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Preparing For PhD Vivas

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What will happen in a viva?

The viva examination usually takes between one and two hours. In some universities in addition to yourself and the two examiners there may be a senior member of academic staff present to act as chair of the examination. Your supervisor may also be present, although some universities do not allow this. However, even if there is a chair or your supervisor is present, they are not allowed to ask you questions or to take part in any of the discussion about the outcome.

The examiners will probably start by trying to make you feel comfortable, perhaps by welcoming you and having some polite ‘social’ conversation to start with, for they will understand that you are nervous. However, they will soon move on to start to ask the range of questions they have planned. The questions could cover anything about the thesis. They might ask you about the methods you have used, the results and findings or the conclusions you have drawn.

They may ask very detailed questions or they may ask about the overall methods or findings. They will certainly want to explore any areas they feel you have not explained clearly enough or in enough detail in your thesis. You may be asked to justify some of the conclusions you have made and to show exactly how your data have led you to draw those conclusions. In the area of methodology you may be asked to justify your choice of the overall method you used, as well as explaining the decisions you made about the detailed methods you chose. You may also be asked to show how well you know the range of literature and previous research in your field and how your findings add to the literature. In most vivas you will be asked to explain carefully what you believe to be your distinctive ‘contribution to knowledge’ from your research.

A helpful way to think of the viva is as a serious academic discussion. It is an opportunity to sit and talk about your work and your field with two senior academics who know the field well. As such, it should be challenging and stimulating, and should give you a chance to show that you can engage in serious academic discussion and debate at a very high level. After the examination many students look back on their viva and see it as a stimulating and enjoyable experience, and they forget the nerves they felt when they first entered the viva room.

For the majority of PhD students, finishing the dissertation is a seminal moment. After all, knowing that such a long project has come to an end may seem almost surreal. However, a hard copy of the dissertation is not the icing on the cake of PhD experience, because each dissertation has to be orally ‘defended’ in an examination called a viva.

We have compiled some of the most useful PhD viva tips to help you understand what is awaiting you if you ever decide to become a PhD student or if you already are one.

Some BASIC information about PhD vivas

Basic information about vivas
Basic information about vivas  

What are some of the MOST FREQUENT QUESTIONS asked in a PhD VIVA?

•    No dissertation is perfect, and there will be some aspects of your research that your examiners will be specifically critical about. Thus, it will be important for them to ask you some of the questions regarding these 'critical' aspects of your work to see if you can justify them. These questions will probably be decisive in determining the outcome of your viva.

•    Besides focusing on some  'critical' aspects of your work, the examiners may ask you to give some more elaborate explanations of specific sections of your thesis or specific techniques used in your research. This will help them determine whether you really understand your own work and can think critically about your research.

•    Last but not least, your examiners will be interested in how well you understand the place of your work within your field of research, and they will ask you to explain the overall contribution of your research to your discipline. As an aspiring student, you will always need to see the big picture and understand how your ideas can shape your academic field.

PhD Viva preparation: How to PREPARE for a VIVA?

After you hand in your thesis/dissertation, you will usually have a few free weeks before undertaking the PhD viva. It is important that you prepare well during this period and walk out of your examination with at least a “pass subject to minor corrections”. Thus, we have compiled a list of some of the most important PhD viva preparation steps to help you succeed in your viva.

•     Take a break. After you have submitted your thesis, it is good to take a 7 to 14 days break and avoid thinking about your work. This will allow you to see your thesis from a third-person perspective and to understand your own shortcomings more clearly when you read it once again.

•    Get to know your thesis. Read each section carefully and summarise its main points. You need  to know how to explain and justify the main aspects of your thesis including  the research question, methodology, and data analysis. Writing any thoughts that come to your mind while reading the thesis as comments will help you to establish a "personal connection" with the thesis and understand it in greater depth

•    Critically examine your thesis. The crucial step of preparation is to lose any "compassion" towards your own work and criticise any weak points that you find in your thesis. It is very likely that your examiners will focus on some of these points in your VIVA, and you need to find out how to justify them.

•    Learn how to defend your thesis! Write a list of possible critical questions regarding your research and learn how to answer them convincingly. Try to think of yourself as a lawyer and of your thesis as the defendant whom you need to defend!

•     Arrange a mock viva with your supervisor around 1-2 weeks before the actual viva. This will help you determine whether your preparation has been complete or there are still some aspects to be prepared before you can successfully defend your thesis. And don't forget to do something enjoyable and relax on the day before your actual viva!

PhD viva tips: the DOs and DON’Ts of a PhD viva

After you have carefully prepared how to defend the content of your thesis, it is important to think of how you should behave during the actual viva. We have a whole host of PhD viva tips for you. How to answer properly and be convincing? What to say and what not to say? We have clarified these things for you by compiling a list of PhD VIVA Dos and DON’Ts.
Dos and don'ts of a viva
Dos and don'ts of a viva

What to do when things go wrong?

Although the majority of PhD students are happy with the outcome of their PhD viva, things don’t always go as expected, and some of the least appealing outcomes do happen. If you as a PhD student feel that your own work is not of very high quality, and you are aware that the unfavourable outcome is  your fault, there is not much you can do except for complying with the decision of your examiners. However, if you feel that your viva has not been appropriately conducted and the outcome doesn’t match the quality of your performance, there are some things you can do.

Universities in the UK will usually allow you to appeal against how your examination was conducted, and if you do appeal a panel of researchers within your university will be appointed to investigate the issue. However, you must possess clear evidence in your support. If your appeal has been successful, you will get a chance to undertake another viva with different examiners. However, if the university hasn’t decided in your favour, you will be able to appeal to an external organisation, such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA). But remember, appeals are usually not very successful and it is always better to make sure that your thesis is of high quality and that you have done the right amount of PhD viva preparation.


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