The Exp Words

What kind of speaking are you expecting to do in your viva?

Do you imagine you’ll have to explain what you did?

Do you think you’ll simply expand on what you’ve done?

Or perhaps you think you will explore what your research really means?

In truth: you’ll do all of these and more. The viva is a discussion centred on your research, your thesis and you. The conversation can go in many different directions. Expect that you’ll explain, expand on and explore a lot of what you’ve done.

Don’t expect that your examiners will expose big problems though – or explode your central ideas!

Time To Finish

The viva is framed in lots of different ways.

It’s an exam. It’s a test. It’s a discussion. It’s the end of the PhD journey or the final challenge. You could be excited to be there or telling yourself, “Let’s get this over with…”

Another way to look at is that it’s just time to finish. It’s time. It’s the right time. Years of work, months of anticipation and build-up. New ideas and prospects ahead. You’ve done your PhD for long enough. It’s time to finish and go on to the next thing.

Two questions then: what will help you to finish your PhD well? What will help you to start whatever comes next in the best possible way?

The Importance of Expectations

Expectations for the viva are not guarantees but they matter because they show the process at work. Expectations help because they give a platform for preparation. Vivas vary in length, but knowing roughly what to expect helps to prepare for the effort. It helps to know you can ask for breaks. Knowing how they unfold gives you a way forward.

Expectations show the big picture: candidates tend to pass, so you will too. Your viva is a test – the expectations show that too – but it’s a test that most people succeed in, and you’re unlikely to fail. Expectations are important for the viva. Ask friends, read stories and see what stands out to you. Don’t understand something? Look deeper or ask more.

Don’t expect your viva to follow an exact plan; do expect your viva to help you show the best of your work and yourself.

The Viva Is The Viva

The viva is a conversation.

The viva is a test.

The viva is the end of the PhD.

The viva is pass or fail.

The viva is inevitable.

The viva is something you can prepare for.

The viva is an unknown because it’s different every time.

The viva is your one chance.

There are lots of ways that people talk about the viva. Lots of comparisons. Lots of things that are true and lots of things that are “true”.

The viva is lots of things but you don’t have to take time to consider them all. You can invest your energy in the aspects that help you; you can remember that the viva that matters most to you is your viva.

The viva is the viva.

Your viva is your viva. What elements can you focus on to help yourself? What actions can you take to be ready?

A Special Day

When you think ahead to it, how do you describe your viva?

Do you feel it will be a challenge? Do you joke that your examiners will give you a grilling? Do you find thinking about your viva a bit scary?

When you think of all you’ve done, do you imagine your viva will be special? Important? Easy?

Do you think you will feel nervous, anxious or worried in the days before?

Words matter. The words you use to describe your viva, your preparation and yourself all matter. They are the story you tell about the situation.

Will you need to be lucky or do you think you will be ready?


I hear a lot of people describe vivas in binary terms.

  • The viva is long or short.
  • Either you’ll love it or hate it.
  • Expect examiners to be fair or critical.
  • Questions are either easy or hard.
  • Preparation is straight-forward or lots of work.
  • You’re either nervous or confident when the day arrives.
  • Overall, the viva is either good or bad!

And of course the truth is that, generally, these either/or positions don’t capture what the viva is really like. Different people will feel different things, and rarely will the viva be one thing or the other.

My viva was four hours long and it felt like it flew by. My examiners were really fair with their questions and they had some very critical comments about the structure of my thesis.

Being nervous means that the viva is important to you, but you can be confident too if you reflect on your achievements and realise the success that you’ve made for yourself.

Verbs For The Viva

You will survive – manage to keep going in difficult circumstances – because you’ve done that throughout your PhD. You will most likely thrive too – grow, develop and be successful.

Prepare rather than perfect. You can get ready for the conversation you’ll have but you can’t be a paragon.

You can expect certain things will happen but you can’t assume that everything will play out that way.

You can respond to every question. You might not be able to answer every question.

Words matter. Verbs matter. Check that yours are right for how you think about the viva and how you engage with it when it’s your turn.

The Many Names Of The Viva

People use lots of names to describe the PhD viva.

Viva voce. Thesis defence. Final viva. Thesis examination. The viva.

It’s quite common, in my experience, for candidates to capitalise the V in viva!

“…my Viva is next month…”


Words matter. The name we give something influences how we think and feel about it. In turn this influences what we do about it. The viva is important – your viva is important – but it’s just one day. One day after over a thousand spent on your PhD journey.

If you find that preparing for your thesis defence is giving you doubts, then consider that you’re getting ready for a thesis examination.

If you stress over your Viva then perhaps you will feel better about your viva.

What’s in a name? There are so many ways to describe the conversation you’ll have with your examiners at the end of your PhD. What name will be right for your viva? Make a good choice for yourself.

Tested By The Viva?

“Test” doesn’t seem big enough to think about the way you have to engage in the viva.

A test feels like a little thing, a one-time intervention where you are measured, checked and analysed. That’s not the viva. Maybe we could consider the viva being like a car’s MOT: a check that you are researcher-ready. You have everything in place and are ready to run as a researcher, if you wanted to, but still that wouldn’t feel quite right.

Better to say you’re examined in the viva. You’re challenged by the viva. You defend your work in the viva.

But it’s not enough to say that you’re simply tested by it. The viva is not so great and big as to be the most important thing you will ever do, but it’s not so small as to be simply a test.

What Do You Believe?

Do you believe that vivas are scary, mysterious or to be feared?

Why? What has you concerned? What could you do to soften those concerns?

Do you believe your examiners are going to be harsh?

Why? What is it about them or about your thesis that makes you feel that? Do you have to accept that feeling, or could you do something about it?

Do you believe your viva is all determined by factors beyond your control?

Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to reflect on why you’ve got to the viva stage of your PhD at all?

What do you believe about your viva and your PhD? What is helping you? What isn’t? It’s possible to reflect and change beliefs. Not always simply, not by pressing a button, flipping a switch or turning a dial towards something different. But consistent actions could help turn the dial a little, bit by bit, towards a more useful attitude.

Do you believe that you’ve got as far as you have by doing the work, becoming talented, becoming good enough?

If so, carry on. Keep going.