Surviving Your Viva Voce

This post is based largely on my defense of my doctoral thesis in December 2011, though much of what I write here also comes from the mentors whose advice and help I’ve been fortunate enough to have since the very beginning of my Ph.D. (and, indeed, before). If you’d like to hear a more personal account of my viva – rather than step-by-step tips on how you might approach your own – and if you prefer listening to reading, take a look at Nathan Ryder’s Viva Survivors podcasts, which contain an interview with me as well as with several other recent viva survivors. It’s a great resource to remind you that people go through this experience all the time, that it’s far less daunting than it first appears, and that there is a life after the Ph.D.

phd032505sThe good news about this post is that it’s about something you will only have to go through once in your academic career in your capacity as a Ph.D. candidate. What I hope to achieve in this installment of The New Academic’s Guides to Academia is to take a rational view at the task that lies at the end of your Ph.D. journey in the hope that you will find the experience and the time leading up to it a little more exciting rather than terrifying (though it will always be a little scary – that’s normal).

Your External Examiner

– Usually, you should be able to have a say in who your external and internal examiners will be.
– Meet your external before your viva (before they are nominated), even if it’s just a brief chat at a conference.
– Famous externals are of no use if they are not reliable, or if they are only interested in themselves.
– A good external should offer advice beyond your viva (through feedback, help with publications, etc.).

Preparing for Your Viva

– Know your thesis, know your research, and do whatever you need to ensure you know it on the day of your viva.
– This may mean re-reading your thesis (I re-read my intro, chapter intros and conclusions the same morning).
– Know your methodology and be prepared to defend it.
– Read your institution’s criteria for doctoral awards. You’ll see that no one expects you to win a Nobel Prize!
– Ask your supervisor for a mock viva. This will help you to anticipate questions and give you practice.
– See conference papers and the subsequent discussion time as practice for your viva.
– See the viva as a positive occasion: someone wants to speak about your research for 1.5 hrs and more!
– Don’t forget you’re a specialist on your topic, as is your examiner. Don’t be scared!
– Remember to have a spare copy of your thesis. You’ll need it to take with you to the examination.
– Find out if at your institution the examiners are allowed to tell you the outcome before the viva begins.
– Remember: this is just another thing you have to do in a long list of things before and after your viva.
– Although your Ph.D. is inevitably a personal journey, see this as a professional exercise.

Surviving the Viva

– Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you are unsure what your examiners mean by a particular question.
– Take your time answering. Make a note of the question, take a few moments to think. There’s no rush!
– Defending your thesis does not mean being defensive.
– Don’t be afraid to admit to certain minor flaws in your work, and show that you can see other viewpoints, too.
– Remember that your examiners might be nervous, too.
– In the rare event that you have a rude examiner, stay friendly and professional.
– Don’t take hard questioning as a sign that you’re doing badly, or that they want to fail you.
– Though and thorough questioning means your examiners want to get the best and most out of you.

Tackling the Outcome

– If you pass without corrections: congratulations!
– If you pass with corrections, no matter if minor or major ones, try not to be disappointed – it’s quite normal.
– Take some time after your viva to find your feet again – it’s over!
– Then tackle your corrections rationally, bit by bit.
– If they are major, don’t be defeated – you’re nearly there.
– Reward yourself after your viva and after you’ve submitted your corrections.
– However, don’t lose sight of the path. What’s next?
– Ensure you have other tasks and projects lined up to fill the Ph.D. void.

As always, be proud of yourself. No matter your discipline or topic, you’ve achieved something great that takes determination and ability. Don’t think of the viva as *the* final step in your studies, but consider it as one of many steps in your career. You’ve done the majority of the work by writing your thesis – now show your examiners that you can discuss it competently. Good luck, and enjoy!

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Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2018), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory research and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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12 Responses

  1. Kalpana says:

    Thank you so much so this article!! It completely changed my minded about viva..!!! Thanku

  2. Aoife says:

    Great post and very interesting and useful follow-up comments.

    Thanks all!

  3. Nick Turner says:

    I think most of what I’d say has been said by now, but I’d just simply say that it’s easy to worry about all the many things you suddenly decide you ought to have read. Don’t do this – it’s all about defending the PhD, more than talking about other books! Think of possible points of contention. Take in some photocopies of an extract from a relevant article you’ve discovered since you submitted, maybe, to back up points you think you might have to make. Think positive. No-one knows your PhD better than you. The time will fly by. It’s also well nigh impossible to fail a viva, I reckon. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but I think it’s true. Show your enthusiasm for your work. If you’re really stuck, try the politician trick if you have an impossible question – deflect them and move on to something similar and related, as a way out. But that probably won’t happen. Be positive – and enjoy it, mad as that sounds!

  4. Alexia says:

    Everyone’s viva experience is different. Part of this is to do with mental attitude. No amount of prep will get you through it if your perspective on it is unrealistic. Definitely view it as an opportunity for your research to be centre stage. It is important to go into it open, positive and to welcome the chance to talk about your work/project for an extended time in a way that is not as possible when one graduates from being a ‘student’. For the nervous (as I was) sometimes over-preparation can be a mistake. I was teaching a summer school during my viva period. I initially wanted to take the morning off but was advised to continue on and come down for the viva an hour before. I must say, that (for me) was the best advice. I had no time to ‘worry’, wander the corridors looking half wild, nor stalk my examiner around campus for signs that I had ‘passed’, or not! I turned up, had a coffee and chat with friends, and then went in – I had re-read my PhD, summarised my thoughts on the project as a whole, and prepared for potential questions about my thesis in the weeks prior to the event itself. To be honest, I was still like a rabbit in headlights, although others remember it differently. Try not to ‘read’ the viva process too much. I was given terrible advice/strategies on dealing with the viva from one person that simply couldn’t have worked for my way of working and even may have been more useful in a different discipline. The person had clearly digested a copy of ‘how to do your viva’ and lectured me on techniques such as ‘define, not defend’. It sounded clever if a bit schematic. Feeling stupid, I decided to give it a go and promptly fell flat at the first question. Whether this was because I had ‘done it wrong’, or because it was too aggressive a strategy for my examiner is anyone’s guess. Things looked up as I realised my error and actually dealt with her questions at face value, more honestly and openly, which allowed me to discuss my work intelligently: it wasn’t a trick designed to pass or fail me, although it was decisive about how many corrections I would get. And that’s what I mean about attitude. I was nervous, unsure, defensive – I don’t know why – I had briefly met my examiner at a conference and her reputation was one of firm but fairness, so my choice was a good one and set me up for an experience that I should have enjoyed and got more out of. So, go in with a good attitude, think about what the viva is for and what you want to get out of it. I wish I had. In spite of all that, the story has a happy ending – I passed with a page of typos and my examiner presented me with a bottle of champagne that she’d carried on the train with her and we all went for a post-viva drink which ended in (happy) tears…..

  5. Nikki says:

    These are all great comments much welcomed – I am literally about to submit my thesis and will be undergoing a viva sometime in April. It would be great to know what you all went on to do after your vivas. Is the world as depressingly blank as it currently looks to someone who isn’t sure what to do next?!

  6. Daniel Lewis says:

    1) Know the title of your thesis!
    2) Be prepared to articulate why your research is original, novel, and/or of a standard deserving of a PhD.
    3) Be honest about what you did or didn’t do. Don’t make stuff up, or make claims about research that you can’t substantiate as you may be asked for evidence later!
    4) Know something about your examiners, and be prepared to engage them on their (relevant) work too. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions if you want to expand upon an idea – it’s your viva!
    5) Although your research is very discrete, be prepared to discuss it with reference to the wider subject area – know how to set it in context.
    6) Be convincing when talking about future work, and seek advice on publication options (even collaboration) towards the end (assuming things have gone well).
    7) Stay calm. Take time to consider answers, bring water, ask for repetition of a question etc.
    8) Always bring a copy of your thesis – at my Uni it was a requirement of the examination.
    9) Don’t be surprised if you get asked about how your work might influence policy or practice – even if it seems quite distant – have an answer for such a question.
    10) Seek advice from others beforehand, and approach it in the way most appropriate to you – a mock viva may seem useful, but I personally didn’t have one as that’s not how I work, I just needed to sit with the material, and create descriptive summaries of each area that gave a shorthand to the message, strengths and weaknesses, methodology, developments, literature etc.

  7. Hannah (shewolfmanc) says:

    My viva was a gruelling three hours long, with a large number of the questions relating to texts I had not written on in my thesis. Unlike my mock viva, which was warm and fuzzy and supportive, my real viva was probing, challenging and utterly exhausting.

    I’m not saying that to scare anyone, but because I think it can sometimes be helpful to know what a hard viva is like… and that these are also completely survivable and can be beneficial. I passed (with minor corrections) – which was hinted at the beginning of the viva, though I’d blanked those hints out by the end – and have since had glowing references from both my internal and external examiners. I saw my external at a conference this year and she told me how impressed she’d been at how I handled a ‘very tough’ viva – so my PhD feels well-deserved!

    Given that, I thought I’d offer some tips for surviving a difficult viva – most are NOT like this though! I just wanted to offer a reminder that, even if you turn up and your examiners have got their Witchfinder General robes on, it’s not the end of the world.

    – Remember, to have got this far you must have a supervisor (and possibly secondary supervisors) who has faith in your work. If you have publications or conference papers under your belt, this is further peer-reviewed validation of your work. Have faith in your own work too, and stand by it even if the questions are tough.

    – Difficult questions are not personal attacks. They relate to your work, not to you as a person.

    – Take your time answering. A pause of a few seconds after a question might seem like an eternity at the time, but the questioner probably didn’t even notice it. Always take a breath before answering, it’ll make you seem more measured.

    – Feel comfortable asking for questions to be rephrased or repeated, and ask for opportunities to rephrase your answers if needs be. However tough the examiners are being, they know what stage you are at and don’t expect you to know EVERYTHING about your field. If you feel you can give a better account, say ‘I’m sorry, I think I can phrase that better…’ and offer an additional answer.

    – Examiners are not just looking for you to defend your thesis, they are looking to see what you will do next. If they ask a question about a subject/area/text you are less familiar with, don’t try to bluff. Feel comfortable saying ‘I didn’t look at that text in detail for the thesis, but I think it would be an interesting avenue for future research…’ or words to that effect. Give an indication that you’ve got more to offer than just the thesis.

    – Examiners are not cruel or unfair, though they might be rigorous and challenging. They are not trying to trip you up or fail you. If they ask hard questions, the chances are it’s because they think you can answer them. At the end of the day, this is a massive compliment on your work – try to remember that!

    Most vivas aren’t like this, and you’ll more likely come out feeling surprised at how relaxed everything was. But I thought I’d give my own experience in the spirit of honesty, because no-one warned me beforehand that some vivas are a little more gruelling than others, and because I wanted to show that a difficult viva can also be a productive experience.

  8. Alison Phipps says:

    Key thing to be clear on beforehand – what is your contribution? Try to summarise in a few sentences what your thesis is about and how it adds to existing debates in your field. Because of their length, sometimes doctoral theses can be a little unfocused – but if you are clear in your viva about what you’ve been doing, that will go a long way.

  9. Duncan Hay says:

    I found it really useful to colour-code my thesis – trying to anticipate the subjects that I was most likely to be asked questions on and categorising accordingly. By the time I’d finished I’d read the thesis so many times that I didn’t need to look at it at all in the viva!
    Also, loads of people said to me before the viva that they had enjoyed theirs, and I didn’t believe them at all. Against all of my expectations, I did too. Even though my examiners asked for minor corrections, the conversation was extremely productive and I came out feeling really good about my work.
    Oddly, the one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the week after the viva – I felt very, very strange. I didn’t know what I was for any more!

  10. Dawn says:

    Don’t forget to take your thesis in with you (marked up, if that’s your thing) and you can refer to it in your viva.
    I took mine in a A4 Lever Arch. I used dividers for each chapter, and used tabs and post-its to mark up key sections, and also brought in chapter and section summaries, and a list of typos/amendments.

    It’s not the kind of exam where someone will test out your recall and understanding of one theorist/article/chapter/monograph you half mention in a footnote. Promise.

    Examiners might be nervous too, and it’s hard work for them.

    Practice, out loud, summarizing your thesis. Limit yourself to a couple of minutes to do this. Ask your mates/colleagues/partner/anyone to ask you questions: what is your main argument, why did you chose that methodology, what were your primary findings etc? Get used to speaking about your thesis in this way. A mock viva is very helpful for this (some debate as to whether this comes before submission, or after!)

    Make sure you know your thesis. It’s a long document you’ve been writing for 3 or 4 years, and you do ‘forget’ the stuff you’ve put in it.

    One of my friends said to me, ‘Look, you are not facing a firing squad’. The most likely result is that two academics, interested in your work, want to talk to you about your work. They are seeing if you are ready to ‘join the club’. The worst that is likely to happen is that they will make recommendations to make your work better.

    Enjoy it!

  11. Claire (bookworm_29) says:

    As many sites that give viva advice will tell you:

    Write a great thesis.

    Be prepared for the most likely questions, such as why did you choose your topic and what are your main contributions?

    Be honest – don’t be afraid to say you’re not sure of something and/or you hadn’t thought of something before.

    Don’t be surprised afterwards if you don’t feel as excited/happy as you thought you would – the result (which is usually a good one let’s not forget) takes a while to sink in!

  12. Nathan Ryder says:

    Thanks for the shout-out!

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