Preparing for Your PhD Viva

For most students, completing a PhD dissertation is a joyous moment and one of great relief. The feeling that this lengthy project is over can be somewhat surreal. Still, handing in a printed version of one’s dissertation is not really the end of a PhD project since students then have to defend their dissertations in oral examinations know as vivas.   

Great-Dissertation.com has plenty experience helping students prepare for their vivas and here we have provided a list of useful tips to help you through. At the very least, our guide should help you better understand what to expect if you are already studying for a PhD or are planning to study for one.

Essential Information about Vivas

What is the Length of a Viva?

Vivas are not subject to any particular time limits. In reality, they can go on for an hour or hour and a half with some even lasting for up to three hours.  

Who Conducts Viva Examinations?

Usually there are two viva examiners present. One examiner is likely to come from your own faculty or university and the other is normally an external person from a different college or university. It is possible your dissertation supervisor will attend the examination but they will not be allowed to put questions to you or influence the proceedings or outcome.

What Purpose Does a Viva Serve?

The best way to describe vivas is to say they are discussions that take place between a PhD candidate and two senior academic experts from the field the dissertation relates to. These meetings are a good opportunity for you to demonstrate your in-depth understanding and knowledge of your chosen topic and to defend the ideas you have presented in your research project. Therefore, the experience can be quite challenging but one that students should enjoy and feel inspired to participate in. It is, after all, a refreshing chance to discuss your extensive knowledge with other people rather than spending hours in an office by yourself just researching and writing!

When and how will the Outcome Be Communicated to Me?

Once a viva is over, you will be asked to depart the meeting room so that examiners can arrive at a decision. This can take approximately ten minutes although, at times, it can take up to one hour. What is important to note, however, is that the timeframe is no indication of a good or poor performance on your part.  

What Potentially Can Result from a Viva?

First, you may fail with no option to resubmit your dissertation. However, decisions like this are rare and often only apply when a paper is plagiarized.

Second, you may be awarded an MPhil. This can happen where examiners feel the quality or sufficiency of a paper does not merit a PhD, so you may be awarded the MPhil instead.

You may fail but be given the option of resubmitting your dissertation. This can happen where examiners feel your paper is not adequate to be awarded an MPhil but they give you chance to do additional work to raise your paper to MPhil level.

You may be required to resubmit your paper. This may happen when examiners feel your dissertation is good quality but not sufficiently complete. Hence, they give you time for additional research and the option to resubmit.

You may pass but be required to make minor revisions. This decision is the most common one and requires you to undertake some small corrections before you are awarded a doctoral title.

You may get an outright pass. Obtaining a PhD degree without the necessity for any revisions is a rare occurrence. However, it does happen and it shows that hard work does pay!  

What Questions are Most Frequently Asked in a Viva Exam? 

  • Few, if any, dissertations are perfect and it is likely that examiners will be particularly critical about some aspect of your work. Hence, they are almost sure to have some questions about these aspects to find out what justification you can put forward. Questions of this type tend to decide the outcome of a viva meeting.
  • As well as honing in on certain “critical” parts of your dissertation work, examiners may well ask for more detailed explanations on some sections of your paper and/or on the particular research techniques you used. The answers you provide will show if you really do understand your work and how good you are at thinking critically in relation to it.
  • Finally, but equally importantly, examiners are likely to want to know if you understand how your work fits into its field, and how good a grasp you have on this. Therefore, you should be prepared to explain how your research contributes in an overall way to your field or discipline. Undoubtedly, as an ambitious and aspiring professional, you will be looking at the bigger picture and you will understand how your work and ideas can influence your chosen field.     

Preparing for a PhD Viva: What Preparation Should One Do Before a Viva?

After handing in a dissertation or thesis, it is very likely you will have a few weeks to spare before you have to attend a viva. It is essential that you use this free period to properly prepare so that you leave your viva examination with a “pass but with minor revisions” at least. Because of this, our experts have put together the following list of essential preparatory steps to ensure your PhD viva is a success.

Step One

  • Have a rest or break. Once your dissertation or thesis has been submitted, it can really help to take a break of between 7 and 14 days where you can stop thinking and worrying about your studies and research work. This break will give you chance to look at your paper anew and in the guise of a “third person” and, upon reading it, you should be able to see any shortcomings with greater clarity.  

Step Two

  • Familiarize yourself completely with your dissertation or thesis. This means reading every section thoroughly and carefully and then summarizing all key points. It is important you can justify and explain all the key elements of your work to examiners. These elements include understanding the research problem or question, the research methodology you used, and the data you analyzed. It can be helpful to write down whatever thoughts or ideas come to you when you are reading because these help establish a “connection” with your work and understand every detail. 

Step Three

  • Examine your dissertation or thesis from a critical perspective. A crucial stage in preparing is to discard any feelings of “compassion” you have for your own efforts and to be critical of any weaknesses you identify. These are the points your viva examiners are most likely to focus on, and your task is to be able to provide sound justification for these.

Step Four

  • Defending your dissertation or thesis is something that will be expected of you, so know how to do this. Make a list of any potential critical points you are likely to be questioned on and make sure you are able to answer these in a convincing manner. Imagine you are a lawyer and that your work is a defendant you want to successfully defend.

Step Five

  • Set up a “pretend” viva meeting with your dissertation supervisor about a week or two before the real thing. This is a good way of determining if your preparatory work is complete or if there is still some preparation to do in order to be able to defend your dissertation successfully. And remember to find something relaxing and enjoyable to do on the day preceding your viva!

Tips for PhD Vivas: What You Should and Should Not Do At a Viva

When you have done a sufficient amount of careful preparation and know how to fully defend your dissertation or thesis, it is time to start thinking about how to conduct yourself at the actual meeting. Great-Dissertation.com has a host of great tips to help you. How should you answer questions and sound convincing? What should you say and not say? The following list of Do’s and Do Not’s is designed to clarify these issues.

What You Should Do

  • Look your best – dress as smartly as possible.
  • Look your examiners in the eye and do not be overly-stiff in your behavior. Try to look as if you are finding the discussion enjoyable.
  • Answer your examiners in a slow and clear manner to ensure they can follow and understand you, particularly in the case of more detailed questions.
  • Ask examiners to clarify or repeat questions if you do not understand them. Do not risk answering a question you were not asked.
  • After answering each question, stay quiet to allow examiners time to consider what you have said.
  • Try to avoid monosyllabic answers i.e. yes and no.
  • Take time before you begin answering in order to clearly formulate what you are going to say.
  • Answer confidently to demonstrate your confidence in your work, even if you are doubtful about some aspects.

What You Should Not Do

  • Do not begin answering before examiners have completed a question.
  • Do not let your answers digress from the question and do not start talking about subjects you were not asked about.
  • Do not speak in an incoherent manner or start speaking before you have had time to structure your answers.
  • Do not keep looking at your watch.
  • Avoid jargon and, in particular, do not use it to get out of answering a question you aren’t sure about or do not know the answer to.
  • If any weaknesses are found in your research, do not put the blame for these on to your dissertation supervisor.
  • If examiners offer any criticism, try not to become angry or take it personally.
  • Do not attempt to act in an arrogant manner or behave as if you are more knowledgeable than your viva examiners.

What Should You Do If It Starts Going Wrong?

While most candidates are satisfied with the way their PhD vivas progress, things can sometimes digress from the expected. At times, even the least desirable outcomes can occur. In the event you think your work is not great quality, and you know you are to blame for an undesirable outcome, there is little option but to comply with the examiners’ decision. If, however, you believe a viva meeting was not conducted in an appropriate manner and the result is not reflective of your academic performance, there are certain actions you can take.  

If you are a UK student, universities there usually accept appeals with regards to how an examination was undertaken. In the event you do submit an appeal, an investigative panel will be assembled to look at any issue(s) you raise. In any case, you will be required to present clear supporting evidence. Where appeals are successful, candidates get the opportunity to attend a rescheduled viva with a different set of examiners. If, however, your appeal is not successful, you may appeal further to OIA – an outside organization called the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. But please bear in mind that appeals are not generally successful. Hence, the best option is to ensure your PhD dissertation or thesis is of an acceptable quality and that you have prepared adequately for your viva.