Nerves Are Human

If you’re nervous about the viva then you will feel uncomfortable, but there’s nothing wrong.

Nerves are a very human response to important situations. Your examiners might be nervous about your viva because they want it go well too. Your supervisor could be nervous, friends and family could be nervous on your behalf. A crowd of people, near and far, all nervous for what will happen and wanting it go well.

I don’t have a tried and tested method for removing nerves – but you can lessen the discomfort you feel by building your confidence. Reflect on your PhD journey, see the progress you’ve made and the knowledge and skillset that you must have. It doesn’t make you not-nervous, but it can help make you more confident for the important event that is in your future.

If you’re nervous about the viva then you’re human. As a human you can do something about it.

Nervous & Confident

Nervous and confident aren’t polar opposites.

If you feel nervous about something – like, say, your viva – then you’re recognising it’s important. Nervous isn’t the same as being anxious or being worried, although it might not be comfortable. Nervous is a recognition of something in your future, not something inherently bad or to be feared. “This thing matters to me.”

Being confident about something – like, say, your viva – is believing with good reason that you have talent or knowledge to be able to deal with a future situation. “I can do this.”

Being confident about your success in the viva helps to put nervous feelings in perspective. Confidence helps to balance the discomfort of nervousness.

You could go around and around trying to figure out what triggers your nervousness, wondering what you could do to stop feeling nervous – or you could take steps to build your confidence for the viva. Reflect on your talent. Summarise your progress over years of work. Really think about all that you’ve done and know.

Feeling nervous before your viva isn’t bad, but being confident is very good!

Spider Shadows

Every now and then my daughter goes through periods of worrying about spider shadows in her room at night: not spiders, but things that look like the shadows of spiders in the dim half-light of her nightlight.

We’ve explained they’re not real, we’ve shone torches in the past to show there’s no arachnid casting the hazy outline she thinks she sees. But when she feels she’s spotted one, she can’t help but fixate on it – and so my wife and I have to act again, try something new.


What are the viva shadows that keep you awake? Do you worry about things that your examiners might ask you? Are you finding yourself concerned about what might happen in your viva? Or how it might feel if you’re not quite ready for anything and everything that could happen?

Viva shadows can only be resolved through action. Like my daughter’s spider shadows, you might need help to expose the reality of the worries and concerns you have. A supervisor can shine a light on what you’ve done, and show you that it really is good. A friend could tell you about their viva to reassure you that yours will be too. Your supporters can give you the space and time to get ready.

Spider shadows and viva shadows don’t go away by themselves. Find someone who can help you with your viva worries. You’re the only one who can be ready for your viva, but you don’t have to get ready alone.

It’s Not Just You

You’re not the first person to feel nervous, excited, unprepared or whatever you feel before your viva. Ask around, find out how others coped.

You’re not the only person in your viva who might feel nervous, wanting to do a good job. Remember that your examiners also want the viva to go well. And you’re not the only person in your viva who will be prepared. You prepare because you want to pass; your examiners prepare because it’s the right thing to do, to show up ready to examine you.

You’re not the only person who will have felt uncertain during the viva before – so again, ask your friends about what their vivas were like, what they did when they felt unsure.

And you’re not the only person who will feel thrilled when you pass, so consider how you can celebrate your success when you’ve finished.

Nerves In Perspective

PhD candidates are generally nervous about the viva. In my experience, most will feel a portion of nervousness at some point before they meet their examiners. Some will continue to feel it during their viva too.

I don’t know that a person can ever completely overcome a feeling of nervousness, but I’m convinced that they could learn to put them into perspective:

  • The viva is important, so it’s natural to be nervous about it.
  • You may be nervous about it, but it’s only going to be for a few hours. Then it’s done.
  • Most people pass – and pass well – so however nervous you feel, the outcome is most likely going to be good.

Nervousness isn’t always rational. You can feel nervous and be confident for success at the same time. Try to focus on what you need to do, so that you can do well.

For the viva particularly, remember that those nervous few hours come after thousands of hours of work on your part. Remember that, and those thousands of hours might help you see that those few hours in the viva are going to be fine.

Three Nervous People

In your viva, you don’t necessarily have a monopoly on recognising that it isn’t a typical day.

You: I did this work, but it’s important and I want this to go well, and I wonder what they’ll ask me first…

Your Internal Examiner: have I forgot anything? I hope I’ve made a note of everything, I do so want this to go well…

Your External Examiner: I hope the candidate isn’t too nervous, they’ve nothing to worry about, I really want this to go well for them…

Some vivas have independent chairs too. Some candidates invite a supervisor to observe. But all vivas have at least three talented, hard-working, prepared people in them. People who could all be a little nervous at the start about this exam that they want to go well.

Out Of Your Comfort Zone?

I know what makes me feel uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s possible to avoid things outside of my comfort zone; I’m self-employed so I have a certain degree of control about the kind of work I do, or the conditions I work in. Sometimes stepping out of my comfort zone is necessary though. For those situations I’ve had to figure out how I can best proceed; I’ve figured out how I can make the most of those situations even thought they’re not comfortable.

In some cases, like public speaking, I’ve even come to like something that was previously way out of my comfort zone!

It’s useful to figure out your comfort zones so you can work well, and especially useful for PGRs nearing the end of the PhD process. If the thought of the viva makes you feel uncomfortable then I think the best thing you can do is stretch yourself in advance. Stretch by presenting, by discussing, by working to build your confidence. Find more ways to practise, even small ways to get more experience and learn what you can do to make the situation better, more comfortable. Like me, you might even find a way to make the process more enjoyable for you.

Perhaps your viva will be closer to your comfort zone than you expect.

Fighting The Hydra

Combatting nerves and anxieties ahead of the viva is like cutting the heads off the hydra of myth: cleave away the head of concern about typos, and it’s replace with two heads of slightly-unclear passages. Become certain that your examiners are good choices, and you can then stress about what each of them might think.

Every attempt to squash away nerves or thwart little anxieties will make you more and more open to spotting things that could make you nervous. It’s fine to practically assess and fix issues, but doing so to try and push nerves away is not a great strategy.

Unlike ancient heroes though, you have a choice: you don’t have to fight this hydra at all. You have to prepare, but your goal does not have to be eliminating nerves – more will always pop up – instead you can work to build your confidence.

Turn away from the worry-hydra. Work to become more certain of your ability. Worries are not the real challenge in the viva. Greater confidence in yourself and in your work can help you to respond to challenges in the viva, and also put pre-viva worries in perspective.

Not Ideal

There’s so much about your viva that might not be exactly how you want it to be.

You find typos or a clunky paragraph after submission.

You’re busy and struggle to find preparation time.

Your first choice examiner can’t do it.

You feel more nervous than you want to be.

You worry there’s something missing in your thesis.

You worry you should have done more.

Worry and mistakes and missed opportunities are all not ideal. But the best thing to do is ask, “What can I do?”

Then act. Do something. Don’t diminish how you feel, or just stress about would be better: work to get closer. Work to do something that helps.

So underline your typos or pencil in a correction.

Make a plan for your prep and do what you can.

Learn about your examiner’s research.

Ask yourself why you feel nervous and work on the root cause.

Examine whether there’s really something missing, not just a worry.

Ask why you didn’t do more – probably, because you were doing something else in your thesis!

If something’s not ideal, you can feel disappointed or cross or upset.

But then act. What can you do?

A Reminder About Viva Nerves

Nerves don’t mean there’s something wrong. They’re just a symptom of you noticing that the viva is a big day.

Your viva is important, so you probably feel nervous as a consequence. Nothing more.

Prepare for your viva, because it is important. Do what you can to find confidence, because while confidence won’t banish nerves, it will help to keep them in check.

Acknowledge that your viva nerves are there. An anticipation of an important event. Nothing more.