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!