Reading the examiner

How can you read the examiner during a viva?

Short answer: You can’t.

Long answer: Given that is not uncommon for the Renton Prize winner to believe they have failed the vivas, is there any way to actually know how you are going? This post covers some of the common ways people try to read the examiner, and ends with the test with the highest area under the ROC curve.

TRUE/FALSE If the examiners face is blank, you are failing.

Most examiners will avoid giving non verbal cues. A blank face only indicates that they are listening to your answer. Ask the people giving you trial vivas to give you practice at answering a question without non verbal feedback.


TRUE/FALSE If the examiner is smiling and nodding, it is a good sign.

This test has a high sensitivity but low specificity. It means that the examiner probably does not have Asperger’s syndrome.


TRUE/FALSE If the examiner looks at you over the top of their glasses it is a sign that you have made a mistake.

This test has both a high sensitivity and specificity. The examiner is longsighted.


TRUE/FALSE It is a good sign if the examiner is making a lot of notes.

Some examiners make notes whilst they are examining. Some examiners prefer to write their notes after they have finished doing their vivas. Either way, they are recording your answers, whether or not they are correct.


Your guess as to how you are going is worse than tossing a coin. There is, however, a test with a very high sensitivity.


Most people who are invited to the vivas pass. If you assume you are passing, there is a much better than even chance that you are right.

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