The PhD Files: Tackling the viva

I realise that the title of this blog makes the viva sound like an insurmountable challenge. Something that needs to taken down and ‘tackled’. I promise you this is not the case. I know because I have first-hand experience. I’ve sat in the hot-seat and I’ve defended my thesis until I could defend no more, and honestly speaking it really wasn’t a terrifying ordeal. In fact, dare I say it, once I got stuck in, I actually quite enjoyed it (and I promise I’m not being smug). So, let me share with you some tips on how to turn the viva from scary, to not so far from fun…

  1. Don’t listen to the horror stories – This one is important. There will always be a host of frightening tales out there to send you running for the hills at the mere mention of the viva. While I’m sure that some people have genuinely not very nice experiences to recount, the majority of viva examinations do not fall into this category. If you have put in the work, listened to your supervisor, and know your research (which after all those years, you will – I promise) then you have every chance of a good experience.

2. Research potential examiners – There’s no harm in seeing who’s out there when it comes to potential external examiners. Look out for who is researching and publishing in your field, and consider if you might like them to be the one to put you through your paces on the day. It helps if they are approachable and encouraging people, who will make you feel positive about the experience. There’s a good chance your supervisor can help you with this as they’re likely to be in the know about potential choices. While there’s no guarantees (they could be busy, or unavailable), it doesn’t hurt to do your research.

3. Know your thesis! – While this one might sound obvious, it’s really important. Once you have your viva date in the diary, make sure you spend time ‘revising’ your research. You’ll know it pretty well at this point. You’ll have read some of it so often you won’t want to see it for some time – but this is good. It is important to know your argument in as much detail as possible, so that you can clearly and confidently answer any question sent your way. Mark out some areas that you think might come in for questioning so you can be as prepared as possible. That leads me to my next point…

4. Be prepared for questions – The whole point of the viva is to give you the chance to demonstrate that your thesis holds up as an original piece of research. The examiners will already have read it in detail, and will have a list of questions they want to put to you. This is your chance to show that you can defend your argument. Remember, you can take as much time as you need to think before you respond. It’s also fine to acknowledge that there are some areas you know will require some further research – as long as this isn’t an integral part of your argument, nobody will expect you to have answered every question in the entire world! It’s also a positive thing to show that your work is open to further avenues of exploration.

5. Be ready for the outcome – It’s likely that your supervisor will have an idea about the probable outcome of your viva. There are a few options here: a straight pass (very unusual but not unheard of), minor modifications (the most common – this was my outcome), major modifications (a bit more work needed), or a fail (again, not unheard of, but not too common). Minor modifications mean there will be some small areas to work out before the PhD can be fully signed off. These won’t be big – in other words, they will be small points to clarify and typos to resolve. Major modifications are a bit of a bigger issue. This is the outcome if the examiners believe your argument needs some more work. Perhaps you’ve overlooked some important research, or your argument is not wholly clear. Whichever of these you end up with on the day, you will be given some time to make the changes (usually longer if you fall into the major modifications category). Either way, once you can make the requested changes the long-awaited, much sought after degree is yours!

If your viva is in the not-too-distant future, or if you’re currently studying and know it’s going to roll around in a year or two, I wish you the very best of luck. Though you’re bound to feel nervous in the build-up and on the day (it’s normal, nerves show that you care), take a deep breath, try to speak as clearly and as positively as you can, and you’ll do just fine. The examiners have been in your position so they know how you feel. You’ll be ‘Doctor’ before you know it! Good luck!

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