You’re Not The First

You’re not the first person to have a viva.

You’re not the first person to feel nervous, anxious, worried or afraid. You’re not the first person to worry that you could or should have done more. You’re not the first PhD candidate to feel you needed more things to go right. You’re not the first candidate to have vague worries or specific concerns about the viva.

You’re also not the first candidate to pass with all of these being true.

You’re not the first person to feel this way but that doesn’t make it any less real or hard. Thankfully it means there are others who will know what it is like to be in your position and be able to help you.

You won’t be the last person to have a viva either – which means that you’ll be able to help others as they get ready to meet their examiners.

Get help now as you need it. Give help later when you can.


You can’t know exactly what will happen at your viva before you have it.

But you can know about the many vivas of your friends and colleagues. Use stories of vivas in the past to help get ready for yours in the future.

From these stories you can see that vivas range in length. They’re fairly structured conversations. You can expect challenging questions. You can also know who your examiners are and what they do. You can’t know what questions they will ask, but you can get a sense of what they might want.

Altogether you can have a good idea of what your viva will be like. You can build up a realistic set of expectations rather than worry about the unknown aspects.

First & Final

My work – the sessions I run, the things I write and do – is focussed on the final year viva. The last big milestone of the PhD journey. But earlier in a postgraduate researcher’s story there might be another viva.

It’s sometimes called a first-year viva, a transfer review or some other set of words that means we’re checking in that you’re on track now that you’ve been doing this for a while.

I don’t know a lot about them.

A lot of what motivates the final viva is comparable to the first-year viva. My knowledge is limited though and I can’t offer the same certainties: I don’t know about expectations for lengths or questions. I can make educated guesses; the best people to talk to are the people you know already. Your supervisors and your friends who have been through the process. Local knowledge is going to beat anything that the person on the internet can say.


A participant at a webinar last year asked me, “What do I do about my final viva if I had a bad experience at my first-year viva?”

It was a brave and generous question. Brave because even in a webinar it can be hard to share something like that. Generous because they were probably not the only person to have a bad experience during their PhD, at their first-year viva or otherwise, and their question allowed a space to talk about that issue.

I didn’t know a lot about that person. I knew nothing about their first-year viva. I felt confident saying this though:

“You don’t have to be defined by that one experience. That happened. But that doesn’t have to be what you take forward. That doesn’t have to be the thing you keep in mind for your final viva. It was probably hard, but you can move past that. Despite that you kept going. Focus on that instead. Your first-year viva and your final viva are two completely different events, with different people involved. And now you are a different person to who you were then. Focus on everything you’ve achieved over the course of your PhD, and not one day that didn’t go to plan. Keep going.”

Well, I said something like that! I wish I had had this set of particular words arranged just so on that day a few months ago.

I offer them here instead, in case they can help anyone else.

If your first-year viva was tough, or if you had another difficult meeting or conversation during your PhD, remember: that was then and now you’re not the same person.

You’ve done more, know more and can do more. You’ve done enough to prove yourself. Keep going and succeed in the viva.

Alone For The Viva

Consider the movie Home Alone and the PhD viva, two very different things:

One of these things is a story about someone preparing to face two determined professionals in advance of a really important day. A particularly talented protagonist uses everything they know to be ready for the challenge ahead. They face uncertainty and mixed feelings about the situation, but very quickly become prepared despite a tight deadline. In the end, the challenge is resolved quickly and positively thanks to the protagonist’s talent and their preparations.

And the other thing is the movie Home Alone.

Show Your Working

These three words were drilled into me in my former life as a mathematician. In solving a maths problem it wasn’t enough to find an answer, I had to show how I had got there. I couldn’t claim a result without proof.

“Show your working” is important for PhDs more generally, not just for low-dimensional topologists!

Postgraduate researchers show their working in their thesis, but then also in the viva. They have to explain their thinking, share the knowledge they have and demonstrate their ability.

A viva isn’t only about reciting facts. You have to show your working – but of course, by this stage, you must have a lot of experience doing that. Preparing for the viva is partly reviewing those experiences, and partly practising doing it one more time.

Show how you’ve worked in your viva – and show once again how you can do the work.

Look To Your Community

You have many people around you who could give support as you get ready for your viva.

Ask your supervisor for help. Ask early in case they’re busy. Be clear so that they can support you. Check their availability to show you respect their time.

Ask your colleagues about their vivas. Explore common elements of viva stories to get a sense of what to expect. Find out if anyone has time to listen to you talk about your work or ask you questions.

Tell friends and family what you’re going through. A lot of viva prep work is all down to you but others can provide practical support to help you work well.

In the viva, you’re the only person who can engage with your examiners. Before then there are lots of people in your community who can help you get ready.

Ask for the help you need.

In-Person or On-Video

It used to be that an in-person viva was the right way to have a viva. Video vivas were anomalies, rare arrangements made out of necessity.

Then they were the necessary arrangement. For a time they were the only way of doing things.


And now some candidates might have choice over which format they would like for their viva. Which brings a new question: is it better to have an in-person viva or an on-video viva, if the choice is put before you? What are the pros and cons?

Having thought about it I don’t think there are negatives to either. They’re just different. The viva is the viva: a different medium allows some things and not others. It makes some aspects less of a challenge perhaps, but neither format is worse.

An in-person viva allows you to make more of a connection perhaps. It would be the best situation if you were looking to build a connection with your examiners.

A video viva would allow you to control the space that you’re in. You could make an environment that you would feel comfortable and confident in.

These are my general thoughts – of course, it’s a negative to you if you don’t like having a meeting over video. Or it’s a negative if meeting in public is something you don’t want to do just now.

Then you have to think: what are your pros and cons? How do you weigh it up?

A viva is a viva, in-person or on-video. If you have the choice, reflect on how you feel and consider how you could make the most of the opportunity of your viva.

The Wrong Ideas

Candidates sometimes have the wrong idea about the viva.

They expect that they’re an inch away from failure.

They think it could be a lawless free-for-all where examiners can do and ask anything.

They sometimes believe it’s a terribly high bar to clear, that too much will be demanded from them.

Or they sometimes think that because most candidates pass that the viva itself is a trivial exercise.

There are lots of ways you could get the wrong ideas about the viva. The simplest way to find some right ideas is to learn more. Don’t build your ideas of the viva on doubts, worries and half-truths. Learn about what they are like. Ask people who have passed, rather than rely on rumours. Read the regulations. Talk with your supervisors.

The right ideas about the viva will give you a sense of what to expect, what happens in your department and institution, how people experience them – and give you right ideas for what you can do to get ready.

Vivas & Job Interviews

It’s understandable to think of the viva as being “like a job interview”…

  • You dress a little smarter than the everyday probably.
  • You expect to be challenged by the questions you’ll be asked.
  • As much as you prepare, you know you can’t anticipate everything.
  • Like job interviews, it helps to treat a viva as something serious.

The success rate for a candidate is much higher in a viva though – because you’re not competing with anyone else. You’re trying to demonstrate what you’ve achieved and what you’re capable of, but not to be better than someone else.

It’s understandable to think of the viva as being like a job interview but there are better mindsets and better reflections to make of the viva. Understand what the viva is like, understand what it’s for, understand what you need to be and do.

When it comes to passing your viva, you’re the right person for the job.

Your Viva

Viva expectations are useful.

It helps to know that vivas vary in length and that some are more common than others.

It helps to know that examiners are prepared and they use certain questions more often than others to begin.

It helps to know that there are specific topics or areas that are regularly discussed in the viva.

It helps to know the ways that examiners direct the viva.

Expectations are useful and at the same time we have to understand that they are not predictive. You can know the range of times, questions and common approaches for discussion but you cannot know which combination you will find on your viva day.

You can’t prepare by trying to anticipate every possible permutation directly.

Instead, listen to viva stories and understand viva expectations as a framework. This is the shape of things. This is what vivas look like. This is what you need to be ready for your viva.

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