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.
Preparation for your viva
Like any examination, you should try to prepare as thoroughly as you can for your viva. After you hand in your thesis you will have at least a few weeks to prepare. An important part of that preparation is to start by taking a break, and leaving your thesis alone for two or three weeks.
When the date of your viva has been fixed, you should then arrange a practice viva with your supervisor for a week or two before the examination date. Most supervisors will actively offer and arrange this, but if your supervisor does not do so then take the initiative and ask him or her for a ‘mock’ viva. This practice is very important. It gives you a chance to get used to answering the sort of questions you will be asked and allows your supervisor an opportunity to give you advice on how to improve your performance in the viva. Your supervisor may also be able to give you guidance on possible areas of questioning. The mock may also help you to feel less nervous for the real viva, as you will have a view of what to expect.
In preparation for the mock viva and then also in preparation for the real examination there are a number of things you should do to help your performance.
Know your thesis
This sounds obvious, but you need to read and re-read your thesis so that you know it in every detail. You need to know the ‘what’ of your thesis, and be able to find particular parts of the work very quickly if asked a question about some specific point. But more importantly, you need to know the ‘why’ of your research – why did you choose the research method, why did you feel that particular parts of the literature were important, why did you draw the conclusions from the data that you did?
Mark up your thesis
Your thesis will be a very important tool for you in the viva. ‘Marking up’ the thesis means adding labels to sections or writing notes at key parts of the work to help you.
List your own corrections
As you go through your thesis you will certainly find some corrections that you would like to make – spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, sentences you would want to make clearer. Do not panic about this; every Doctoral student in history will have found mistakes in their thesis, and, unless there is a large number of these errors, it will not affect the outcome of your examination. Keep a note of them all, because you can make these corrections before you submit your final bound thesis.
Be able to summarise your thesis
It is very easy to get lost in the detail of your work and forget the ‘big picture’. However, you are quite likely to be asked questions like ‘What is the overall conclusion from your work?’ or ‘What is the main theme of this chapter?’. To help you to answer, write a few brief notes for each chapter summarising the main points of that chapter – perhaps five to ten ‘bullet points’ for each. Do the same thing, then, for the whole thesis, perhaps by asking yourself ‘What are the main ideas from my thesis that I hope other researchers will still be referring to in five years time?’.
Identify possible questions
It is very hard to know what questions you will be asked in the viva. There are some obvious general questions, such as:
• Why did you choose this topic for your research?
• What are the main contributions to knowledge that your research will make?
• What were the most difficult parts of the research?
• What do you think the main future research questions are that come from your research?
• What would you do differently if you could do the research again?
However, beyond these questions you could be asked anything at all. It is important to think of the parts of your work which you are least confident about, or where your findings are surprising or controversial, for these are likely to be areas for questioning. You should also ask your supervisor to suggest questions that he or she would ask if they were your examiner. The important thing with all of these questions is that you need to know what your answer will be, so spend some time thinking about your response.
Practise ‘good’ answering
Knowing what the answer to a question should be is only part of giving a good answer. There are a number of important ‘rules’ of answering questions, which you should think about:
• Do not talk for too long in any answer.
• Do not say too little.
• Speak clearly and slowly.
• Make eye contact, and smile.
• Do not rush to give an answer. A good spoken answer is structured like a good paragraph of writing, in that it has three parts:
– Point – this is the specific idea that you want to cover or the point you want to make, expressed in a simple way.
– Expansion – this is where you go into detail to show where that idea has come from and to add some further information about the point.
– Example – this is where you give the example that illustrates your point.
• When you have finished your answer, be quiet.
• If you do not understand the question then ask for it to be repeated or clarified.
• If you do not know the answer, then do not try to ‘bluster’.
Practise creating thinking space
You will be asked many questions that are simple to answer, but you may be asked questions that are more difficult. For these questions you may want to take a few moments to think about your answer, so it is helpful to create some ‘thinking space’ for yourself during the viva. There are a number of ways of doing this:
• Ask for the question to be repeated, even if you actually understood it fully the first time it was asked.
• Take a few moments to find the place in your thesis which covers the topic you have been asked about.
• Take a longer pause before answering than normal.
• Start by saying ‘That’s an interesting question – I’d just like to take a moment to think about this’. You can then take a few moments longer than normal before starting your answer.
Pausing like this before answering does not indicate that you do not know what the answer should be. Instead, it shows the examiners that you are thoughtful about your work and are not willing to rush to give a quick answer.
Prepare to defend your thesis
Some universities describe the viva as ‘defending your thesis’, which is the phrase also used in Europe and North America. It is helpful to remember this, for in your viva you need to be able to defend your findings and also to defend the research methods you chose to use.
You should be clear and robust in this. The examiners may be testing your confidence in what you have done. Do not assume that because they challenge you on something you did that they think you were wrong – they are probably just pushing you to explain clearly and defend what you decided to do. Sometimes a decision in research is also just a matter of opinion or preference. There are very few absolute ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ decisions in research, and providing you can explain why you chose as you did then the examiners will be satisfied. This means that you should not easily say, ‘Oh, yes, perhaps you are right, I should have done this a different way.’ Rather, be prepared to defend your thesis.
Of course, you must not be stubborn in defending a research choice which it becomes clear in the viva was an incorrect one. Be prepared to say, ‘If I was doing the research again I might do that part a little differently’, or ‘Perhaps that is an alternative interpretation of my data’. This shows a willingness to think carefully about your research and findings.
And it is important to remember that your examiners will not be expecting you to have made no errors at all in your work, since the ‘perfect’ PhD has probably never been written. Equally, remember that there are always several ways of doing research, several possible interpretations of data, and that all ‘knowledge’ is questionable. The examiners just want to be sure that your work is good enough to meet Doctoral standards.
Think about last-minute preparation
In the final day before your viva you will need to make your last minute preparations. Everybody does last minute examination preparation in their own way. Some people read and re-read their work until the moment the viva starts. Others prefer to do no last minute work and find it more helpful to relax, go to the cinema, or meet friends. By the time you are a postgraduate you will know what type of preparation for examinations suits you best – so plan to do that, whatever it is!
Possible outcomes of your viva
After the viva has finished you will be asked to leave the examiners to make their decision. This could take anything from 10 minutes to an hour or so. It is important to understand that the length of time it takes to make the final decision does not indicate what that decision is. Some examiners reach decisions quickly, whether it is ‘pass’ or not, others take longer because they discuss every detail of the viva. Once they have reached their decision though, you will be asked to come back to see them, and they will tell you their decision.
There are several different decisions they can make. The precise range of possible decisions varies a little between universities, as do the exact phrases or words used to describe the decisions. You should therefore check with your own university regulations about this. However, the range of decisions is usually as follows.
Fail, with no right of resubmission
This decision is very rare. It happens usually only when there is evidence of cheating or plagiarism. This is an outright fail with no opportunity offered to improve and resubmit the thesis.
Fail, but with the possibility of resubmission
If the examiners think your work is not of a good enough standard even for the award of an MPhil they may decide to fail you but give you the right to do more work on the research and thesis and resubmit it at a later date for consideration for an MPhil. In this case they will give you detailed guidance about what would be necessary to raise the work to MPhil standard, and will give you this information in writing after the viva.
Award of an MPhil
If the work is felt by the examiners to be of Masters but not Doctoral level then they can award an MPhil for your work (or in some universities an MRes). There are two ways that this decision could be reached. If the examiners feel there is nothing you could do to your work to raise it to Doctoral standard then they may simply award an MPhil. Alternatively, they may give you the option of choosing an MPhil rather than doing further work and resubmitting it (see below) for consideration for a Doctorate. Some candidates who have found their research particularly hard or who have no further time (or sometimes finance) to do more work on their thesis may choose to take the MPhil under these circumstances.
The examiners may feel there is a lot of good work in your thesis but that it is not yet at Doctoral standard. They may therefore ask you to do further work and resubmit a revised thesis for re-examination. In this case the examiners will indicate to you very clearly:
• What needs doing to the thesis.
• How long you have to resubmit your work.
• How you will be re-examined.
If you are asked to resubmit then it will be normal for your supervisor to support you while you do the further work, but you will have to pay fees to the university for the additional time that you will need to be registered as a student.
When you finally resubmit you should do so in the same way as when you submitted first time. However, it is helpful at this stage to include with your resubmitted work a set of notes indicating exactly what changes you have made to your thesis and where in your work the examiners will find the changes. This helps you to demonstrate that you have done all the things the examiners asked of you, and will enable them to find the changes more easily.
Pass subject to minor corrections
This decision means that your work is of Doctoral standard but that a small number of corrections need to be made. You will be given a short time scale to correct your thesis, usually up to one month, and you will also be given a written list of the corrections needed. When you have made the corrections you should then submit your thesis to the internal examiner who will check that you have made the corrections required. He or she will then give you a signed note to confirm that the corrections have been made, and you can then hand in the finally bound thesis with the corrections confirmation note.
This is the best decision. It means that the examiners feel your work has met the standard for a Doctorate and needs no additional work or corrections. All you need to do is to get the thesis bound into its final form and hand it in. You can then celebrate in whatever way you wish!
The most common decisions are the last three in the list – resubmission, pass subject to minor corrections and pass. However, most examiners will find something that needs further work in your thesis, so the most likely decision is resubmission or pass subject to minor corrections. While these decisions will be disappointing for you in comparison to a straight pass, they really mean that your work is almost there in terms of standard. Everybody who has minor corrections to do will eventually pass, and almost everybody who has to resubmit will eventually pass too, providing they do the corrections they have been asked to do by the time deadline. So with any of these three decisions you will almost certainly end up with your Doctorate.
A fuller treatment of vivas is given in Chapter 11 of Postgraduate Study in the UK by Nicholas and Rosalind Foskett.
If things go wrong in your viva
Occasionally candidates are unhappy with either the outcome of their viva or with the way the examination was conducted. Every university is required to have an appeals procedure that enables you to raise your concerns and to have any issues investigated. Details of the procedure should be in your programme handbook or on the university website, and your programme leader or the head of department will provide you with the information too.
You will not, however, be allowed to appeal against the academic judgement of your examiners. There have been a number of legal cases that have confirmed that academic judgement cannot be questioned. So, however good you thought your thesis was, if the examiners did not agree you cannot challenge their decision.
You can appeal however about the process of the examination. If you felt the examination was not conducted properly you may be able to appeal to be examined again. However, you will have to have clear evidence of the irregularity that you believe created the problem and that it made a significant difference to the outcome of your examination.
If you make an appeal it will be heard by a panel of academics within the university, and if you are not content with their decision you can ultimately appeal to an independent external organisation, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) . If your appeal is upheld, though, the best decision that can be made is that you should be re-examined, perhaps by a different set of examiners, since they cannot overturn the academic judgement of the examiners.
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