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How to prepare for a PhD Viva

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Preparing for your PhD viva can be a daunting task. You'll want to ensure that you are ready to defend your thesis successfully.

To help, we've rounded up some useful tips on what to expect during your viva experience, how you can fully prepare for the process and what to expect after viva is done.

What is a PhD viva?

PhD Viva InterviewDoctoral research students will be expected to defend their final research project in an oral exam known as a ‘viva’.

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 end of the PhD experience, each dissertation will have to be orally ‘defended’ in an examination called a viva, which usually takes between one and two hours to complete.

A PhD is an oral examination in the form of a discussion in which PhD students present their PhD thesis and defend their research methods and outcomes to a panel of academic experts.

The word ’viva’ is a shortened form of the Latin term ‘viva voce’ which means ‘live voice’.

How to prepare for a PhD viva

A key way to ensure success in your PhD viva is to make sure you are properly prepared – this can be done in four simple ways:

1. Know your research project inside out.

2. Find out about your viva examiners if you can. If you know about their areas of expertise, you may be able to anticipate their lines of questioning and even work out what they’d like to hear more about.

3. Compile a list of possible questions and practice your explanation/defence of methods used and outcomes discovered.

4. Prepare properly for the actual day by planning your journey to the PhD viva, knowing what you’re going to wear and compiling all the documentation that you need to have with you.

How to prepare ahead of your PhD viva – 5 steps to success

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 mark subject to minor corrections”.

We have compiled a list of some of the most important PhD viva preparation steps to help you succeed in your viva.

STEP 1 – Take a break

After you have submitted your thesis, it is good to take a one or two week 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.

STEP 2 ­– 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.

STEP 3 – 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.

STEP 4 – 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!

STEP 5 – 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

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.

HOW long is a viva?

There is no formal time limit. A viva can last between 1 and 2 hours but can sometimes event take 3 hours.

WHO will examine me?

You will usually be examined by 2 examiners. One of them will be a member of your own university (internal examiner) and the other will be an external examiner from another university. Your supervisor may also be present during the examination but is not allowed to ask any questions or impact the outcome.

WHAT is the purpose of a viva?

A viva is an academic discussion between you and 2 senior researchers in your field of study. It is your opportunity to show them that you possess a thorough understanding of your topic and that you can defend your own research ideas. It is a challenging experience that many students enjoy and are inspired by as it is refreshing to talk to someone about your academic knowledge instead of just spending hours at your desk writing on your own.

WHEN will I know the outcome?

After the viva has ended, your examiners will ask you to leave the room so they can make the decision. Sometimes it can take them just 10 minutes to reach the decision, however it may take them up to an hour or even longer. Please note, the amount of the time they take to reach a decision doesn’t reflect on the quality of your viva performance.

WHAT are the possible outcomes of a viva?

Fail with no right of resubmission – this result is very rare and usually only happens if you have plagiarised your thesis.

Award of an MPhil – if the examiners feel that the amount of work you’ve done is not sufficient for a doctoral degree they may award you an MPhil.

Fail but able to resubmit – if the examiners think your thesis is not sufficient for an MPhil, they may allow you to do more work and resubmit for an MPhil.

Resubmission – if the examiners think your thesis is of a high standard but the amount of work is insufficient for a doctoral degree, they’ll give you the opportunity to do further research
and resubmit.

Pass subject to minor corrections – this is the most frequent decision and usually requires you to do some minor revisions before being awarded your doctorate.

Pass – to get a PhD without having to do any corrections is rare but not impossible. Hard work really does pay off!


Who will be at a PhD viva?

A viva is attended by the PhD student and at least two academic experts.

In some universities, in addition to the student 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.

If there is a chair or your supervisor present at your PhD viva, they are not allowed to ask you questions or to take part in any of the discussion about the outcome.

PhD Viva Interview

What questions are asked at a PhD viva?

The examiners will usually 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.

They will soon move on to the range of questions they have planned. These 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 has 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.

What will the PhD examiners want to know?

Understanding what PhD examiners might ask during your viva and having your answers is one way to prepare for success.

How do you justify the critical aspects of your work?

No dissertation is perfect and there will be some aspects of your PhD 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.

Can you elaborate on specific sections of your research?

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.

How does your research contribute to your field of study?

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 – an academic discussion

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.

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. From how to answer properly and be convincing to what to say and what not to say – here, we have clarified these things in our list of PhD viva dos and don’ts




Speak clearly and slowly to make sure
the examiners can follow what you’re saying, especially when answering more complex questions.

Don’t talk incoherently and formulate answers without giving them any structure.

Make eye contact and try not to be too
stiff – try and show that you’re enjoying
the discussion.

Don’t behave arrogantly and act like you know more than the examiners – remember, they are the experts!

Remain quiet after you have answered a question to give the examiners some time to consider your answer.

Don’t start answering before your examiners have finished their question.

If you don’t understand a question, ask
for it to be repeated or clarified to
avoid answering something you
haven’t been asked.

Don’t try and use jargon, especially to bluff your way out of a question you don’t know the answer to.

Take your time before speaking so you can structure your answers clearly

Don’t digress in your answers or talk about something you haven’t been asked about.

Answer with confidence to demonstrate faith in your research – even if you do
have some doubts!

Don’t blame your supervisor for any weaknesses the examiners notice in

your research.

Avoid simple yes or no answers.

Don’t take your examiners’ criticism too personally or get angry.

Dress smartly.

Try not to look at your watch.

Are you a Doctor after your viva?

Once you have passed your PhD viva, you cannot officially use the title ‘Dr’ until you receive official documentation from your university stating that you are a ‘Doctor’.

Can you fail a PhD viva?

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. You can fail a PhD viva – although according to recent research by Discover PhDs this number is only 4%. It is more common for borderline students to be awarded a provisional pass pending amends to their research project.

If, as a PhD student, you 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.

Appealing a PhD viva decision

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, but you must possess clear evidence in your support.

If your appeal is successful, you will get a chance to undertake another viva with different examiners.

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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