The Importance of Expectations

Expectations for the viva are not guarantees but they matter because they show the process at work. Expectations help because they give a platform for preparation. Vivas vary in length, but knowing roughly what to expect helps to prepare for the effort. It helps to know you can ask for breaks. Knowing how they unfold gives you a way forward.

Expectations show the big picture: candidates tend to pass, so you will too. Your viva is a test – the expectations show that too – but it’s a test that most people succeed in, and you’re unlikely to fail. Expectations are important for the viva. Ask friends, read stories and see what stands out to you. Don’t understand something? Look deeper or ask more.

Don’t expect your viva to follow an exact plan; do expect your viva to help you show the best of your work and yourself.

All The Signs

Looking out of a window might not be enough to help you decide whether you should take an umbrella with you.

You might need to step outside and feel the breeze. You might want to think about what the weather has been like for the last few days or consider the time of year. It may help to ask someone what they think. Or you could always check the weather forecast, get a statistical sense of what will happen.

At some point though you have to make a decision and accept it: the sky is cloudy and grey, the wind was cool, you see people with raincoats on and umbrellas poking out of bags. And the Met Office says there’s a 70% chance of rain before midday.

All the signs are there.


The story above isn’t that different to the situation with you and your viva.

“Are you going to pass?”

Well, when you listen to the stories of people who do pass, you’ll see that they’re not so different from your situation. When you talk to academics about what happens at the viva you’ll know what to expect and realise there’s not much to be concerned about. You could check online, read stories, listen to podcasts and do the work needed to get ready.

When you think back over your progress you’ll realise that all the signs are there – all the signs from the last few years, showing your determination, knowledge, progress and ability.

You know what the most likely outcome is for your viva.


It could be exciting to have the chance to sit down and talk with your examiners!

You may be eager to finish your PhD journey!

Getting ready for your viva might have put a smile on your face as you realised just how far you’ve come – and just how much you’ve done!

And equally you could be nervous, anxious, worried or uncertain about everything.

You might not be able to resolve every issue or problem you have before the viva. You may have a few particular worries and what ifs rattling around your brain.

But you can also prepare for the viva. If you have gaps in your knowledge you can work to fill them. If you’re unsure of what to expect you can ask. You can go to the viva nervous, but also certain of what you have done and what you are capable of.

You might not dance into your viva and high-five your examiners as you greet them, but I hope you can feel some of the positives about the occasion!

Why Might You Have An Independent Chair?

It could be that you have an independent chair at your viva; they would be a member of staff from your university. Their role in the viva would be, largely, to observe what happens.

There are lots of reasons you might have an independent chair:

  • Their presence could be part of the regulations for your university.
  • It may be part of the culture for your department to have one.
  • One of your examiners might be a fairly new academic and so it’s been thought to be good to have an experienced member of staff present.
  • It may even be that your viva has been randomly selected to be observed, so that your institution can be confident that vivas are being held in an appropriate way!

There are lots of reasons you might have one, but no bad ones: an independent chair is there to watch and to make sure that the viva is going well. They won’t have read your thesis. They won’t ask you any questions. They will make sure the process is fair.

An extra person in the room might add to nerves, but really the best thing you can do is check far in advance what the situation will be or might be for your viva. Then you can do anything you need to do in order to be comfortable on the day.

Three Part Success

There are three parts to a successful viva:

  • Effective preparation before the viva;
  • Full engagement during the viva;
  • Relieved celebration after the viva.

Before the viva you need to take steps to get ready. Plan your prep in advance so you don’t feel pressured for time. There’s a lot of generally good advice about kinds of activities help (and a lot of that on this blog). Make sure you don’t leave it too late, but remember you have done a lot already that puts you in a good position.

During the viva take your time. Breathe. Pause. Your examiners want you to engage with and respond to the discussion. They are not simply looking for rapid-fire responses or testing your memory. They need to have a conversation so that you can demonstrate what you did, what you know and what you can do. Take your time. Engage – and enjoy!

When the viva is finished do something to celebrate. Smile. You’ll probably have corrections to complete, but all in due course. On the day you can celebrate your achievement. You’re very likely to succeed, so perhaps have an idea or two in mind before the viva to help motivate you.

There are three parts to a successful viva – after, of course, a successful research journey and thesis submission.

Notice that at every stage the key factor is you.

Passing The Test

It doesn’t feel right, given the scope of the viva, to say that success is simply about passing a test.

But you pass. The latest test, the final test – but certainly not the only test. Any PhD candidate is tested again and again throughout their journey. From first year uncertainties  all the way to final year fears and the challenge of writing-up. One test after another, week by week.

If we have to use these words for the end of the PhD too then let us show the importance: you pass The Test.

The Test of your whole PhD. You succeed, you rise to the challenge, you pass The Test.

Your viva might be one day that looms large in your mind as it gets closer. Remember all of the other days, small and big, where you have succeeded too. This latest success follows all of the others.

At Your Viva

You can have reasonable expectations of what your viva might be like, but you won’t know until you’re inside it. You can rehearse responding to questions but you won’t know how you’ll really feel until they’re being asked by your examiners.

You can wait and anticipate and wonder what will happen – and then before you know it the whole thing will be done. All the time you spent getting ready, wondering how long you might be, and you might blink and miss what happens at your viva.

A Time and A Place

You won’t get to fully decide when and where and how your viva takes place. You’ll be asked when you’re free and what your preferences might be. By then you’ll know who will be involved and you’ll know what it will all be about: your thesis will be finished and you’ll be in the process of getting ready.

The final logistical details of the viva are when and where.

When you know the time and the place just consider what else you need to do. Do you need to go and check the room out at your university? Or do you need to think about where will be best at home? Do you need to decide how you will get there on the day? Or do you need to practise using whatever video platform the viva will use?

When the time and place are confirmed, simply think about what that means for you. What else do you need to check or do?

A Bad Day

On your viva day you could be tired. You could forget something. You could be surprised. You could freeze. You could be irritated – or your examiner could be! The train could be late or you could mix up the room. You could lose your train of thought or struggle to find it at all.

Lots of uses of the word “could”.

Could is not a certainty.

It might happen, but it probably won’t.

And even if it does happen, one bad thing doesn’t have to make a bad day.

You can focus on the maybes and mishaps that could befall you or you can focus on the certainty you’ve made. You did the work. You wrote your thesis. You did your preparation.

You got ready for your viva. You can be ready for any bad things that could happen.


Vivas are governed by regulations. There are over 100 universities in the UK, each with their own set of rules for thesis examination – but these rules are all very similar in purpose.

Vivas are mostly conducted by academics. While there are typically two examiners in any viva they have colleagues who they talk to. Ideas of what makes a viva “good” or “right” are passed around.

This leads to cultures of thesis examination.

Culture can be specific to individual departments. Academics can have the idea that a certain length of viva is desirable, a certain focus, a certain structure and so on.

So: there are rules for what happens, ideas for what is right and these lead to patterns of experience by candidates. Viva stories describe exams tending to be a certain length, beginning with similar questions, and so on.

Patterns of experience, if passed on, give rise to useful patterns of expectation.

You can’t know exactly what will happen at your viva. Every viva will be unique, but if you ask the right people the right questions you can get a good idea of what to expect – and then prepare accordingly.

Talk to your supervisors, friends and colleagues to find out more of what vivas are like in your department. Understand the pattern of what happens at the viva and you’ll know what you need to do to be ready.

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