Every Doctoral researcher has to defend their thesis in front of an examination panel - so discover how to prepare for your PhD viva and ensure you make a good impression

1. Understand what's expected of you

A viva voce is an oral test, which literally translated means 'with the living voice'. It's a focused discussion giving you the opportunity to defend your PhD thesis in front of a panel of academic experts.

Traditionally, your thesis would always be discussed in person, with the interview style exam overseen by at least two (internal and external) examiners. Afterwards, they would provide you with a joint written report detailing any corrections that need to be made.

However, following the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the online PhD viva has become more commonplace with this examination now likely to take place via Microsoft Teams, Skype or Zoom.

The virtual experience will still likely follow the same format, but you'll be briefed in advance about the arrangements and any technical aspects to bear in mind. To prepare for this, you can read our video interview tips.

The chair of the viva is usually the internal examiner, although it can be an independent person. If you and the examiners agree, your PhD supervisor can also be present.

The examiners' main objective is to ascertain that you've written your own thesis, so if you have and are ready to talk through how you completed it, there's no need to panic. You may even enjoy the viva voce.

In addition to assessing your thesis, the examiners are also there to assist you in deciding how and where this research might be published.

There are various results between a 'pass' and 'fail' but it's very rare to slip up at this point of a PhD. Most Doctorate awards will be made upon the condition that a number of minor corrections are made, with re-submission requests far less common.

However, while the pass rate is high, the viva exam itself can still be intellectually demanding. This is because you'll be debating issues that are conceptually complex, so preparation is crucial to your success.

At the end of it, whatever the outcome, be prepared to take on board any advice, as the examiners are there to help you improve your argument or the presentation of your thesis.

2. Know your thesis inside out

While you can be sure this isn't a memory test - as you're fine bringing notes and a copy of your thesis with you to the PhD viva - it's still important to gain a good understanding of what you've written and knowledge about your field of study.

You'll need to think carefully about where this original piece of work would be placed in the context of the wider body of research carried out in this field. Questions will surely be asked about this, as well as whether the project could possibly be developed further through any future research.

As you'll be explaining parts of the document to the examiners (who'll also have a digital or physical copy), make sure the pagination is the same in your version as the one they're looking at to avoid any issues regarding everybody being on the same page.

If you get stuck at any point during the viva exam, you can use looking at the thesis as an excuse to re-focus and gather your thoughts.

3. Anticipate the viva questions

The examiners will have prepared a series of questions for you to answer at the viva voce, but this is nothing to get too concerned about. The questions will all be based on your thesis - what it's about, what you did, what you found out and why this matters in relation to your field of study.

So when getting ready for the viva, consider the types of questions you're likely to be asked, including:

  • What original contribution has your thesis made to this field of study?
  • Explain the main research questions you were hoping to address.
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your thesis?
  • If you had to start the thesis again, what would you do differently?
  • If funding was no object, describe how you'd follow on from this project.
  • What are your plans for the future?

It can be helpful to practise your answers beforehand, ideally vocalising them by arranging a mock mini viva - although, as you aren't restricted in terms of referring to notes in the exam, you can leave room for spontaneity and you don't need to learn it all off by heart. If your viva is being held online, you can ensure any technical issues are identified before the day by having a run through with your supervisor or a friend.

While it may sound simple, stick to answering the questions posed. It's really easy to go off on a tangent and this can open up other lines of enquiry from the examiners - possibly in areas you hadn't expected to be quizzed about.

On the other hand, it's completely fine to bring personality to your reasoning and use stories as a means of describing the learning process you've gone through and the techniques mastered over the last three or four years that have brought you to this point.

4. Learn about your examiners' own work

The senior and well-respected academics who'll be reading your thesis will have their own ideas on conducting PhD standard research. Therefore, it's worth taking a look online at their academic profiles to discover if there's any correlation with the research they've had published and your own work.

From this, you should be able to gain a better idea of their motivations, their possible views on your thesis and the kinds of questions they might wish to discuss after having read through it.

You should research up-to-date theories, read any recent papers on the subject and speak to others who've recently had their own viva exam. Think about how your work differentiates from the research carried out by others in your chosen field.

Prepare to provide any supporting evidence asked of you by the examiners - for example, they may request to see experimental data you mention once the exam's over.

It's also necessary to check the policies and practices in place at your university and be sure of what the roles of the examiners are and how the viva panel will be structured. In many cases, Doctoral students can choose the examiners conducting the PhD viva.

5. Plan towards the viva exam

From the moment you know the date of your viva voce, work backwards and plan the steps you'll need to take before the day itself. Allow enough time to assess and review your work so that as the day approaches, you can focus on the practicalities.

This encompasses everything from making sure you relax, eat and sleep well the day before to arranging transport so you get to the viva on time - if you're attending in person.

An online PhD viva will present its own challenges, so ensure your working space is presentable and you still make an effort in terms of what you'll be wearing. It's always advisable to adhere to interview etiquette and go with something that's both smart and comfortable. By looking the part, this should get you in the right frame of mind to communicate in a professional manner.

In the build-up, avoid any situations that might make you feel stressed and instead try to adopt a positive attitude, one that results in a genuine eagerness to engage in a debate about the work you've been toiling over for a substantial period of time.

If you are travelling to the examination, be sure to check that you have everything you wish to take with you, including the thesis, plus any notes or other materials that will help support your claims.

The PhD viva can last between one and four hours - usually two - so it's necessary to pace yourself to get off to the best possible start.

Remember, the examiners aren't trying to trip you up - they want you to pass and are primarily there to hear you talk about your project. So after the polite introductions they'll typically start with an ice-breaker to put you at ease and help calm the nerves.

It's meant to be an open and honest conversation about your work, so feel free to politely disagree with the examiners, especially on areas you feel strongly about. Don't forget to use examples from your thesis to back up what you're saying, remembering to be clear and concise.

If you know your way around your thesis and can explain your thinking and way of working, this test shouldn't be a problem. And if you don't know the answer to a specific question - admit it, as it's better to concede your limitations in an area than ramble on and hope they don't notice you're struggling to come up with an explanation. No research is perfect, so it's important to appreciate this during the discussion - but don't be too overcritical about your work either, as that's not your job.

Finally, as the PhD viva can quickly move from a series of friendly questions to those that are more in-depth, take some time to think before answering. Don't worry about any periods of silence from the examiners, as this certainly isn't an indication that you're doing badly.

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