No Silly Questions

There are none about the viva. I’ve been asked:

  • “How many questions can I get wrong?”
  • “How can I guarantee I won’t get any corrections?”
  • “How can I make it as short as possible?”
  • “What if I get nervous and spill my coffee all over myself?”

I’ve really been asked that final question! None of these are silly questions. Questions about the viva tend to come from either not knowing about the process, regulations or expectations, or from being worried about the situation and how to pass. None of these questions are silly. It could be that a question is the wrong question to ask about a situation, maybe there is a better focus, but no questions are silly.

If you have a question but think, “Oh no, I’m being silly,” then you need to find the right person to ask. It could be your supervisor. It may be a friend who has already passed, or possibly your graduate school. It could be me! Whoever it is, get rid of your questions by trading them for answers.

More often than not you’ll then have to trade those answers for action you have to take, but that’s much better than either being in the dark or worrying.



Your mileage may vary.

That prep tip from a friend might not help you as much as it helped them.

The regulations might say to expect X, but you experience Y.

While others get a lot of help from a mock viva, you find it makes you worry.

But while your friends are nervous, you feel confident.

While someone else got minor corrections, you get none!

And the advice you heard didn’t just make a small difference, it made the difference to your viva.

Experiences vary. Preferences matter. Not everyone will have the same needs, the same circumstances, the same viva. We can hope for minimum standards, work hard towards preferred outcomes, and still some things won’t be quite as we might like. Some experiences will be better; some tips or techniques will be very helpful for some.

My advice is to share honestly, share openly, share positively. I hope it all helps, but your mileage may vary.

The Right Way

One of the things I love about summertime is it feels right to treat yourself with a scone.

But it has to be a scone with jam and clotted cream. Scone cut open, jam first then clotted cream on top. Amazing! Best summertime treat ever. This is the right way to have a scone (even better with a very thin layer of salted butter before you put the jam on).

At least, I think it’s the right way.

Some people would say this way is heresy. You’reย supposed to have clotted cream first, then jam. And it’s not proper unless the scone has fruit in. Or is warm from the oven.

Everyone has their right way of having a scone in summertime.

Every candidate will have a picture of the right way to have a viva. Every institution will have regulations which goven the right way to run a viva. Every supervisor will have experience they could share which helps them to think about the right circumstances. Every pair of examiners will have ideas about the right way to examine a candidate.

There are lots of people and ideas connected to the right way for a viva to happen. It’s worth listening to all of these ideas, including your own intuition; see how they all compare and contrast, and find a set of useful expectations.

There are lots of things we might think of as wrong for the viva, and lots of good things we could reasonably expect. There’s no single right way though.

Unlike a scone with jam and clotted cream. Then there really is only one, right way.


Why Do Vivas Vary?

Because every set of circumstances is unique. The candidate, the research, the supervisors, the results, the thesis, the examiners, the day, and so on…

There are common aspects. Regulations, academic culture and people’s experiences suggest probable outcomes and eventualities.

Check the regulations, explore the way vivas happen, listen to your friend’s story – but don’t expect their story to be your story.

And don’t expect your story to be completely unlike any other story you might hear.


“Is it OK to stalk your external examiner on Twitter?”

I chuckled when I got this question at a workshop. “Stalk” is funny, but they meant follow, which is fine… I couldn’t see why it would be an issue. I can’t imagine there would be an extra restriction on who you follow on Twitter on the lead up to the viva. Unless your external was pseudo-anonymously dropping huge hints with their tweets…

Learning a lot about an interesting bit of research this week! #phdchat #vivasoon

Always nice to see my research referenced in a thesis! #phdchat #vivasoon ๐Ÿ˜‰

There is a difference between “effect” and “affect”! ๐Ÿ™ #phdchat #vivasoon #page74thirdparagraph

It should be fine. I’ve not seen anything from universities which means you can’t follow your examiners. Don’t DM them, don’t @ them and perhaps don’t RT or favourite their tweets, just to be sure. For avoidance of doubt, check with your university’s regulations.

(meanwhile it’s absolutely fine to follow @VivaSurvivors!)

Read The Manual

Talking to friends about their viva experiences is useful. Picking up on bits and pieces of what goes on in vivas while you do your PhD is inevitable.

Generally, candidates have a fair picture of what they need to do procedure-wise; the regulations might not need to be spelled out for you, but if you have any questions, concerns or “what if….” worries:

Read the manual!

Your university has one, and it will have a lot of the answers about situations and circumstances that come up around the viva.

Find it. Read it.