Preparing for Your PhD Viva

You’ve reached a significant milestone and submitted your thesis, but now there is one final hurdle awaiting you – the viva. So much of the viva seems to be shrouded in mystery. Many students walk into it not quite knowing what to expect or how the process works. This can make the entire exercise even more nerve-racking. In this post I’ll highlight a few steps to help prepare for the viva, but I want to start off by demystifying the viva process itself.

Approaching the examination as a defence of your work not only puts you into fight-versus-flight mode as you prepare, the feeling of being under attack may also inhibit your performance. Instead of approaching your viva in a fear-based way, my advice is to reframe it as more of a conversation about your project. This will help release some of the pressure surrounding the viva and allow you to tap into what first inspired you about your research area.

A conversation does not have to be unpleasant or uncomfortable and in fact, it can even be enjoyable. It is also a more accurate description of what the viva actually entails. In contrast to an academic presentation, where you would typically give a brief summary of your work, you won’t be expected to give an overview of your research. When you show up to the viva, it is assumed that your examiners will have thoroughly read your work and will jump straight into the discussion.

In the UK there are typically two examiners at each viva. One tends to be drawn from within the student’s home department whereas the second is an external person from another academic institution. You will have some choice in selecting your examiners as you near completion. Your supervisor may have some ideas for appropriate examiners, but you can also suggest individuals if you already have some in mind. As a rule, supervisors don’t usually attend their students’ vivas, and on the rare occasions that they do, they are expected to refrain from speaking throughout.

One of the most difficult things to predict is how long your viva will last. The truth is that the length of a viva really varies – some are as short as an hour whereas others are several hours long. It’s also difficult to attribute any meaning to the length of time, as it’s not always the case that a very long viva is indicative of any problems with the thesis. It could be that the examiners are genuinely interested in the topic and have a lot to discuss with the student. Equally, we can’t assume anything if the viva is relatively short.

The results of the viva tend to be announced to a student on the day. Whatever the outcome, the examiners will follow-up by compiling their comments in a report. The report will provide an overview of the viva and the result, along with any corrections you have been requested to make.

Perhaps what makes the viva process so mysterious is that each student’s experience tends to vary significantly. It really comes down to the individuals involved and how they interact with your work. It is precisely because of this variance that you should take others’ experiences with a pinch of salt. No two people will have an entirely similar viva. Despite whatever stories you hear from others about their viva, it’s best to remember that your experience will be your own.

How can I prepare for it?

The uncertainty surrounding the viva process can often leave students stumped over how to prepare. Although it’s impossible to predict how things will go on the day or what the examiners’ assessment of your thesis will be, there are a number of things you can do to put yourself in the best position possible. Below are the main steps I would recommend in advance of your viva:

  • Read through your thesis to refresh your memory. In particular, you want to make a note of – and be able to speak about – the following items: your central argument; the contribution your work makes; how your research fits within the literature; an explanation of your methodology; and finally, any avenues for future research that your project opens up.
  • Get to know your examiners. It’s important to know the individuals you will be dealing with on the day, so do a bit of background research that goes beyond scanning their bios. Who are they and how are they likely to view your work given their particular perspective and background?
  • Try and brainstorm some possible questions you may be asked and practice answering them. Although you won’t be able to anticipate everything in advance, it will give you some practice in fielding questions.
  • Are there any gaps in your research? Try to think about what some of the potential limitations of your research are. Could you reframe these limitations as avenues for further research?
  • Arrange for a mock viva with your supervisor or another colleague. Try to do this at least a week or two weeks before the viva to give you enough time to prepare and reflect on how it went.
  • As mentioned above, reframing the viva as a conversation instead of a defence will allow you to show up differently on the day. It will influence how you carry yourself, how you respond to questions and, ultimately, how much you are able to get out of the experience. The conversation is there to improve the project and ultimately help you – so there’s no need to feel under attack.
  • Dress for the occasion. Rather than picking something standard from your wardrobe for the day, spend some time selecting an outfit. Not only will dressing for the occasion help you exude confidence, it will convey a sense of professionalism to your examiners. If it isn’t feasible for you to buy a new outfit, little flourishes can also go a long way towards boosting your confidence.
  • As strange as it may sound, try and get excited about the viva. In other words don’t lose sight of what you find exciting and enjoyable about the project. Tapping into your excitement is one of the best antidotes to fear and anxiety. Given that you dedicated so much of your time to working on your PhD, the opportunity to have colleagues engage with your work is actually something to look forward to and to be excited about.

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