Prepare for Your Doctoral Viva
A Viva is an Interview
What’s a Viva?
A viva is an oral examination, rather like an interview, in front of a panel of experts, who ask questions about your dissertation or thesis. The term “Viva” is short for the Latin phrase, “Viva Voce”, meaning, “live voice”. Vivas are usually held for the examination of doctoral theses in the United Kingdom but may also be held for examination of a Master’s dissertation. A thesis (plural “theses”) is a written account of your research into your topic of interest. A doctoral thesis may be 80,000 words long. For comparison, a light novel might contain 30,000 words, so a thesis may be the equivalent of writing two or three books. Well, it certainly felt like it!
Why is it held?
A Viva is held to check your understanding of what you have written, to check you wrote it yourself, to ensure there is no plagiarism (copying someone else’s work) and to clarify any points that are not clear.
Are You Preparing For A Viva?
Do You Have to Prepare For A Viva?
What is Plagiarism?
In my university, all submitted written work is passed through an online piece of software that checks for plagiarism, that is, whether you have copied someone else’s work. It checks through all past publications, papers, theses and even exam papers and coursework. I heard recently that one person’s course work had been found to have been copied from a student who had completed the course a couple of years earlier! My thesis has already been passed through that software and any areas found to be the same as previously published work have been highlighted. A copy of the report was given to me and will have been sent to the examiners for my viva. I am happy to report that the result was good!
Have you heard of Plagiarism?
Have you heard about plagiarism?
Why Are You Writing About This?
I submitted a doctoral thesis over a year ago now and had a viva held about three months later. I worked on various bits of my thesis as preparation for my viva but as I had never been very successful at interviews during my working life (I am now retired), and as I knew I was unlikely to have a mock viva offered, I decided to find out what was available to help me prepare for my viva and to write this summary at the same time. I worked on the science side, so my preparation may have been different from yours if you are working on the “Arts” side. Much of what is available on line appears to be written by social scientists, so it is important to consider whether the advice I am writing or that you find for yourself is relevant to your type of viva. Having said that, the advice I have been reading so far, is that every viva is different, anyway. If you have time, asking your supervisor for advice would be very useful. Many of the questions I prepared were never asked, but knowing that I considered them gave me confidence going into this exam.
Motivation for this
I find that going over and over a large publication is not very helpful for me, so having looked at a lot of the available material on vivas on line, I decided that creating my own workbook of questions to answer was probably going to serve me best. I say this because I found this way of working very helpful in preparing for my intermediate presentation (called the “confirmation viva” in my university) which is held half way through the study period and which you have to pass in order to continue working on your Ph.D. studies. While I was studying at that time, I read a book called “A Student Guide To Methodology” by Clough and Nutbrown. It was arranged with a number of questions to work through, which I did and while panicking about how to prepare for the confirmation viva, found that the material I had written as “answers” to the questions posed in that book formed a really useful basis for my presentation, which I passed.
One of my sons has a very good study strategy for exams, in that he goes through past papers and prepares his own exam based on previous exam questions in that subject. He has found that extremely useful both because lecturers tend to look at past questions when preparing future exam papers (!) and because trying to answer these questions shows you where your knowledge is lacking and you need to learn it better.
On the basis of both of these strategies, I believed that preparing my own workbook and doing my best to answer the questions in it was my best way of preparing for my viva.
After I submitted my thesis, I expected a viva within about 6 weeks. That didn't happen but at least I would have been ready if it had. I am one of those lazy people for whom time pressure is a great motivator, so getting myself to think that I had only 8 actual working days was a good wake up call for me.
My workbook used the following headings, from all the sites I went through:
- Overall Thesis
- Literature Review
- Research Design and Methodology
- Nightmare Questions
Workbook Headings Expanded And Explained
Find out who the external and internal examiners will be, look up their body and work and see which, if any is relevant to my thesis. I know their names and have looked at the external examiner’s published papers. Some of these are relevant o parts of my thesis, so I will summarise those, to help get the information into my head.
Have I found any relevant papers published that I haven’t included in my thesis? Read and summarise these, in case the examiners ask about them
I already know that I am expected to make a 10 minute presentation on my thesis showing what it covered. I have been advised that it is CRUCIAL to make my conclusions crystal clear and to hammer these home; and to ensure that my unique contribution to knowledge is also made very clear. (A Ph.D thesis is expected to make a UNIQUE contribution to knowledge.)
There are many things to consider and I am not going to include them all here because many may not be relevant to your viva, however, there is a list of links further on down that you may find useful in preparing for your own viva.
- Know my key findings and contribution and what justifies this work as a doctorate (as opposed to a lesser degree)
- Mark key sections with tabs
- Prepare a 1 page summary of each chapter and a one sentence summary of each chapter (!) and create a brief summary of the overall thesis.
- Know what claims I am making
- Know my justification for making these claims
For me, making a one page and one sentence summary for each chapter will be a very useful way of going through the thesis and looking at it in an overall fashion, as opposed to just reading and re-reading it. I have already created an abstract of the work and this was included in the thesis I submitted. Knowing how I justify the thesis as being of doctoral level will be important in defending my thesis at the oral exam. The oral exam is also known as a “defence”, so this is important.
Apparently a favourite question here is “Who are the most important authors in your field and what influence did they have on your thesis?”, or “Which publications (or authors) have influenced you most?”
Research design and methodology
This will be important for me to work on, as I carried out an experiment and there could have been several different ways of doing this. I will need to remind myself of why I chose the particular method, consider any limitations and whether I would do anything differently if I were to run it again.
This is a very important section and I will need to summarise the findings as they relate to the research questions I posed in preparing the literature survey. I used human subjects, so may need to consider the ethical implications of this.
Again, a very important section. This looks at the overall thesis and so of course will be different for each person. The questions to develop here might consider the implications of my research, whether it could have been done better, whether I needs to be redone in a different way and what difference my findings may have made to my field.
I suppose the questions people are suggesting here really look at how I have changed over the course of doing the thesis and how my thinking has changed. I know that some very big changes have happened and I will need to think about those.
I have been advised to prepare a concluding statement, showing how my work has made a difference and emphasising the conclusions I came to, making sure to end on a positive note. This would also be the point at which to pick up any points that had been missed.
- How to survive a PhD viva: 17 top tips | Higher Education Network | The Guardian
Just handed in your PhD thesis? Now it’s time to plan for the next hurdle: a viva. Academics offer their advice on how to best prepare
- Ten Tips for getting through your PhD Viva - Careers Advice - jobs.ac.uk
These tips are designed primarily for those taking their PhD exam in the UK covering: Submit a thesis you are proud ofChoose the right... #jobsacuk
- Defending your doctoral thesis: the PhD viva — Vitae Website
The final hurdle of a doctorate is the defence of your thesis. This page explains what you can expect from the viva at the end of doing a PhD.
Top Four Tips
1. Know your panel, especially your external examiner. Check out their body of work.
2. Know Your Thesis
3. Identify possible questions and develop answers to these. Especially, identify the very worst questions you would not want to be asked and identify answers to them.
4. If you can get someone to hold a mock viva for you ahead of time, you may find that very useful.