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19/05/2015

HowtosurviveaPhDviva:17toptips|HigherEducationNetwork|TheGuardian

How to survive a PhD viva: 17 top tips


Just handed in your PhD thesis? Now its time to plan for the next hurdle: a viva. Academics offer
their advice on how to best prepare

Rebecca Ratcliffe
Thursday 8 January 2015 14.23 GMT

anding in your PhD thesis is a massive achievement but its not the end of the
journey for doctoral students. Once youve submitted, youll need to prepare for
the next intellectually-gruelling hurdle: a viva.

This oral examination is a chance for students to discuss their work with experts. Its
formal purpose is to ensure that theres no plagiarism involved, and that the student
understands and can explain their thesis. It involves lots of penetrating questions,
conceptually complex debates and is infamously terrifying.
How can PhD students best prepare? We asked a number of academics and recent
survivors for their tips.

Preparing for the viva


1) Check your institutions policies and practices
Institutional policies and practices vary. Find out who will attend your viva (eg will a
supervisor attend, will there be an independent chair?) and what their roles are.
Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, authors of The Doctoral Examination process: A
Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors
2) Re-read your thesis and keep up-to-date with research
Dont 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.
Dianne Berry, dean of postgraduate research studies, University of Reading
3) As an examiner, you tend to stick to things youre 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 eld associated or directly related to yours. The external
examiner is the one who mainly calls and res all the shots and so its pretty important to
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have a knowledge of their published contributions, especially those that are related to
your thesis in any way.
Dr Bhavik Anil Patel, senior lecturer in physical and analytical chemistry
4) Think about what you will or wont defend
Consider carefully what you will defend to the hilt in the viva, and what you are
prepared to concede. Its 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 dierently, or even better, is not a
bad thing.
Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, authors of The Doctoral Examination process: A
Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors
5) Draw up lists of possible questions especially ones you dread
I collected questions from a bunch of dierent places (listed here) which I then tailored
to my PhD. Somebody I worked with also recommended that I put together my 10
nightmare questions. I found this really useful, by writing down and thinking about my
dreaded questions, they were no longer so bad it was almost as if Id faced the beast.
Generally speaking, I was able to predict the questions that I was asked. There were a
couple that were unexpected but they were either conceptual points or based on
literature that I just didnt know.
Richard Budd, research assistant, University of Bristol who sat his viva in summer 2014
and has blogged about the experience
6) Its not like sitting at a laptop where you can edit a sentence as you go along
By the time you nish your PhD youll know your thesis inside out. One of the things you
wont be as practised at is talking about it. When I was preparing for my viva, I practised
vocalising answers. Its 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. A viva
isnt like sitting at a laptop where you can edit a sentence as you go along.
Richard Budd, research assistant, University of Bristol who sat his viva in summer 2014
and has blogged about the experience
7) 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 (specically 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.
Anthony Finkelstein, dean of the UCL faculty of engineering sciences who has blogged about
surviving vivas
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During the viva


8) Get off to a good start
Give a few detailed answers in the opening 15 minutes, demonstrating knowledge,
describing your thinking and working - then the examiners are likely to relax into the
viva. If the rst few answers are short and non-specic, not demonstrating knowledge,
this can begin to raise concerns, and that can set the tone for the whole viva. This is
avoidable.
Rowena Murray, author of How to Survive Your Viva: Defending a Thesis in an Oral
Examination
9) Prepare for the icebreaker
Every viva opens with that dreaded icebreaker that is supposed to break you in gently
but often seems to be the thing that gets students into a pickle. Its so basic, students
almost forget about it. Most often this would be to give a ve to 10 minute introduction
to your work and your key ndings. This is such a common question that not preparing
for it would be silly.
Dr Bhavik Anil Patel, senior lecturer in physical and analytical chemistry
10) Silence doesnt mean bad news
Dont assume that you will be given any indication of the outcome at the start of the
viva. The examiners may or may not oer comments on the thesis at this stage and
candidates should not interpret a lack of comments at this point as a negative sign. In
some cases institutional policy prohibits it.
Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, authors of The Doctoral Examination process: A
Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors
11) Dont point out your own weaknesses
Avoid shooting yourself in the foot by highlighting the weaknesses in the thesis by being
overly humble (eg I didnt think this would be an acceptable piece of research given the
way I handled x or y) or by saying what you failed to achieve or did not manage to
carry out in a robust manner etc. Leave that to the examiners to pick up in their
reading, they dont need help.
Dr Mariana Bogdanova, lecturer in management, Queens University Belfast
12) Dont talk like a politician
Theres a danger of trying to over-prepare. Dont learn answers o by heart it removes
the spontaneity and is obvious to examiners. If a student has pre-prepared answers they
become a bit like politicians, answering questions they werent asked rather than the
ones they were. I have come across mixed views on mock vivas. Some people really like
them and they can settle nerves but other times it can remove spontaneity and steal
your thunder.
Jerry Wellington, head of research degrees at University of Shefeld and author of
Succeeding with Your Doctorate
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13) You may need to move from friendly questions to complex debates
Vivas can appear friendly and then suddenly go very conceptually complex. The
language used is an alternation between accessible normal language and really
specialised arguments. The student needs to be able to move orally between the two.
Gina Wisker, professor of higher education and contemporary literature at Brighton
University
14) If things get on top of you, use the excuse of having a look at the thesis
Make sure that before the viva you get plenty of sleep, eat properly and de-stress. If
things get too much when youre in there, use the excuse of having to look something up
in your thesis. You could also pause and say Can I write that down for a moment? Stall
for time until you get yourself back together again.
Gina Wisker, professor of higher education and contemporary literature at Brighton
University
15) Focus on your contribution
One of the most important things that the examiners will be looking for in your thesis, is
the contribution to knowledge. It is the contribution which makes your work doctoral
level. Be sure that you understand exactly what your contribution is, and that you are
able to express and explain it clearly and concisely.
Write it down in a paragraph. Discuss it with you supervisor and fellow students. Make
sure that you can relate your contribution to other work in your eld and that you are
able to explain how your work is dierent.
Peter Smith, author of The PhD Viva
16) Expect your viva to last between one and three hours
Students frequently ask how long the viva is likely to be. Obviously they vary. Discipline
dierences are important. Our research suggests that most natural and applied sciences
vivas were completed in one to three hours, whereas arts, humanities and social science
vivas were typically less than two hours long. In the natural and applied sciences 43% of
vivas lasted two hours or less, compared to 83% in arts, humanities and social sciences.
Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, authors of The Doctoral Examination Process: A
Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors
17) Enjoy it
The best advice I ever got was Try to enjoy it. It seemed ludicrous at the time, but I
actually found myself really getting into the discussion as the viva went on. Its one of
the earliest chances you get to talk to someone who not only informed your research
(ideally) but is also conversant with your own. Its a great chance to explore the contours
of your research treat it as such, and it doesnt seem quite
so daunting.
Michael James Heron, school of computing science and digital media, Robert Gordon
University
Share any advice you have in the comments below.
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