June 1, 2013

A guide to preparing for a Ph D viva

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , at 12:00 pm by Susan

Several people I know are preparing for their ‘viva voce’ – the oral examination that accompanies the submission of a Ph. D. thesis – this month, so I thought it might be useful to describe what it involves and suggest a list of possible questions.

In the UK, the viva is normally conducted by two examiners, one from the candidate’s own institution (the internal), and the second from a different institution (the external). Each examiner reads the thesis and writes a report on it. They then meet to discuss their views and agree how they will organise their questioning of the candidate.

Here are some pointers for preparing for a viva:

  • Listen carefully to what the examiners have to say about your thesis. They are likely to have plenty of experience and will have read your work carefully. It can be a good idea to take notes as they talk.
  • Where the examiners raise legitimate issues, show you are willing to address these. Never hesitate to ask for advice.
  • If, however, you feel the examiners have misunderstood a point, or if there is something you can legitimately say in defense of what you have done, then don’t hold back.

The first question the examiners ask is usually a ‘settling’ question, designed to put a candidate at their ease. Sometimes the examiners will open the viva with a brief indication of their response to the thesis.

There is no standard pattern for what the examiners are likely to ask. Their questions will depend on your topic and how you have approached it, as well as on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the thesis itself.

However, here is a list of questions it can be useful to think about:

What drew you to this field of research?

Can you provide a brief summary of your thesis in a few sentences?

What is original about your thesis?

What have you done that merits the award of a Ph. D?

Why did you use the particular theorists/experts/critics/practitioners you include?

What problem(s) does your research address?

Why are these  ‘problem(s)’ important?

What was the motivation for your particular line of enquiry?

What contribution do you make to your field?

What was your research process? Can you clearly explain the steps taken to arrive at your conclusion?

Can you summarise your key findings?

What in your view are the strengths of your thesis?

What in your view are its weaknesses?

How could those weaknesses be addressed (for example prior to publication)?

How did you conduct your research?

What was your ‘methodology’? Why did you choose this particular approach?

How did you evaluate your work?

Has your view of your topic changed during your research?

What are the most pertinent recent developments in the area you have selected?

How does what you have done relate to these developments?

What do you see as the next step in your research?

Which aspects of your Ph. D. might be published?

Which journals might be interested in publishing your research?

What have you learned from doing this Ph. D.?

A few final thoughts:

  • Always present what you have done in a positive light. For example, begin answers with phrases such as: ‘Chapter X was written with the intention of….’, or ‘I give an example/analysis/provide a discussion of X in Chapter Y….’.
  • It is a good idea to ask your supervisor to arrange a trial viva. If this isn’t possible, prepare a list of questions and ask a friend to fire them at you so you can practice. Is there anything you dread being asked? If there is, make sure you rehearse a good response!
  • Try to relax. Remember that a good viva should be an enjoyable conversation between three people who are knowledgeable about and interested in the same specialist area. No matter what you do next, this is a situation that is unlikely to repeat itself. So make the most of the opportunity!