theirs: ask for the good and the bad, and look for the balance that might help set your own expectations. If your viva is in the past, tell others: share the details that make up the picture. How did you feel? Why was that?

First Class Viva

I don’t know that I’ll ever get to fly first class, but I’ve been fortunate to travel first class by train a few times in the last year.

I’m a fan of first class. The seats are a little comfier, the carriage is a little nicer, and the free tea and biscuits are very nice. By comparison, most of the time when I travel in standard, the train is a little crowded, the tables a little smaller, the tea is expensive and I bring my own biscuits.

Of course, the train gets you to your destination, first class or standard. In reality the differences are all little. The seats aren’t that much bigger. The table isn’t made of gold. The conductor isn’t your butler. It’s just a few little things, but they add up to a big smile and a good experience.

I think the same is true for the viva. It won’t take 101 big things – or even 101 small things – to make your viva a great moment in your PhD journey. Think about what would make the difference for you, then think about what you could do to help your viva be great.

Make a little list, then see how you can make it a reality.

It won’t take a lot to make your viva a first class experience.

Time And The Viva

How long will the viva be? How long should it be? If it’s long – or short – is that bad?

There are norms – two to three hours is quite common – but you can’t know in advance. It could be less, it could be more. Many candidates, I think the majority, feel like their viva passes in the blink of an eye.

The length doesn’t indicate something good or bad. There’s no correlation between the length of the viva and the outcome.

A successful viva is not a function of how long it takes. The time isn’t as important as you are.

And Then A Decade Passed

I passed my viva ten years ago today. It sparked an interest for me that I didn’t know would become a passion and a vocation…

…but a lot of my viva is gone from my memory now. I remember bits and pieces; that’s to be expected I guess.

I remember not sleeping very much the night before.

I remember feeling nervous but not too nervous.

I remember feeling surprised that my examiners asked questions during my presentation.

I remember my internal using the phrase “proof by gravity” and wished I had thought of it.

I remember wondering if everyone stood for their vivas (they don’t – I’ve never met anyone else who has).

I don’t remember 90% of the questions I got.

I don’t remember 95% of the corrections I got.

I don’t remember why I wore a sweater for my viva which was in one of the hottest rooms in the maths building.

I don’t remember who the first person was that I told the result to.

I don’t remember seeing my supervisor afterwards, but he must have been around.

It was a long time ago and a lot has happened since then. My viva was important, but it’s not the most important thing I’ve ever done.

Your viva will be a milestone, but you have to put it in perspective. There’s a lot you’ve done and a lot you will do that will probably matter more.

I remember feeling happy afterwards. I hope you will too.

I Can’t Answer

A recent workshop question about viva questions stood out to me:

“What if my examiners ask me something I can’t answer?”

This is distinct from thinking I don’t know or going blank. If you can’t answer then there is an underlying aspect of the question that means an answer can’t be given. There could be many possible reasons:

  • You might not be able to answer because you don’t have all of the information – so tell your examiners that.
  • You might not be able to answer because the question is not something you have investigated – so tell your examiners that.
  • You might not be able to answer because you decided that question was not worth following – so tell your examiners that – and tell them why.
  • You might not be able to answer their question fully or definitively, because it’s the sort of question to which one can only give an opinion, backed up with an argument and reasons – so do that.

The motivating question for this post is hypothetical. It may never come up in your viva. It’s probably better to invest time in things that you can control or influence. If a question does come up and you can’t answer: tell your examiners. Tell them why. Ask them questions.

Continue being part of the conversation.

Why You Don’t Know

You’re not getting the context.

You’ve not considered the question before.

You mis-heard the examiner.

You don’t know a key piece of information.

You’ve gone blank.

You got distracted by a sudden thought or idea.

You’re just not making a connection.

It’s only been two seconds since the question was asked and your brain hasn’t leapt to a response yet.

Going blank or not knowing what to say in the viva is among the top fears of PhD candidates. None of the above are reasons for failure. None of the above are insurmountable, although if they occur in combination they can seem very scary. Nearly all of them are situations that can be improved by asking questions – either of yourself or your examiners. That extra breath, that extra pause, that extra idea, whatever it is, can be useful to shake some ideas loose.

Not knowing something is not the end of the viva. Pause, think, ask questions and work yourself away from “I don’t know…”

More Than Gold Letters

After the dust of my examiners’ questions had settled and all the corrections were done I got to make some pretty nice hardbacks. My name and the title of my thesis was in gold on the cover! I was done! My thesis was great!

Except… I thought I would feel something. I was happy, sort of, I guess… And I knew that finishing my PhD was a milestone. I wasn’t expecting fireworks, or a band to strike up, but I thought I would feel something.

The end of my PhD was an anticlimax, I didn’t feel much of anything. At the time. As the months went on I realised that it was something big. It opened doors for me. It gave me a skill set that I use and develop nearly a decade later. It helped to give me a perspective on the world and shape my values. I co-authored a couple of papers and contributed to my field too.

My story might not mirror yours: it may be that you are totally over the moon after your viva. But you might not. Just a friendly word: it might take a while to sink in. Regardless, I think most PhDs, in time, come to realise that the PhD is so much more than a book with your name in gold letters on the cover, however cool that looks.


It will be like this. It will be like that. You need to do it this way. I did it that way.

Check this book. Listen to that podcast. My friend said this.

A friend of a friend had a nightmare experience. A friend of a friend of a friend FAILED.

My sister’s brother’s best friend’s dead dog’s former owner knew someone who had their viva and said it was no big deal, so what are you worried about?

Everyone has an opinion about the viva.

Ask a few questions. Listen to the answers. Decide for yourself. Keep doing good work.