The viva is the oral exam exam you do at the end of a PhD or MPhil. What follows are some reflections on my own experience of doing a viva and a mixture of things that people told me that proved useful. There is a list of tips at the end. Thanks to all those who gave me advice and who have contributed (anonymously) to this piece.
I hope this post will be useful to others. Let me know if it was.
It is difficult to recreate the conditions of a viva. One useful thing to do in the months leading up to a viva is to take the opportunity to do some talks/presentations to groups – on your research topic. In the lead up to mine I was able to present my research at a conference and also to present a seminar at another university to some staff and other research students. In both cases I was asked questions afterwards by those in attendance. This type of feedback is invaluable. I found both of these experiences to be good preparation for my viva.
Re-read key texts and know your thesis
In the few months before submitting a thesis reading becomes less of a priority, as the pressure to finish writing and edit existing work takes over. After submission you now have some breathing space before your viva. Use it wisely. Reread some key books and articles relating to your topic.
Another thing you can do for the first time is to print out your completed thesis and hold it in your hand. Reread it from start to finish.
Preparing for the questions
It is vital to be familiar with the format of the viva and the type of questions examiners might ask. There are three main areas that they will focus on:
- The methods that were used to carry out your research
- The theory used in the thesis
- The ‘so what?’ questions: what is unique about the research?
I was very fortunate to have the benefit of some very experienced academics who took the time to help me to prepare by offering advice and asking questions. Although it’s not much fun to be grilled and put on the spot, it’s great practice. You might want to even ask if your supervisor will arrange a ‘mock viva’ for you. If you have grown accustomed to being asked difficult questions then it will be much easier on the day.
Examiners will often begin a viva with a general question such as, ‘Tell me about your thesis?’ This is your chance to show off what you know but also be able to show that you can give a clear and concise summary of your work in a few minutes.
One thing I found useful was to write a short summary of my thesis and practice saying it out loud. I did the same with a list of obvious questions. I even asked a friend if I could rehearse my answers in front of him – which was a little awkward but good practice.
On the Day:
A good nights sleep the night before is vital. It may seem obvious, but a viva is stressful enough without being tired as well.
Be early. In the morning of my viva I went to the university first thing so I wasn’t worried about running late.
Remember, you are allowed to bring a copy of your thesis with you into the exam.
The viva experience
The examination room is laid out very simply. In my case I was sitting across a desk from the two examiners. Your supervisor (or 2nd supervisor) can also be in the room but can’t say anything during the exam (in my case he even sat behind me so I couldn’t see him).
There are two examiners – one from your own university and one from another university. Both my internal and external examiners were very friendly and did their best to make me feel relaxed.
The questions are, generally speaking, all about seeing how much your know about your topic. In my case, many were open ended. ‘Tell me about ‘X, Y, and Z’.’ Some were comments on what I had written, ‘I think you’ve been a bit hard on ‘such and such’.’ Others were things like, ‘How do you know your data is reliable?’
It’s important to fight your corner and not crumble under pressure. However, it’s equally important not to appear argumentative or arrogant. While discussing one point my external examiner said to me: ‘I don’t agree with you but that’s okay, you don’t have to agree with me.’ I was fortunate to have a very gracious examiner.
A viva usually lasts up to two hours. After the viva is over you go out of the room while the examiners make a decision. This is the worst part – while you wait on the good or bad news.
It’s a strange feeling afterwards, someone described it to me by saying that even if you pass, you might feel like you’ve failed.
I’m glad to be able to say that when my examiners called me back in they shook my hand and told me that I’d passed with minor corrections. Then they gave me a report with whatever changes they wanted made outlined and and talked me through what changes to make.
It took 2 full days to sink in that it was over.
With the benefit of hindsight, the anticipation was much worse than the event. I’ve listed below my top pieces of advice for students preparing for a viva. I hope they are useful.
Useful tips for surviving a Viva
- Think of the examiners as consultants that you have hired to make your thesis better.
- You can’t predict the questions but prepare like you can. Learn a summary of your thesis and the answers to some obvious questions.
- Read your whole thesis again in the few days before the exam.
- The examiner wants you to pass. Remember this.
- Take time to breathe before answering a question.
- Take a glass of water.
- You may, at some stage, go off-topic. Don’t panic. If this happens it’s fine to ask for a reminder of the question.
- You’re not on TV. You can pause to think. Don’t put extra pressure on yourself by trying to give the perfect performance.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the examiner to repeat the question or to clarify what they mean.
- You can use phrases like, ‘That’s an interesting question,’ or, ‘There are a couple of things I’d like to say about that.’ This gives you more time to gather your thoughts.
- Try to look the examiner in the eye.
- Be confident but not aggressive.
- Be serious, but don’t forget to smile.
- It’s okay to admit weaknesses but never say ‘I might have got that wrong.’
- Always emphasise the positive aspects of your research.
- Try to enjoy the experience – you will grow from it.