How to Survive Your Viva

theses

‘No examiner can be an expert in a student’s particular niche of work.  By the time you finalise your thesis, you and you alone are the world’s expert on what it contains.  Your task is to convince others of its value by marshalling evidence and arguing with it.  The features that make your work significant and original and worthy of a PhD…need to be argued cogently; each step needs to be spelled out, the outcomes must be stated unambiguously, and all their implications identified and discussed in depth’

P. Cryer The Research Student’s Guide to Success (OUP, 2000)

How to survive your PhD Viva

Recent research (see P. Tinkler and C. Jackson ‘The Viva’ in The Postgraduate’s Companion SAGE, 2008) suggests that the viva examination represents a range of purposes and, just as policies vary from institution to institution, expectations of the viva vary between individuals and disciplines.  It is therefore advisable that you discuss this with your supervisor(s) in advance of the examination for any details which might help you prepare more thoroughly.  As a general guide, the viva process is intended to examine some, or all, of the following:

  • To check that you have followed institutional criteria
  • Authentication – are you the author of the work?
  • To establish your understanding of the broader research context – i.e. to discuss with you the wider implications of your research, perhaps things which you omitted from, or did not have much time to discuss in, your final thesis
  • To check your understanding – of keywords, concepts, your research etc
  • Defence of the thesis – although a viva is often also called a ‘thesis defence’, many PhD vivas are non-confrontational.  Defending your thesis means that you may have to respond to criticism and defend any decisions you made re the research
  • The final decision – in some cases, the viva helps examiners to make a final decision as to the outcome.

It is recommended that doctoral students use a long-term strategy to plan for their viva.  To a certain extent, the activities which you undertake as part of the PhD process provide an excellent framework to develop the skills needed to successfully defend your thesis.

Conferences

Conferences are probably the best way to prepare for the viva.  Conferences expose doctoral candidates to the research culture of their discipline.  Conferences allow you to:

  • Present your ideas orally through papers and/or posters
  • Handle questions from an academic audience
  • Be prompted to think about your research under pressure.
  • Become attuned to how academics interact with one another
  • Become exposed to different presentation styles
  • See how academics pose and respond to questions.
  • Prompt you to develop and expand your ideas and research
  • Discuss your ideas with academics and other doctoral students
  • Allow you to give and receive constructive feedback
  • Ask questions of other people and their research
  • Become aware of the dynamics of academic interaction

Supervision Meetings

Use your supervision meetings as a chance to speak about your research.  Clarify your understanding of your topic with your supervisor at each stage of the thesis.  The feedback you receive, both oral and written, will help you to tackle any issues.

Upgrades/panel reviews

By the time you reach the viva stage you will already have sat through several panel meetings.  These are an excellent way to prepare for your final examination.  Some students treat upgrades as ‘mock’ vivas.  It is a good idea to reflect on what went well/didn’t go well after each of these meetings.

Mock’ Vivas

Ask your supervisor if they think you would benefit from having a mock viva.

Teaching

Teaching is a fantastic way of clarifying your understanding of key ideas and concepts through explaining these to other learners.

Planning strategies

Those who have published widely on the viva examination all recommend that planning for the viva requires a long-term strategy.  Your examiners will be looking for several key things.  Above all your thesis should be:

  • Well structured
  • Argued cogently
  • Relevant – to the discipline and the field
  • Contain relevant and detailed examples
  • Explicit in highlighting meanings
  • Concise and thorough in the literature review
  • Expansive and detailed in the areas where it makes significant and original contribution to knowledge

Your planning strategy therefore needs to take into account:

(a) What you will need to prepare

(b) How you will prepare

(c) When you will prepare

Types of Questions

There are various ‘types’ of questions which you can expect to be asked in the Viva.  They key to providing the right answer is knowing how to spot the ‘type’ of question being asked (adapted from Murray, 2008)

Open Questions

An open question gives you the opportunity to respond on your own terms.  Whilst this gives you the freedom to select and structure your answer form the variety of information available, it does not give you many clues about the sort of response the examiner is looking for.  Examples of open questions are: ‘What did you think about the outcome of your research?’, ‘What did you think of your results?’  It is a good idea to anticipate your responses to questions like these.

Closed Questions

Closed answers give you a choice of fixed answer.  For example: ‘what do you know about the work of x?’ – this means that you will need to know who x is, what they have contributed to the field, and then form an opinion about how it relates to your own work.  Closed questions are designed for candidates to give definitive answers and they test your skills and knowledge.

Probing Questions

Probing questions can follow other types of questions in the Viva examination.  For example, you might have given a response to a specific question that the examiner has asked you, and then they will ask you ‘why?’ or ‘Why not?’  This type of question is designed to probe you for more information.  The examiner(s) will use probing questions when they are trying to get more information from you, or to test the depth and quality of your knowledge.  A good way to prepare for a probing question is to clarify your own opinions properly before the examination.  Practice asking ‘why’ or ‘why not’ to the responses that you give to questions.

Understanding the Question

In your viva you need to make sure that you can answer questions under pressure and this requires practice.  If you are unsure about the question, then ask the examiner to repeat it.  If you are still unsure, relate back to the examiner what you thought you understood from the question and they will be able to clarify whether you are correct.  A good strategy for this is to re-phrase the question, which helps you to clarify what is required of you in your own mind.

Typical Viva Questions

Below is a list of typical viva questions (extracted from various sources).  Feel free to think of your own questions.  It is also a good idea to talk to your supervisor(s) about questions which you might anticipate.

Typical Viva Questions

Below is a list of typical viva questions (extracted from various sources).  Feel free to think of your own questions.  It is also a good idea to talk to your supervisor(s) about questions which you might anticipate.

  1. Please summarise your thesis
  2. Summarise your key findings
  3. What is original about your thesis?
  4. What are the strongest / weakest parts of your work?
  5. What are the main issues / debates in your subject area?
  6. What were the crucial research decisions that you made?
  7. How did you tackle the ethical implications of your work?
  8. How did you access resources for your research?
  9. How have you evaluated your work?
  10. Who is your audience?
  11. Why have you tackled the problem in this way?
  12. What is the agreed methodology in your discipline?
  13. What do your results mean?
  14. Do you anticipate publishing the material?  And, if so, what aspects?
  15. How could you improve your thesis?
  16. How has your view of the research altered or developed?
  17. Does your work have value to practitioners?
  18. What researchers would be interested in your work?
  19. What had not been done on this topic before?
  20. Who will use your material?
  21. How did you manage the information you collected?
  22. What models did you use?
  23. Are the techniques you have used appropriate for this topic?
  24. What are the theoretical underpinnings to your work?
  25. How did you use a conceptual framework to design your research and analyse your findings?
  26. How did your understanding of the conceptual aspects of your work help you to put a research framework together?
  27. Is your writing style appropriate for this topic?
  28. Tell me how your work differs from that of x?
  29. Who would be most likely to agree with your findings?
  30. Who would be most likely to disagree with your findings?
  31. How long do you expect your work to remain innovative?
  32. What sets your work apart from others?
  33. How did you resolve any issues which arose in the course of your research?
  34. How did you use the x you used in your methodology?
  35. What do you mean when you use the term x?
  36. You seem unsure about x why is that?
  37. Why should we accept your interpretation of x?
  38. What have you learned from the process of doing a PhD?
  39. How has the research training you have received helped you?
  40. How did you deal with the fieldwork aspect of your study?
  41. Do you think that your recommendations are feasible?
  42. Is there scope for further study on this topic?
  43. Do your contributions have a limited timescale?
  44. How did you ensure that your study remained objective?
  45. What have you done that merits a PhD?

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