10 PhD Viva Survival Tips

The PhD ‘viva voce‘ (Latin for ‘by live voice’) examination, or oral defence, is the final hurdle in the journey towards gaining the doctoral degree that you have worked for so long and hard over the last 3-6 years. The viva serves a number of purposes: to clarify any issues relating to specific parts of the thesis, to the thesis as a whole, and to the award; to ascertain that the thesis is the candidate’s own work, that they have developed research skills at this level, and that they understand the relationship of the thesis to the wider field of knowledge; and where the thesis and/or the candidate does not meet the criteria for the award, to try to determine the possible reasons (more detail can be found here).

What I thought I would do is collect some tips that helped me trough my viva, and set out my viva experience. But first, a little context….

Date of Examination: 22nd November 2011

Examiners: Professor Matthew Leach, Dr John Brady

Length of Exam: 1 hour 15 mins (very short!!)

Outcome: Pass – minor changes (hurray!)

Tip 1 – Pick the right examiners: Make sure that the examination team fits your subject area well, and are the best, most senior academics you can find. When I first heard this advice myself, it seemed counterintuitive. What? pick the best, most experienced, most expert examiners I can find? no thanks…I want an inexperienced and  friendly examination team that wont give me a hard time thank you very much…..But think about it, in actual fact an inexperienced examination team are more likely to have a point to prove, or an axe to grind. They may want to demonstrate that they are rigorous academics, superior to the student sitting opposite them. They may feel that they must give the candidate as hard a time as possible in order to justify their examination fee. Both of my examiners were (are) hugely experienced, at the top of their game, and had examined many doctoral students prior to my viva. They gave me a hard time, but no more than was necessary. They had nothing to prove. 

Tip 2 – Have a mock viva: Get your supervisors to arrange an informal mock viva examination. If possible see if you can get another academic who is not on your supervisory team to attend also as they will not have an in-depth knowledge of your research and so can offer a different perspective. I had a mock viva with my second supervisor and another impartial colleague and the experience was extremely useful. It prepared me for thinking on my feet and getting used to taking about my research in an academic environment. The best feedback however was generic and not related to my thesis. They pointed out that I tended to speak quite fast, which made it difficult to understand some of my responses – particularly for my colleague for whom English is a second language. They advised me to have a glass of water present and take sips in between questions to calm and slow me down. In the examination I was able to remember this and make an effort to speak more slowly and clearly, using the water trick to give me  time to think before rushing into an answer.

Tip 3 – Explain your work to a non-academic: One thing that many PhD candidates struggle with is how to describe your thesis succinctly and in lay terms. It’s the question that we all dread – friends and family ask ‘So what are you doing you PhD in?’ and we freeze… We feel that we have to go into detail or else how will they understand, and consequently loose them at ‘Philosophically, I adopt a Neoclassical Jungian perspective…’…no one cares! Perhaps the first question you will be asked will be along the lines of ‘Briefly explain your work’. You should be able to sum it up in just 2 minutes and anyone should be able to understand it. I tried this on many people until I could successful explain my work without their eye’s glazing over.

Tip 4 – Prepare well: Write a list of all of the possible questions you think that you may be asked and think about your response. Practice these responses out loud – the viva is an oral examination, you will not be writing your answers down. Talk to your supervisors and others about their viva experiences and consider their advice. Read blogs and articles like this one and see if anything stands out for you. Prepare a list of the key authors you refer to in your thesis alongside the key findings of your research and main conclusions. Also think about the developments in the field since you completed the research – it is likely that things have moved on since you completed the analysis and this demonstrates that you are still engaged in your discipline and have an understanding of how to place your work in the academic discourse. My examiners also asked me to set out what was next for my research – a question I used to describe the papers that I was working on, and plans for post-doc work.

Tip 5 – Don’t over prepare: It is likely you will have a long wait between submitting your thesis and the viva examination, mine was over 2 months after submission. It is tempting to spend the whole time panicking and trying to prepare for every question and every eventuality, but I think that this is counterproductive. I read advice that suggested you rewrite each chapter in a one page synopsis or that you mark up your entire thesis with post-it notes (and indeed I began to do this)….but hang on, you have written this thesis and lived with it for a minimum of three years – you should know it by now!! I placed my trust in my in-depth knowledge of my work and realised that in actual fact this was enough. I used my time to relax and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with submitting the thesis (actually this is not strictly true – my second child was born in the time between submission and examination, so I spent much of the time changing nappies/diapers and trying to get some sleep). 

Tip 6 – Impact, Impact, Impact: One of the key determinants of a successful PhD are its contribution to knowledge, the ‘so what?’ question. Prepare this well and think about all of the key stakeholders in your research and the benefits to each. What is the contribution of your work academically? – have you published any journal articles, conference papers, poster presentations or produced any other outputs? How has your work contributed to society? have you improved health outcomes, access to the arts, societies understanding of nature etc.? – it’s likely your work has benefitted society in some way so tell them! How have you disseminated your research? presentations to peers, academics, community stakeholders? Impact is one of the key buzz words in academia at the moment so these issues are vital. 

Tip 7 – Challenge your examiners: What? challenge my examiners? they are accomplished academics, experts in their field! What do I know that they dont!….hang on…hang on…YOU undertook THIS study which means the YOU are the expert. The viva is an oral defence of your work (this does not mean that the viva should be an argument) so defend where you feel that you are correct. My examiners had a problem with one of my results chapters which was not as clear and flowing as it should have been. I was aware that this may be an issue – I had gone through every possible way of setting out this chapter of results, and could not find a solution I was happy with, so I compromised and did what I though was best. When they challenged me and said that perhaps I should re-write/re-structure this section of the thesis, I turned the question back on them, explained the issues I had with the structure, and asked if they could suggest a better way….In the end they gave my a wry smile and agreed that perhaps my solution was acceptable. 

Tip 8 – Enjoy it: Lighten up. As I said in my previous post, this is your chance to communicate your research, your passion, to at least two leading academics. They will be genuinely interested in what you have done. Most examiners want to pass a student – despite the horror stories that are popular amongst PhD students. One of the key functions of the viva examination is to establish that your work is in fact your own, so the truth is in the majority of cases they will have already made a decision about whether to pass you or not and are merely seeking confirmation. The majority of candidates who make it to the viva examination pass it.

Tip 9 – Expect changes or revisions: Very few candidates pass without changes, so prepare yourself to be asked to make some. The issue is more likely the amount of changes necessary. The best outcome is minor changes – this could include anything from correcting typos and spelling errors, acknowledging a source that the examiners felt you missed, or inserting extra sentences to aid understanding in a particular area. Many candidates are asked to make major changes – this could include anything such as re-structuring the entire thesis, undertaking additional research in a specific area or re-visiting the analysis. Don’t get dis-heartened if you do have significant changes – think of it like this – you have been shown what you need to address in order to pass, and assuming that you address all the issues (you should be given a detailed breakdown of the necessary changes) you will pass eventually. In my case I was asked to make minor changes – mostly typos and formatting issues (thanks for nothing Endnote) and the insertion of two sentences – and completed them the next day.  

Tip 10 – Know yourself: Finally, and similar to the ‘All advice is Useless’ tip in my ‘Surviving a PhD’ post, each candidates viva examination experience will be unique, and all advice will be context dependant. You know what works best for you preparing for an exam, presentation, job interview etc., so listen to your heart and go with it! 

And Finally……


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9 comments on “10 PhD Viva Survival Tips
  1. hi Alex i have gone through all ur writings .., gr8 acheivements, i have become ur fan.
    an shivraj frm india currently persuing M.S in pharmacology next i have an idea to do phd so could u help me in any of the way plz……………

  2. Great advice. For me, choosing my committee was huge. I wanted people who could get along with each other and me, people who were easy going and reasonable, and people who actually were somewhat grounded in the real world. As academics we often forget that what we do should have some transfer-ability to the world that non-academics live in (the real 99%-ers).

    Also, having fun was a big deal. If we’re not having fun or enjoying our work, maybe we need to find a new line of work.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree about choosing someone grounded in the real world as you put it. One of my examiners was an academic, the other was an industry specialist, so I felt that I got the views from both worlds…


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