First and Last Questions

The first question in the viva is likely to be simple: it’s something you will be able to respond to. A question that asks about an aspect of your work that is familiar – maybe a big picture, “How did you get started?” or “How would you summarise your research?” Simple to understand and asked by your examiners to help start the viva well.

Sometimes the first question is characterised as easy, in contrast to an expectation that questions get much harder. Is the last question of the viva supposed to be hard? I’m not sure.

The last question could be, “Have you got any questions for us?” Whatever it is, the last question comes after all of the others. Nervousness should hopefully have faded away. You might be tired from the effort, but you could also be more relaxed than you were at the start of the viva.

All questions in the viva could be challenging. All questions could be well within your capability as a researcher. First and last questions deserve the same attention and focus as any other.

Forget easy and hard. Remember who is being asked, what they’re being asked and why they’re being asked.

Tell Them

In my earliest academic days I was given the following advice for structuring a presentation: tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.

“Them” in this case was the audience. Over the years I’ve realised the heart of the good advice here: set expectations, share what you’re sharing and summarise at the end.

It is good advice generally.

In the viva you’re at the stage of telling your examiners what you told them in the thesis, more or less. You’ve set it out for them, they read it; now you have to summarise, clarify, expand and make sure they get what they need.

Of course, there are more ways you could tell them at the viva too.

You could tell them a story. You could tell them more. You could tell them what you left out. You could tell them what you didn’t get to do. You could tell them what you hope to do in the future. You could tell them what you plan to do next. You could tell them your opinion.

You could tell them lots of things, but remember that the viva is not a presentation, and it’s not the questions that come at the end. It’s a discussion. Prepare to tell your examiners lots of things, but prepare to be part of a conversation rather than someone simply answering questions.

Yes, And

One of the main principles of improvisational comedy is “yes, and…

There’s no script in improv. If you’re on stage and someone says something, you agree with them and build on what they have said. If someone remarks about the (imaginary) hat that you’re wearing you accept the idea they have introduced and build on it.

How remarkable, I’ve never seen a hat like that before!

Yes, it was my grandfather’s he made it himself-

-he sewed a great mass of tentacles on to the brim?

Yes, and it’s very comfortable, would you like to try it on?

Scene! (that’s quite enough of that!!)


While the viva might not be a time for laughing and joking, the principle of “yes, and” – of accepting and building on what has come before – is definitely part of the discussion you’re going to have.

Your examiners will ask questions and your job is to engage. You say yes to the question and then build on the discussion with your words.

It’s not about saying yes to every comment, or agreeing with every point: you say yes rather than try to divert. You say yes and engage rather than try to evade the topic or displace it with something you’d rather talk about.

In the viva your main responsibility is to engage with whatever questions your examiners ask. Say yes to their questions and then share your thoughts to give them what they need to help you pass.


Whenever you respond to a question in the viva, remember that you need to offer evidence. A question might be seeking information; you need to provide it. A question might ask if you are correct; you can’t simply say yes. You need to offer evidence – context, information, reasons – that help show that you are correct.

Whenever you receive a question in the viva, remember that it is being asked for a reason. The evidence of your thesis, the story, facts and figures you have written up, have given your examiners plenty to think about. The evidence of your thesis prompts the questions that you are being asked to drive the discussion.

A Lasting Contribution

Nothing lasts forever. How long will your contribution to knowledge stand? How many years before there is something bigger, better, more considered or more helpfully stated?

On the one hand, you don’t need to account for everything that will or could happen in your field with respect to your research.

On the other, it could be helpful to think about what could happen next to help you share something of the significance you see and that you hope others will see in time.

Consider what your work could mean in the future and you can help yourself to consider what it means right now.

Always Significant

If there is one thing that has to be talked about in the viva it is the significant, original contribution that you’ve made through your research and that you have written up in your thesis. It’s not the only thing that can or will be talked about but it has to be discussed. You have to talk about it because this research and thesis is what you’ve done to earn your PhD.

So you have to be ready to do that. Write summaries about what you’ve done, make notes, check your thesis, have a mock viva or in some way practise with questions talking about it.

There will be lots to talk about at your viva. Talking about your significant, original contribution is guaranteed. Practise doesn’t make perfect, but prepare and you will be ready.

Asking Your Examiners

The viva is not a question and answer session or a quiz. It’s a conversation. Your examiners will lead because this is a conversation with purpose, but there’s a place for you to ask questions too.

First, you can ask to clarify things in the flow of conversation. What did they mean? Could they explain? Can they tell you more so that you can consider something?

Second, you can ask their opinion. What did they think? What would they do? How might I do more with this or follow it up?

Both types of question are fine in the viva.

The first are simply necessary: you might simply need a little more from your examiners so that you can respond as best as possible.

The second are fine but come with the smallest of cautions. The viva is not a Q&A or a quiz, and it’s also not an interview. Candidates sometimes remember the interview advice of having one or two questions prepared to ask the “interviewers”.

But the viva is not an interview. By all means, have questions prepared but only ask if you want to know and only ask if the topic is something that you want to talk about.

You can ask for an opinion or advice, but do it carefully, with a topic that you’ve considered and want to explore more.

Two Pictures

I wanted to call this post…

The Picture In My Head Is Not The Picture In Your Head

…but even I have my limits!

This phrase came to me recently when my daughter was trying to explain something from school. She was getting frustrated, starting to tire of my questions until just before she got angry I thought to say, “Sweetie, the picture in my head is not the picture in your head. I don’t understand yet what you mean, so I have to ask questions to try and imagine what you’re seeing.”

And she stopped and considered; then we started again and after a few more minutes there was understanding.

Your thesis has tens of thousands of words, and the picture it puts in your examiners’ heads may not match the picture you have in yours. So they have to ask questions.

The picture of a viva in your mind might be muddled or unclear compared to the stories your friends tell you. Asking questions and listening to the responses helps.

Your description of your contribution to research, while clearly matching the picture in your head, may be lacking detail when a reader sees it in their mind.

The picture in my head is not the picture in your head. And the picture in your head is not the same as the picture in your examiners’ heads, your supervisor’s mind and so on.

Patient listening helps. Careful questions help. Practice before the viva helps your performance on the day.

You can’t simply will someone to see the picture you see.

You can learn how to guide someone to a closer understanding of your picture though.

Facts, Opinions, Hunches

I know. I think. I feel.

There’s a place for all in the viva, potentially.

Some questions will hit a target made up of facts. Things you know. Things you have discovered.

For some questions you weigh up information against your experience and knowledge. You think and offer what you think is appropriate. Perhaps someone else could think differently.

Then you could be asked a question and you don’t have an answer. You have nothing to weigh up. Instead you could offer what your gut feeling says. A hunch you can’t shake. This could be right or wrong – and there might be no way of anyone knowing.

You can know, think or feel in the viva. In all cases you have to be clear. Be clear with what you’re saying to your examiners. Be clear in your own mind so that you don’t confuse yourself.

Listen to the question, pause and then see: do you know, think or feel your response?

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