You can’t know exactly what will happen at your viva before you have it.

But you can know about the many vivas of your friends and colleagues. Use stories of vivas in the past to help get ready for yours in the future.

From these stories you can see that vivas range in length. They’re fairly structured conversations. You can expect challenging questions. You can also know who your examiners are and what they do. You can’t know what questions they will ask, but you can get a sense of what they might want.

Altogether you can have a good idea of what your viva will be like. You can build up a realistic set of expectations rather than worry about the unknown aspects.

The Numbers Game

95% of vivas are finished by the four-hour mark.

I estimate that less than one-in-ten candidates will be asked to prepare a presentation.

Around 85% of candidates are asked to complete minor corrections to their thesis as the formal outcome of the viva.

Approximately 10% could be told the outcome of the viva as they start the exam.

And as useful as these statistics can be sometimes for shaping expectations, they’re also really hard to give someone a game plan for the viva. Lots of overlapping ideas – and while they create a feeling to hope for or engage with, you can’t know what is going to happen until you’re there.

The statistics help but you can’t play that game. You have to focus much more simply.

Use the stats and the stories of friends to create a picture of the viva that honestly seems fine. Then do your best. Create the best thesis you can. Prepare as best you can. Boost your confidence as best you can. Start the viva well. Keep going.

It’s important to have good expectations for the viva but the numbers can be a distraction. Create good expectations for yourself too.

Sample Of One

You need to hear a few stories before a full picture of the viva comes into focus.

One bad story could convince you (wrongly) that you’re in for a bad time.

One good story wouldn’t explain enough of what to generally expect.

Listen to the stories of PhD graduates generally to get an overall sense of what happens. Ask two or three friends from your department about their vivas to begin to get a sense of the process, expectations and experiences that candidates have in the viva. Vivas are generally fine. They can be challenging but not negative, difficult but not something that needs to be endured.

A sample of one isn’t enough, but a few stories can help you feel good for the challenge ahead.

Myth & Truth

There are lots of myths about the viva: they’re impossible to really prepare for, they’re unfair, unknowable, harsh, a hazing, and not that fun.

There is lots that is true about the viva: the vast majority of people pass, regulations and expectations can be found out quite easily, preparation is possible, examiners don’t aim to be harsh – and a viva might not always be fun but it’s usually fine.

Myths circulate among PGR (candidate) communities. The truth is known in PhD (graduate) circles.

You have to ask the right people to find out the truth about the viva.

Pass It On

After your PhD, tell others what you learned. Not just the ideas in your thesis, but what you’ve learned about working well. What you can do now that you couldn’t before. What you learned at the viva even: what that experience was like for you and what you think it means.

Write it down so you don’t forget. Make a page in a journal to summarise how far you’ve come. Write a blog post. Give a talk before you leave your department. Do something to mark this change: you’re now a PhD!

Your story could help others write their own.


PhD student or postgraduate researcher?

Examiner or academic?

Expert or experienced?

Prepared or ready?

The labels we use make a difference. They’re a part of the story we tell ourselves about a situation.

Some labels help and others don’t.

What labels have you chosen for your examiners? What labels describe you? And are they the most helpful labels for your viva and the end of your PhD?

Time Passes

It’s ten years since I finished my PhD and I’ve written several posts in the last few months referencing this. It’s like a little star whose gravity I can’t escape. I enjoyed my PhD, and have very few regrets or complaints about my time as a PGR, but I think one of the great differences to then and now is just how much support is available for researchers.

There are more visible sources in everything from skills development, professional help and support for the mental health challenges that some researchers can face. By no means have any of these areas been “solved” for PGRs, but the last decade has seen an explosion in approaches, resources, workshops, books, seminars, webinars and more importantly the culture around support for PGRs.

In the sphere of viva help, there are lots of resources, workshops and help out there (just like this site!) – but one of the key culture changes is the number of PhD graduates who write about their viva experiences now. This is completely different from my experience a decade ago. I knew no-one who shared what happened above and beyond a quick “I passed and it was fine!” person-to-person.

A long time ago I started the Elsewhere page on this site as a collection of useful resources beyond this site. There are a lot of stories on that page, but it’s while since I’ve updated the list. I don’t always have much time to go actively looking for more viva stories (but I’ll put an afternoon in the diary for the autumn to do an update). If you’ve written something, or know someone who has, then do drop me an email or a tweet with a link and I’ll add it to the page.

Stories matter. They help. The more we see stories of viva success, the more we can promote the idea that success is the norm, that fear and worry are based on the outliers. Stories change culture.

The End Is Nigh!

I’ve met people who are doom-and-gloom because they’re near the end of the PhD. Typically this is because their viva is coming up, though there can be a host of reasons – general concern about examiners, wondering about corrections, worries about the future, and so on. It is worth spending effort to work on these issues. Figure out what’s troubling you, start to think about what you could do to work it out.

It’s also worth finding out more about general viva experiences and expectations. A lot gets said about the viva, not all of it good, not all of it true. Generally? The viva’s an interesting discussion about your work.

If you can find enough true stories of the viva, then perhaps other concerns might melt away.