By Dr Fiona Millar (I’m still not used to using that)
The day has come. You submitted your PhD thesis and have been preparing for your viva voca; oral examination. You’re nervous, you don’t really know what to expect and you’re also a little excited (although you’d never tell any one that).
Your viva is a huge part of the PhD journey – it’s a defining day in so many ways. It’s the start of a new journey, your research career and the end of a current journey, the PhD. It signals freedom, achievement, discussion and means that people have actually read your thesis!
So in the days, weeks and months (if you’re lucky) leading up to the PhD viva, how do you prepare, what do you do to put your nerves at ease and what the heck is it all about? If you’re preparing for a viva or want to share some wisdom with someone who is about to do a viva, here are some preparation and survival tips.
After drafting this from my own experience, I took to Twitter to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d forgotten. Incorporated below are the extremely helpful comments from others in the know – Good to see they’re not too different from my own advice. Grab a refreshment & take five minutes to read our top viva preparation tips.
Preparation can begin well before the viva and even before submission. You need to choose your examiners and this is an important task that you should take an active role in – seek out potential examiners at conferences (and use this as an opportunity to dismiss potential examiners too!); choose examiners for good reasons – they know your field, they will provide rigour and a good defence, they’ve had experience and they are fair; organise a date that works for everyone involved – you are entitled to say ‘no, that date doesn’t work for me’ and have a back-up examiner – just in case.
I hadn’t taken my own advice and met my examiners, so I’d never heard them speak but was fortunate enough to find a BBC radio clip of one of my examiners and I listened to it a few times to familiarise myself with her voice – this really helped with taking away the shock factor of meeting them on the day.
Set out a timetable taking you up to the date of viva and don’t forget to plan in your social life too – it’s important to have some time off and this will usually keep you focused. I work full time and my viva was 2 months after my submission date, which meant I could take a well deserved holiday after submission, avoid my PhD for the rest of that month and then head down through to the 19th October. Timetabling my preparation meant I could see the journey to the viva and feel a true sense of ‘on-track’ achievement.
Tip #1: Think about your preparation during submission.
When you’re getting your thesis bound for submission, get an extra copy for yourself. While i recommend NOT reading your PhD for at least a week after submission (depending on your time lag between submission and viva), when you are ready to read it, you want to read it as the examiners will. Using a submission copy of your thesis, you see your PhD as the examiners do and are more likely to pick up on more errors than you would on a computer version where you can’t see the binding, margins and any glaring discrepancies in font – I had a few and it was good to mark these up ahead of the viva, so I could show that I had noticed them too and meant doing the corrections post viva was much easier and quicker!
Think about how you are going to prepare and the tools you need to do so. To make prep enjoyable, I treated myself to a nice new notebook, coloured pens and large, lined post it notes that would be dedicated to my preparation.
Know your rights
Check your university’s regulations: Check what’s expected of you (be aware of discipline specific elements / expectations of a viva); know what the possible outcomes are (no corrections right through to no award!) and ask what format the viva will take (some universities, typically not Stirling, ask you to prepare a PowerPoint presentation) and be prepared to give a 10 minute opener of your thesis.
Did you know you can bring in snacks; you can take a break; you can ask questions; you can ask for clarification; you can look at your notes; you can assert yourself with respect to your work – it’s a defence, not a space for the examiners to convince you that their opinion is better. You also shouldn’t be asked two part questions, but if you are (examiners are human after all), write down the two parts and take each in turn and ask if you have answered both parts adequately. You can and should ask for clarification of ambiguous questions and your opinion certainly matters!
Twitter Tip: James Steele at Southampton Solent University “Don’t be afraid to disagree politely with the examiner. They’re there to test you. Just stick to the evidence if you think it supports you”
Tip #2: The 3 Reads: Thesis; Literature; Examiners
Your viva is your opportunity to show what you know. The whole foundation of the viva is that it is a defence, not an argument and it’s about you, it’s not a showground for the examiners. With this in mind, you need to prepare under the following three areas:
1. Go back to the literature: There may have been advancements in related literature and you should be able to discuss how they do or maybe don’t relate, influence and come into play in your work and how you would take them forward. In the viva, you should be able to discuss your research in the context of other work in your field and it’s entirely acceptable that that recent publication by Joe Bloggs that came out the month before you submitted isn’t included in your thesis, but now is your chance to demonstrate that you are aware of it and how you would use it in future publications.
2. Your thesis: Read your thesis through thoroughly, marking the copy directly. In doing so, re-familiarise yourself with your work; identify areas you think are weaker with your supervisor and build defence arguments; identify typos and areas where you will need to provide further information. The best way to approach this part of the prep is to prepare as you would for an open book exam – mark the chapters so they are easy to find, write a summary for each section, make the thesis easy for you to navigate on the day; use a highlighting structure – do whatever makes it easier for you to find the information you need during the viva.
Approach the reading of your thesis in two parts:
a. Get to ‘re-know your thesis’ – step back from the detail and think more broadly about your research; prepare answers to the following questions: What is your thesis?; Which overarching theoretical or philosophical assumptions have you been working with, were they successful?; How would you follow up your work?; What would you do differently if you were starting again?
b. Return to the detail – A good viva is a research student who knows their thesis, is calm and confident; regain familiarity by re-reading; making summary notes of the main points on each page (or section); print a copy of your contents page, writing a brief summary under each heading; practice telling the story of your research in 2 mins, the story of each chapter and identify areas of originality; weakness; contributions to knowledge in your field and the theoretical, empirical and practical implications of your findings.
Twitter Tip: Zarah Pattison “Read thesis thoroughly before. How does ur work fit the wider picture/generalise ur work; Make note of things you cld do better. You cannot anticipate Qs but be prepped2discuss those key things”
3. Your examiners. Know your audience, who are they and what are their research interests, this will allow you to pre-empt (to the extent you can) the type of questions they might ask and the areas where they might be a stickler to details. Also read their work, make sure you understand it (refresh your memory), especially if you’ve cited them. While it’s unlikely they will quiz you on their work (and inappropriate), being familiar with their work helps you to appreciate the angle in which their questioning might take. In my experience, one of my external examiners [yes I had two to add to the fear!] was far more careers focused than my research was and knowing this put me at ease in the viva when she questioned why I hadn’t included the conceptualisation of the career and she wanted to know more about the nature of creative work.
Twitter Tip: Lilly Herridge “Read your examiners recent work: suggests how they might approach your work & frame questions. Also helps you direct answers to their POV 👍🏻”
Tip #3: Practice makes perfect (well, it makes you more comfortable & confident!)
This is an obvious tip and goes back to the age old mantra from High school: To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail. You’ve got here because you want this and actually, even if you don’t believe it, you’re really rather good at this – did anyone ever tell you that YOU are the expert on this? So prepare for the viva by finding your voice, finding your answers and building a little confidence to get you through.
Twitter Tip: Grant Gibson “Practice 1 and 5 minute summaries of your thesis”
Arrange a mock viva – preferably with your supervisor or researchers in your field but if you can’t, then you work in a community of researchers and 9 out of 10 of them have completed or examined a viva and would be willing to help, so even if they’re not in your field, have a mock viva! As you are preparing, if you get stuck or panic, ask your supervisor questions, they aren’t as close as you are to the research and can help you formulate appropriate answers to potential questions. Get used to answering, get your friends to ask you questions (particularly people who don’t know your work or even your field); force yourself to defend your work and practice saying your defence out loud.
Twitter Tip: Julie Christie “arrange a ‘mock viva’ the prep for the mock & feedback received was invaluable”.
Prepare for the standard questions, there are plenty of expected viva questions online and a quick Google search will help you find those relevant to your field. Generally viva questions are asked under four headings:
- What is your thesis about?
- What did you do?
- What did you find?
- Why does that matter?
If you prepare and practice these questions you will cover topics there without even trying to and you’ll find that you are able to answer nearly every viva question that is thrown at you.
Twitter Tip: Adrian Worton “You can’t preempt all the questions you’ll get, but I found it useful to rote-learn explanations of why my work is important.” & Kevin Tipton “Answer the question you’re asked, not the question you want to answer.”
Tip #4: Prepare for the day
The thought of, and the viva itself, is stressful enough, so if you can, make as many arrangements as possible that will reduce this stress and your nerves. Think in advance about how you are going to get to the viva (public transport or by car); think about what time your viva is at and how that could affect how you get there (peak traffic; parking?); think about what you will do before the viva (it’s too late if you’re still preparing on the day) and think about who is coming with you (did you know you can have an audience in the viva if you so wish, but maybe like most of us, you just want to know there is someone waiting for you on the other side afterwards to deal with the reaction).
Twitter Tip: Jenny Hoolachan at Cardiff University “prep for a fortnight but don’t do any prep the day before. Do something nice instead. I went to a spa!”
I’m really glad to have shared the same tip as Jenny. For me, I was nervous about the day and I knew if I didn’t try to reduce those nerves I could fall to bits. So I booked to stay at the Court Hotel the night before so I was on campus and didn’t have to think about getting there on the day; I booked a hair appointment for a blow-dry so I was pleasantly distracted (my super glam blow-dry successfully disguised all my feelings of imposter syndrome!) and prepared where and when I was meeting my husband afterwards so he was on standby in case there were bad tears. Having taken out some of the stress that could arise on the day, I felt calm and just had to think about getting through the viva.
The biggest tip of all in preparation is: In the times of dread, find your inspiration, remind yourself why you’re doing this and how far you’ve come!
On the day…
Be reflective – tell your story and show what you’ve learnt from your research as a person and a researcher – remember that your PhD is training for a research career, so show how you’ve developed and what you’ve learnt along your research journey – don’t be afraid to recognise what you would do differently now.
Be honest – know your weaknesses, again show your learning and talk openly about how you conducted your research.
Be confident – you got here for a reason, and if you’ve done the previous 4 steps, you deserve to do well so believe in yourself. It’s also likely that you will over prepare and the majority of your questions won’t come up but if you prepare thoroughly the likelihood is – and yes I’m not lying – you’ll enjoy it!
Remember, it’s your PhD and you DO KNOW IT!