Standards

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.

Breathe

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.