The PhD Viva (survival)

On my very first day at university I was queuing at the bank and in front of me was another female student waiting to open a bank account. One of the bank assistants came over and started filling the form in with her and he asked,  "Are you Miss or Mrs"? neither, she replied, "I'm a Dr, I passed my PhD viva this morning". I was in complete awe. I was stood in a queue with someone that had just passed a viva (whatever that is) and she is now a DR. I never imagined that 8 years later that I would be sitting one...

I sat my PhD viva last week and I am writing this in the post exam glow exhaustion. For anyone unfamiliar with a viva they can take on slightly different forms with different numbers of examiners and different requirements, but essentially 'a viva' is an oral exam. My viva was with two examiners, one from my university and the other from another university. Both examiners were researchers in an area related to my PhD topic.

I handed my thesis in back in January so there has been a gap of around 3/4 months between me finishing writing and sitting my viva. Not an unusual amount of time. I am not working in a lab, or on the same project (at all) anymore. So I had been very much removed from my PhD life. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It allowed me to look at my thesis before my viva with relatively fresh eyes and pick out some errors and areas where I could add clarity. I flagged those up with markers and highlighter pens and spent some time refreshing my memory on recent research papers/reviews and points relative to my thesis and project.

One week before the viva I felt fine about it. I knew my project and I knew what extra bits of reading I needed to do. My biggest worry was what I was going to wear (I chose a smart but comfy dress).

Then the fear set in. I was imagining nightmare scenarios and fundamental problems with my project. My biggest worry was being asked a really simple question that I wouldn't be able to answer and humiliating myself.

PhD vivas are daunting. Imagine finding two people you don't know but are examples of fine upstanding citizens and asking 'hey, want to judge me on the past 3/4/5/6 years of my life and tell me if it was worthwhile or not?'

Two days before my viva I was pretty stressed out. I was trying to keep calm but the fear had taken hold. I know that it didn't really matter, but it did matter. Googling 'failed PhD viva' and 'PhD viva horror stories' is not a good idea.

Going into the room I was a bit of a nervous wreck but my examiners kindly put me at ease by telling me that they had enjoyed reading my thesis, that I didn't need to worry and to think of the viva as more of a conversation.

For the next 3.5 hours we looked through my thesis and discussed the wider implications of my work, what my work involved, and how that led to my results and conclusions. They spotted typos and added their thoughts to my project and conclusions. It was a conversation, but it was one more like mastermind than a friendly chat in the pub. They were tough they asked me a few curve ball questions that did throw me a bit and on one occasion I had a complete mental block about a series of experiments that I had planned to do, but for the life of me couldn't recall (I did recall them a few minutes later).

I don't think I really enjoyed the experience but I didn't hate it either. At times being allowed the time to discuss thoughts and ideas was nice but I always was acutely aware that this was my viva and although the examiners were smiling I was being judged.

After they had finished discussing my thesis I was asked to leave the room as they had a discussion regarding the outcome of the viva. I was out of the door just long enough to tweet 'I'm standing outside after my viva waiting to go back in' when they called me back into the room and told me the magic words, "congratulations you have passed". So I passed my PhD with minor corrections and I was very happy, but mostly very tired.

I was exhausted, really exhausted. It isn't like getting a good set of exam results after the stress has passed and you can just go out and celebrate. I went to the pub with some friends and was underwhelmed. I couldn't sleep the night after my viva because I was still so switched on (despite the gin and champers). The following day I was still exhausted. I woke up again about three days later.

Some people on twitter asked for tips for 'surviving' a viva. All I can say is what was passed on to me before my viva:

  • know your stuff
  • don't be defensive 
  • try and relax
  • clarify the question before you answer it
  • be honest: theses aren't perfect 
  • no research project is perfect be aware of the projects limitations and strengths
  • take your thesis with you (with notes and things)
  • think about your thesis and findings in the context of the 'bigger picture'
  • be prepared to offer your own views where there is no right or wrong answer
Keep smiling :-)

For more info on PhD and survival tips see -


  1. Sounds terrifying! Sounds as if it was a good thing to have a gap between thesising and vivaing.

  2. Congratulations on your passed viva!

  3. Congratulations! Thanks for the terrific post - I'll use it when I prep for my viva in July!


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