Preparing for your viva

In the UK, the oral examination is usually conducted behind closed doors by at least two examiners, usually with at least one being from another institution (external examiner) and an expert in your topic of research. In the UK the supervisor does not participate in the viva, but may be allowed to observe. Sometimes someone from your own institution is appointed as an independent chair.

This list gives you suggestions helpful in preparing to defend your thesis:

  • I know my thesis thoroughly
  • I have written a one-page summary of each chapter
  • I have continued to work with my thesis after submission or have begun to prepare a conference paper or publication
  • I am able to explain how my thesis fits into the big picture
  • I have kept up to date with relevant literature
  • I know what the implications of my research are to both theory and practice
  • I have had a mock viva with my main supervisor
  • I have asked my peers to quiz and challenge me about my thesis
  • I have explained my thesis to friends and family who are not familiar with it
  • I have investigated the backgrounds and publications of my examiners
  • I have looked at my institution's guidelines for vivas
  • I have produced a list of likely questions
  • I have identified areas of my thesis that are likely to be challenged
  • I have marked up my thesis to help me refer to it in the viva
  • I know how I will be informed of the outcome of my viva.

Some of these are explored in more detail below.

Check your institution’s policies and practices:

Re-read your thesis – and keep up-to-date with research: Don’t underestimate the amount of time the examiners will have spent reading and thinking about your thesis – however, you should remember that you are still likely to be the “expert in the room” on this particular topic. Check to see if any relevant recent papers have emerged since submitting the thesis and, if so, read these.

As an examiner, you tend to stick to things you’re an expert in when driving the questioning: Your viva panel will consist of an external expertise in your subject area and an internal which may be in a subject field associated or directly related to yours. The external examiner is the one who mainly calls and fires all the shots and so it’s pretty important to have a knowledge of their published contributions, especially those that are related to your thesis in any way.

Think about what you will or won’t defend:  Consider carefully what you will defend to the hilt in the viva, and what you are prepared to concede. It’s important to defend your claims about the originality of the thesis and its contribution to knowledge. However, no research is perfect, and showing that you have considered what could have been done differently, or even better, is not a bad thing.

Draw up lists of possible questions – especially ones you dread: Put together your 10 nightmare questions. By writing down and thinking about the dreaded questions, they may no longer seem so bad –almost as if you’ve faced the beast. Generally speaking, you should be able to predict the questions that you will be asked.

It’s not like sitting at a laptop where you can edit a sentence as you go along: By the time you finish your PhD you’ll know your thesis inside out. One of the things you won’t be as practised at is talking about it. Try vocalising answers. It’s not a case of needing to learn to answers verbatim – this would only work as a technique if you could guarantee the exact way your examiner will ask a question – but it is about thinking about how you will articulate certain things

Bring a printed copy that is exactly the same as that of your examiners: Ensure you and your supervisor have a printed copy that is exactly the same as that of your examiners (specifically the same pagination). Mark with tabs the key sections and highlight for reference important quotes and points you might want to refer to. If you have some key diagrams it may help to have these printed larger on A4 sheets that can be used in a discussion. There is a chance, albeit slim, that an examiner will wish to see some piece of experimental data, software, or other supporting evidence. Have this all neatly archived and accessible. You can do this after submission.

With thanks to the Guardian (8/1/15) and Vitae

Further Reading

Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, The
Doctoral Examination process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors –
Harold Cohen Library LB2391.G7.T58 or Electronic Book

The LDC Development Team offer workshops and online resources on how to prepare for your viva examination. 'Viva Survivor' sessions are also delivered by an external facilitator throughout the year and dates will be listed on the PGR Events webpage.