In your research you might disagree with something: a position taken by another researcher, the results of a paper or conclusions of a thesis.

Your examiners might disagree with a method you use, the way you interpret something, or your opinion on a topic they raise.

You might disagree with your examiners on something they think, or the way they view something you’ve done or the way they approach research.

And all of this is fine.

It’s fine to disagree but the person disagreeing has to say why.

“I disagree,” is not enough. Say why.

You would have to do this in your thesis to present your research well. To be able to engage with your examiners and their disagreements with your work in the viva you need to know why. If they don’t say initially, it’s fair for you to ask.

Ask why they disagree, if they do, and use that information to see how you can engage.

Are they making a fair point? Are they missing something? Are they simply expressing an opinion or comment? Once you know why you can respond well.

On Point

Big, open questions in the viva like “How did you get started?” or “Can you tell us why this method is valid?” could have big, open responses. It might be necessary to talk about a lot of different things to really respond to a question, and it’s not unreasonable for a candidate to be concerned about saying everything they need to or staying on track.

What could you do in your viva to stay on point with a response? A few thoughts:

  • Pause. Stop for a moment when listening to a question and just after to make sure you understand it.
  • Think. Is there a way to break the big question down? Are there key points you have to talk about? Can you do something simple to keep focus?
  • Note. Quickly write down keywords. Tick them off if you need to so you cover the appropriate points.
  • Pause again. There’s no rush. Quick pause, sip of water maybe, and ask yourself, “Have I said what I needed to so far?”
  • Check your thesis. Stay on the page relevant to the discussion. Flip forwards or backwards to find details. Does anything jump out that needs to be referenced?
  • Ask your examiners. Ask if they want to know more. Ask if you’ve been clear on a point if the topic is complicated.

If there’s a lot to talk about it’s natural to be concerned about going off the point you want to make. Thankfully there’s lots of little things you could do to make sure that isn’t such a big concern.

Together In The Viva

The viva is you and your examiners; the viva isn’t you versus them.

You don’t have to challenge all their questions. They don’t have to bring you and your work down.

It’s not combat. It’s not a trial. It’s not an ordeal. You don’t have to prove that you’re better than them somehow.

It’s you AND them creating your viva.

Instead of worrying about what you have to do “to win” – make sure you’re ready to share your best self and best stuff. Make sure you know what you need to about the process and your examiners to help the viva be as good as it can be.

How To Answer Difficult Questions

In some cases, you won’t be able to.

The viva is not a question and answer session or a quiz. Some questions won’t have memorisable facts that you can serve up to your examiners; instead, you will have to offer another contribution, a response – a detail, an opinion, an argument, a feeling, a hunch, a question – in order to keep the discussion moving forward.

Your response may not be the entirety of everything you want to say. It may be that you have to pause and reflect first, make notes, stand up and draw something, or ask for clarification.

You may not be able to answer a question, but after a little thought you will always be able to respond.

If the question is difficult, then you owe it to yourself to think a little more, pause a little longer, take a little more care, even ask for a little more, so that you can respond as best as you possibly can. That response could be an answer (truth, or an argument with a lot of evidence), but it could be something else that is just as much what your examiners could be looking for.

Every question, not just the difficult ones, deserves a little time, a little space, a little thought in order for you to give your best response.

Remote Vivas

Virtual vivas, Skype vivas, Zoom vivas – I see lots of names being used for the same thing. The current situation in the world means some vivas will be delayed, and others will necessarily happen online. Remote vivas are needed, a sudden change in procedure, and so naturally that creates a space for worry and concern.

Thankfully, while previously rare, remote vivas aren’t new. There are people who can help you understand what might be ahead if your viva is in the near future.

Find academics and ask them about what doing a remote viva is like, what they might have to take into account. Ask PhD graduates who have had their viva over video, and see what that felt like. Set your expectations, and check if there is anything special you might need to prepare for. See if there was anything that surprised them – that perhaps now doesn’t have to surprise you!

A few weeks ago, when universities started closing their doors, I asked for help on Twitter. I knew a little about remote vivas, but it was more on the technical help side – check the software beforehand, check regulations, and so on. Thanks to the generous contributions of many Twitter users I was able to curate a thread of help starting here:

There are lots of valuable points here! If your viva is likely to be sometime in 2020, it’s probably worth taking a look.

By the end of the year, perhaps, universities will be opening their doors again. But it won’t hurt you to find out a little more. It’s always been useful for candidates to check expectations; it’s hard to prepare and feel confident if you don’t have a handle on what’s ahead.

Now particularly, when the backdrop of the world is a little more scary and uncertain, it’s important to bring your viva into focus. See what it might be like, as clearly as you can, and you can make your viva a little less scary and uncertain.


There isn’t a standard viva format.

There are reasonable expectations, but no guarantees.

Probable durations, but very long and very short outliers.

A range of possible first questions, but no certainty for the exact start of your viva.

There’s no standard format, but there are standards: standards for your examiners, standards for the process, standards for what a good thesis might be like.

Be confident that you meet the standard for a good, talented researcher.

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.

You Get Corrections Because…

…your thesis isn’t perfect. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be.

You get corrections because you’ve probably never written a book before. The thesis you submit for your viva is the very best draft you could write.

Typos creep in. Style choices don’t quite work. You miss a reference or a full stop, a comma or the numbering of a figure.

You get corrections because you tried your very best, not because somehow you failed. Corrections aren’t failing. Corrections are part of the process.

Corrections are your examiners saying, “Here, take a look, this is how you could make this better.”

But never perfect. “Perfect is the enemy of done.” You can’t make it perfect. You can make it done.

You get corrections to get to done.

Assume It’s Going Well

A couple of months ago I got an interesting question at a workshop:

“How can you tell when the viva is going badly versus when you just think it’s going bad?”

This is a good question. Sometimes when we perceive things as being a problem, or tricky, or going bad, it’s just down to our perception. If you were worried that something might go wrong in the viva you might prime yourself to look for any data that would back that idea up. The tone of a question, the inclination of an examiner’s head, the slightest pause – anything could help to confirm your worries.

I’ve reflected on the question for a while, and the best thing I can say in response is “assume it’s going to go well, and assume while you’re in the viva that it is going well.” Unless your examiners pause things to say, “There’s a big problem” or “This is not what we expect” – both of which are really, really unlikely – then you can continue to assume it’s going well.

There’s perhaps a deeper question that needs addressing for the person at my workshop, which I didn’t have time to follow-up then:

“Why would you think your viva wasn’t going to go well?”

If you’re assuming there could be a problem then do something about it. Prepare more. Talk to your supervisor. Find out more about expectations. Learn more about your examiners.

Change your assumption.


Take a couple of breaths at the start as you sit down. Calm any nerves.

Take a breath whenever you get asked a question. Force a pause to compose your thoughts.

Mind starting to race? Take a few breaths. Need a second to make a note? Take one.

You will breathe throughout the viva of course. But remind yourself so you don’t get carried away with desperately answering questions. There’s time to breathe and time to think as you take a breath.