A Small Part Of The Story

It’s essential to read the regulations for thesis examination at your institution before you submit. They’ll tell you what you need to do and what you need to know. Some of this you’ll have picked up by being around other postgraduate researchers for years, but there can be key points you have missed.

Check for details on timelines. Check for paperwork you need to complete. Check, if needed, what the requirements are for having a viva over video.

Remember that reading the regulations is only a small part of the story. They won’t tell you what questions will come up. They won’t tell you what you need to do to get ready. They won’t tell you what vivas are really like.

So ask your friends and colleagues. Talk with your supervisor. Read blog posts and viva stories to get a sense of what to expect. Explore whether or not there are norms within your department for how vivas take place.

And when your viva is finished and you’ve passed, consider sharing your experience to help shape the expectations of other candidates. They’ll read the regulations too, but will need your story to help guide their expectations, preparation and confidence.

The Formalities

Find out when and how you’ll have your viva. Check the regulations. Google your examiners and bookmark their staff pages. Note down key expectations your supervisors share. Be sure of the viva process at your institution.

The formalities matter. They’re also a really small part of the viva and of getting ready for it. Sort them out as soon as possible so you can focus on preparing yourself, your thesis and your confidence for the viva.

Do I Need A Printed Thesis?

Over the last year a lot of PhD candidates have asked me variations on this question. Any response has to be layered, because there’s lots to think about. Often, the question is being asked because it has been more difficult than usual to obtain a printed copy.

Do you still need a printed thesis in the age of Zoom vivas?

  • The first thing to do is check what your institution and department say. Have regulations or expectations changed? If yes, you could consider having a digital copy, but if not you just might need to get a printed copy produced regardless.
  • If you need a printed copy but your institution print shop is out of action or has greatly reduced capacity, then Google is your friend: there are lots of online printing services that can produce this and ship to your door quickly.
  • If you don’t, according to the rules, need a printed copy, then you have to consider about what you need for the viva.

You need a copy of your thesis, in a format that is easy for you to read, search through and find sections. You need a copy of your thesis that you can annotate, both before and potentially during your viva. Annotation makes your thesis more useful for the viva and helps you to reflect on your thesis as you get ready. A digital copy of your thesis could do this, but you have to be sure that the format, the software and the device you are using is going to be enough for you in the viva.

My personal opinion is that a print copy of a thesis could, in many cases, be the best solution. But that’s my personal opinion, based on my needs, how easy I would find it to use a paper document and so on. I don’t have any needs that wouldn’t be met by a paper thesis. I don’t have any restrictions in terms of getting access to a printed 200-page document if I needed one for that purpose. I’m me, I’m not you.

If you need a digital copy, then it’s worth exploring how you would make that work well for you in the viva.

If you need a paper copy but that might be tricky to find, then it’s worth searching for a way to get one.

In The Chair

An independent chairperson for the viva can be really valuable. They act as an impartial observer, recording what happens. They can be a navigator carefully steering examiner or candidate away from fruitless discussions. They don’t decide the outcome but they can help set the tone for a good viva.

And not every viva has one. If you don’t, then your internal examiner takes on some of these responsibilities. They’ll make sure your viva is fair.

Is there a chair or not for your viva? Find out. One situation isn’t better than the other – they’re just different. Knowing as much as you can about what to expect can help settle your mind that your viva really is going to be fine.

Popular Culture

When I was a teenager, me and a few friends liked superheroes. We bought random American comic books from this one newsagent in our home town that stocked them. This was the mid-1990s. No real internet, no way to connect or find out more. There were three or four of us in our school who loved superheroes, and hundreds who didn’t. The thing we liked wasn’t popular.

Jump forward twenty years and superheroes are everywhere. The biggest movies are about superheroes, saving the day in two to three hours of screen time – they’re not universally liked but they’re much, much more popular than when me and my few friends were reading about them.

Popular culture changes over time. Nevermind the popular: culture changes. It’s steered by people, by time, by events, and hopefully – but sadly not always – for the good.


Over the last decade I’ve seen that the culture around the viva is changing. More and more candidates feel less and less worried. Still nervous, but not overly concerned.

The viva is less unknown, it’s more common for people to have an idea of what to expect, more common for candidates to take steps to really get ready.

The culture around the viva in the UK is slowly changing for the good. If you’re not seeing it for yourself then take a few steps to finding out more. Ask a few friends about their vivas. Check the regulations. See what expectations are valid and what you can do to be ready.

Like superheroes, vivas aren’t universally liked – but you can be ready to save the day when it comes to your two to three hours of screen time.

Made To Measure

Your viva is a unique exam, tailored just for you and your thesis. No-one else will have this one-of-a-kind experience.

But like made to measure clothes, there are patterns. There are ways that things are done. Jacket sleeves stop at a certain point so the jacket fits well. A skirt would be no good if it wasn’t stitched properly. Vivas are unique for the individual candidate, but there are expectations for what they should be like.

Find out about regulations and expectations for the viva, so that when yours comes around you can be sure it fits you well.

The Unmysterious Viva

The viva experience might be sometimes unclear, but it’s not mysterious.

There’s a variety of experiences, but a clear range of common expectations.

There’s structure from regulations, academic practice and norms from departmental procedures.

Every viva is necessarily unique, but it’s simple enough to find a useful set of expectations to work towards.

Learn a little to take away any idea that your viva is a mysterious event in your future.

No Rules

There aren’t any rules for the viva, not exactly. That’s not how they work.

There are regulations, specific to each institution, but broadly compatible across the UK.

And there are reasonable expectations from the general stories that are told and shared about viva experiences.

And there are local “house rules” that each department might have (around lengths, formats and so on).

There aren’t rules for the viva, not really, but there is lots of information available that can help people figure out how to play the game. Look for what you need, and pass on what you figure out after you complete your viva.


December is a month of traditions. Celebrations, music, decorations, meals – some traditions form a backdrop of culture, while others are more homegrown.

  • “Our tree has been up for over a week. That’s how we’ve always done it.”
  • “Christmas dinner will involve turkey, that’s what we always have.”
  • “You can’t open any presents until you’ve had some breakfast, that’s just the way it is!”

You’ll have your own traditions: they might involve Christmas or not, family or friends, excess or restraint. And it might not always be possible to live up to those traditions or in some cases even exercise them. This year especially, people who feel strongly attached to “the way things are supposed to be” are liable to be disappointed if they don’t let go a little.

The viva is an exam of traditions. Regulations, university processes and common stories – these form a background for expectations, while departments and colleagues can show you a more local view.

  • “Vivas last around two hours. That’s what everyone says.”
  • “Expect them to ask a lot about your methods, all my friends were asked about them.”
  • “Your external will take the lead, they’re the expert after all, right?”

Your institution will have rules for the viva. Your discipline might have common expectations. Your department might have ideas – norms – which influence how vivas take place. They might feel comfortable or not, according to your preferences; in some cases you might be able to adapt them or adapt yourself to make them better for you. In the next year or so, you and your examiners might be disappointed that some parts of the viva will not be “the way things are supposed to be.”

December’s traditions are part of a background; you might have your own, but you have a reference point for interpreting others. The viva’s traditions, whatever they come to, will be something partly new to you. You’ve not had a viva before, and you’ll have to interpret the experiences of others to make sense of them.

(December and the viva have a strong tradition for celebration, keep that in mind and do what you can!)

The Map Is Not The Territory

Regulations can give you the general shape of the viva, the broad understanding of the process. Stories shape big expectations, and the stories of your friends and colleagues can help you see the norms, the common practices in your department.

This is the map of the viva landscape: it could have lots detail, but it’s only a representation. All of the regulations, expectations and norms that you understand – and it’s worth taking the time to find them out – won’t be able to tell you exactly what is going to happen in your viva.

You’ll only appreciate the territory, your viva, when you’re there, when it’s in front of you. There you’ll see the unique features, the slight changes, the parts that stand out to you that others didn’t mark or notice.

The map is not the territory, but the map is still useful. You can help update it after your viva. Once your viva is done, the corrections are in and you’re getting ready to move on to life after the PhD, find ways to share your own experiences to help someone else get a sense of what is ahead of them.

(another post inspired by The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish!)