Ten Tips for getting through your PhD viva.
These tips are designed primarily for those taking their PhD exam in the UK, but some of the more general points will apply to those in other countries too. Unlike undergraduate and masters degrees, PhDs are examined by viva voce, which is an oral examination. Here are some hints to help you prepare and perform well on the day.
1. Submit a thesis you are proud of
2. Choose the right examiners (and know their work)
3. Put down your thesis for as long as possible!
4. Know your argument
5. Realise what you could have done differently
6. Relax the night before
7. Dress to impress
8. Take a copy of your thesis to the viva
9. Relax and enjoy it!
10. Take on board any comments and criticisms
You will find it very difficult to defend your work in a viva examination if you are not pleased with it yourself. Scholars are often their own worst critics, and it is right to be able to judge your work realistically, but if you have worked hard during the three years of your PhD, and your supervisor seems pleased with your thesis too, then chances are you can go into the viva feeling confident.
We have all heard viva nightmare stories (such as an examiner falling asleep during the interview!) so make sure you choose your examiners carefully. Choose someone who will challenge your work, but is not completely hostile to your approach. If you familiarise yourself with your examiners' research before the viva this will help you to work out the angle they are coming from in their interview questions.
Once you have a date set for your viva, hopefully it will be between four and twelve weeks from your submission date. This gives you plenty of time to prepare. Make sure you have a chance to recover from the dash to submit your thesis, try not to look at it at all for a month or so. When you pick your thesis up again you will find it fresh and exciting rather than tired and dull. You may also have some new ideas to bring to the viva, rather than simply getting bogged down with the intricacies of your research.
In preparation for the viva, say about ten days before, make sure you can answer the following questions: what is unique about your thesis? What is its central argument/finding? How does it differ from other key players in your field? Where could you go from here with this topic? Have a short, medium and long answer to each of those questions. In other words, if you are encouraged to sum up your answer in a few sentences be able to do so, and equally be able to speak for several minutes if need be.
To PhD candidates the qualification is everything; it is the culmination of so much hard work. However, academics who have got their doctorates realise that the PhD is the start and not the end of the research process. Be prepared to discuss the flaws in your work. Don't worry, your examiners won't fail you if you say you wish you had taken a different approach.
As with any exam, oral or written, don't try to revise too heavily the night before. Have a quiet evening, perhaps a light meal with friends or the cinema and an early night. By the time you do your PhD viva you will be expert in exam situations, so use your tried and tested methods that have reaped rewards in the past.
Many people dress casually for their viva, and there are certainly no conventions which say you must dress up (outside Oxbridge at least) but it is often the case that dressing formally focuses the mind for the task ahead. If you are neat and tidy in appearance, perhaps your thoughts will be well ordered too.
Your examiners will ask you some general questions about the significance of your thesis (see point 4) but they may also want to challenge or clarify some specific sections, so take a copy of your thesis with you (identical to the one submitted to your examiners). It looks much more professional if you can work from a bound copy, rather than piles of loose papers, although obviously that incurs more expense.
The viva can last anything from 45 minutes to two hours so it will be an intense experience, but hopefully your examiners will do everything they can to make you feel relaxed. Many examiners now tell the candidate whether they have passed at the outset, so they can then enjoy the ensuing discussion. Whether this happens to you or not, try to take full advantage of the fact that two experts in your field are dedicating themselves to your work entirely. This doesn't happen very often, so make the most of it!
Even if you pass with flying colours, your examiners will probably have some hints on how to improve your argument or presentation and where to take your research from here. Make sure you remember their advice as it will be useful in the future. If you can show that you have engaged with their comments, your examiners will make very useful referees for employment and to advise publishers when you are trying to turn your thesis into a monograph.
To read more tips on doing your PhD, please click here