How to prepare for your PhD viva: 10 top tips

Thesis.A few weeks ago I was searching the internet for advice on how to prepare for my viva. I knew I should be doing something, but wasn’t quite sure what! After asking friends and colleagues for advice and reading a lot of websites, I figured it out. Now, I want to save you all that hassle.

Here are my top tips on how to prepare for a (science) viva voce, while it’s still fresh…

  1. Read over your thesis thoroughly!

At least a couple of weeks before the viva, read through your thesis slowly, cover to cover. Don’t be afraid to add post-it notes, and highlight to your heart’s desire. (Make sure that your copy is exactly the same as the one you gave your examiners!)

  1. Make notes in the margin

While you are rereading your thesis, if you find any areas where you feel that your understanding is a little superficial, then do some quick reading on it and make notes in the margin. It is particularly important that you know your materials and methods inside out. You should be able to explain why you did everything that you did.

  1. Prepare a list of errors.

You will undoubtedly spot a few typos, and maybe worse, when you reread your thesis. Don’t be embarrassed, just make a list and bring it with you to the viva. It shows that you’ve prepared, and your examiners will be grateful that they don’t have to waste time on boring editing. (Note: even if you find typos, don’t start editing until after your viva!)

  1. Prepare answers to your 10 nightmare questions.

This is my favourite tip! Writing down answers to the questions you don’t want to come up forces you to prepare proper, well-researched responses. The viva suddenly seems a lot less intimidating once you’ve “faced your fears”! And, if any of the questions do come up, now you have great answers. In the end I had almost 20 nightmare questions on the list. Just keep adding as you think of them!

  1. Research your examiners

Chances are that you are familiar with the research of your examiners. Make sure you reread their most relevant papers and look out for any new material. Consider how your work is relevant to their research. You are an expert in your field, so your examiners are probably genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts on how your results or methods might affect their work.

  1. Make a list of your top 20 papers.

Go through each of your chapters and list the papers that were most important to the research (standing on the shoulders of giants and all that). You might have 20-30 at the end. If you have time, write a paragraph on each, focusing on the methods and results. But remember, this viva is about your work. You are not expected to know every paper you’ve referenced inside and out. In the end, I probably didn’t need to do all of this extra work, but “the literature” is one of the things that PhD students often feel nervous about, I certainly did! Having done this preparation I felt confident that I could hold my own, and so it was definitely worth the effort. (It may vary depending on your institution, but I was allowed to bring these notes into my viva. I didn’t refer to them once, but it was a confidence booster and it meant I didn’t have that feeling of having to cram for an exam).

  1. Practice summarising your thesis aloud.

“Summarise your main findings” is a common start to the viva. It is thought to help a student settle by starting them off with something that’s easy. So make sure that you find it easy to talk about. Don’t rote learn a perfect summary, but get used to talking about your research aloud. Put on a timer to 5 or 10 minutes then try it, but don’t allow yourself to restart. Or you could practice talking about your work with friends or family. Make sure that this “easy question” is just that, and does settle you rather than startle you. (In some countries, you need to prepare a presentation for your viva. In that case, make sure you are well rehearsed. You should have given the presentation at least three times, aloud, without any breaks.)

  1. Prepare the little things.

How are you getting there? Do you need to arrange to stay with someone? What are you wearing? Organise these things a good while in advance. Google maps now lets you enter the day and time you want to arrive at a destination so you can get an idea of the traffic. This was lucky for me, as a two-hour journey took three and a half hours in the morning rush hour, but I was able to plan for it! Clothes-wise: wear something fairly smart to show respect to your examiners, but make sure that you are comfortable!

  1. Be honest.

I attended a viva preparation session run by Cambridge University for its grad students. Many of the students were worried that in a viva “we didn’t have the time” or “we didn’t have the money” were not acceptable answers, even though they were true. Your examiners are active researchers, they sometimes can’t do experiments they would like to do because of limited resources! That being said, you want to show them that you have become scientist, so don’t leave it at “we didn’t have the time”, continue on and say, “but if I had had more time, this is what I would have done…”, and if you didn’t have the money, explain that you used a cheaper method etc.

  1. Be confident.

The examiner’s job is to challenge your thesis. A good examiner will make you feel relaxed, but by their very nature vivas can feel quite confrontational. Do not take criticism personally and do not take it as a sign that the viva is going badly. All experiments have some weaknesses. If the examiner points them out, it is ok to agree but highlight how you have tried to compensate, perhaps by using other methods to show the same result. Your examiner may play the devil’s advocate or misunderstand something about your research, so if you don’t agree with them about something, explain why! This is your work, you know it best!

If you are at the point of having your viva voce, then you have already done all the hard work. The examiners just want to check that it was you who did the work presented in the thesis, that you understand what you were doing, and that you have earned your new title. Remember that you are the expert in the room. I passed my viva (last week), and you can too.


Here are links to some of the websites that helped me prepare for my viva:

https://ddubdrahcir.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/is-it-a-phd-or-not-a-phd-unpacking-the-viva/ – this blog post contains a lot of good example questions, and they also suggest the 10 nightmare questions prep!

http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/jan/08/how-to-survive-a-phd-viva-17-top-tips – has a lot of good advice about how to answer questions once you are in the viva

https://www.vitae.ac.uk/doing-research/doing-a-doctorate/completing-your-doctorate/your-viva

Did I miss something? Please leave a comment with your advice to PhD students preparing for a viva!

04/07/15

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4 comments

  1. jaimack · July 6, 2015

    Thanks for the concise advice! I have a while to go until my viva but I will save this 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anne Nielsen · July 7, 2015

    Great article! 😊 very useful tips for defence preperation.
    -Anne

    Like

  3. George Julian · August 25, 2015

    Great post; I’d like to pick up on your points 4 and 7… I used to make prompt cards to help friends do this http://vivacards.co.uk/2014/01/where-did-viva-cards-come-from/ which in turn became VivaCards which are available to purchase here http://vivacards.co.uk/product/pack-of-vivacards/#reviews I know that’s a bit of a plug but time and again people say that actually saying things out loud is harder ‘on the day’ than they thought; it’s not enough to work out what you’ll say, I think it really helps to actually say it out loud. So don’t scrimp on doing that, however foolish it may make you feel! Most importantly remember your viva is probably the only chance you’ll get to talk about your work with people who have read your entire thesis, so make the most of that!

    Like

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