It sits, a neon blaze on the distant horizon, alone in a desert of scorched neurones, the gamblers’ paradise on which you stake the last four years. You need a strong heart and nerves of steel as you roll the dice one last time, as there’s a fortune (well, a thesis) to be won or lost. They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in the Viva is something you’ll want to tell people about for the rest of your life…
By Pierre Botcherby
Every PhD Viva is unique. Since passing mine with minor corrections last November, I’ve done two talks about the process with several PGRs. Whilst there were a few tears and some bad hands dealt by examiners, our experiences overall were positive and we all hit the jackpot. As gambles go, you’re far better off with a Viva than a roulette wheel on Las Vegas Strip: just 3.3% of PhD candidates fail the Viva and 80% of passes require only minor corrections.  Those are certainly odds worth taking.
I had my Viva about two months after submitting. This is about average in my department (History) but varies across the university. It was held online, via MS Teams. Whilst perhaps a bit anti-climactic and less ceremonial compared to an in-person Viva (a bit like, I imagine, the difference between hunching furtively over your phone for online poker and striding into the casino to face down Lady Luck across the baize), I think it played into my hands. Aside from the worry of whether my Internet would hold up (which, given the outrageous price Virgin Media charge me each month, it should), I was able to approach it calmly and serenely. I didn’t have to worry about buses, finding the room, or having to make small talk with anyone who saw me waiting to go in; I was still in my pyjamas thirty minutes before it began!
In terms of preparation, I took a relaxed approach. The Viva isn’t supposed to trip you up; you don’t need to card count. After submitting, I gave myself a month off. I then abused the Doctoral College’s free printing to have a draft copy to proof-read. This enabled me to spot some errors and refresh my mind about my key arguments and findings. The most helpful preparation was a mock Viva with my supervisors a week before the real thing. In hindsight, they gave me a far tougher grilling than my examiners, and it was useful to have their questions in mind as I approached the big day. Lastly, I had a quick scan of my key journals, just to be sure no huge new discoveries had been made in my field.
On the day itself, once I’d shed my pyjamas in favour of something more formal (although not a suit, which – in another parallel with online gambling and casinos – you often see come out for the in-person variety), I had a quick pep talk with my supervisors about twenty minutes beforehand. At ten o’clock, I joined the Viva call and the examinations advisor introduced me to my two examiners. We launched straight into it: they gave me a strong hint that I’d passed, and then we worked through a series of questions chapter-by-chapter. It was a really interesting and enjoyable conversation which could have gone on all day had the advisor not intervened to say we should put my supervisors out of their agony!
And that was that. Pass with minor corrections; a straight flush (that’s ‘like… unbeatable’).  It’s always easy to sound like you knew what you were doing following a good result, so I’ll round off with a few tips:
- Enjoy it: even getting to the Viva, you’ve achieved something awesome
- Be confident: you’re the expert, you hold the cards (and, unlike in Vegas, you deal them too)
- Don’t get defensive: the examiners will shuffle your cards with their questions so don’t raise the stakes needlessly when you answer. Take advantage of having two experts who have read your work closely and listen to them. Don’t be afraid to knock or fold; you don’t need to know all the answers and you can ask them questions, too
- Make friends: examiners often have suggestions for publications, ideas for post-doc projects, and can provide guidance or references later down the line
- Get help: whilst we won’t teach you Blackjack, the Library and the Doctoral College offer workshops and full guidance about submissions and Vivas
How was your Viva experience? Let us know in the comments below, tweet us @researchex or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re still doing preparations and slightly worried, check out or questions and answers here. If you’re not quite at a viva just yet, but on the way to a PhD upgrade, take a look at our golden guide.
 ‘PhD failure rate: a study of 26,076 PhD candidates’, DiscoverPhDs, accessed: 27.01.22.
 Though, as Nicolas Cage’s hapless gambler Jack Singer finds out to his cost, ‘like unbeatable is not unbeatable’… and a handful of people do pass with no corrections (a royal flush). Well done to them!