A-Z Challenge: P – Surviving your PhD Viva

The PhD viva voce – or “viva” for short, is the final hurdle doctoral students have to pass before being awarded their doctorate. It’s an oral examination in front of a panel of examiners in which students discuss and defend their thesis. In the US, this exam is therefore also known as “defense.” 

SASiety’s founder and Institute of Modern Languages Research alumna Hari Mountford successfully passed her viva in December 2020. Who better to ask for tips and tricks on surviving your viva than the freshly-minted Dr Mountford, who also happens to be one of our own?

Hari's PhD viva prep tips

So you’ve spent years researching and writing. You’ve submitted your work of art, had a month or so to breathe – and now comes the viva. How on earth do you prepare?

Prepare in stages

I successfully defended my thesis, passing my viva with minor corrections, back in December 2020. Due to Covid, it was online – which had its pluses and minuses. At this point, I was working full time, so needed to fit in my viva prep around my job. I booked a week off work prior to my viva, and had spent every weekend for the month or so leading up to the viva, re-familiarising myself with my thesis. Taking it slowly, covering a couple of chapters each weekend -and making A4 mindmaps of each chapter – was definitely a good move, rather than cramming it all in the day before. Having had some time in between submission and my viva, it was refreshing to read my thesis in a new light.

Don’t try and predict everything you will be asked

Don’t try and predict everything you will be asked. You can Google as much as you want, but at the end of the day, no-one knows what sort of questions your examiners will choose. In my case, they started with a rather general question, which put me at ease, before going into more detail. Be clear on the reasons why you chose this topic, why you chose your methodology, and why your topic is important. As long as you know your thesis well, there is no point trying to think up answers to arbitrary questions you may or may not be asked. Having said that, a mock viva with your supervisor is a good idea, just to practice!

Brush up on your examiners’ specialisms

Knowing a bit more about your examiners is always a bonus and can even help you guess what sort of direction the discussion may take. Take a look at your examiners’ university profiles, as well as their publications. If one of your examiners is particularly interested in a particular theory, writer or theme, be sure to brush up on that, just in case they bring it up.

Think to the future

Your examiners are likely to ask you what you plan to do with your thesis afterwards. If you’re thinking of publishing in journals – which journals? If you’re considering taking academia further, and doing a postdoc, how could you expand on your thesis for this?

Be prepared to not know

You can’t know everything. In my viva, I was asked something I wasn’t sure about: rather than try and patch together an uncertain answer, I simply said that I didn’t know, but I would be sure to look into it. Accepting there are limitations to your knowledge – but showing your willingness to engage in further research/other theories – is not a bad thing.

Have notes with you

I had a page of bullet points with me on some key reasons behind my choice of topic, research questions and methodology, as well as 5 bullet points per chapter on the key points. This really helped when I had an occasional blank moment, just to jog my memory. Also, it’s a good idea to get your thesis printed and have it with you. I put post-it notes at the start of each chapter, so I could easily flick to the correct section. Ensure your page numbering is the same as the copy your examiners were sent, so that everyone is (quite literally) on the same page.

Try not to panic

At the end of the day, no one knows your thesis better than you. Your viva is not looking to fail you – your examiners want you to succeed. Quite often, there is no right or wrong answer to the questions you’ll be asked – it is your reasoning and explanations which are important. Take deep breaths, don’t be scared to pause and think before you answer, and have a large glass of water with you.

What happens at the end?

When your examiners have finished asking all the questions they want to ask, and are satisfied you’ve (hopefully) defended yourself, the chair (an independent academic) will instruct you to leave the room, or in my case, leave the Teams meeting, while the examiners decide on whether you’ve passed or failed. (This is an ideal opportunity for a loo break). You’ll be invited back in after approximately 10 minutes, at which point your examiners will give you your result: Pass with no corrections, pass with minor corrections, pass with major corrections, or fail. You will be told what these corrections are, and the examiners will send a report in a couple of weeks detailing everything you need to do to complete these. I was fortunate to pass with minor corrections, which was a great result – and spend the next couple of months addressing these, before resubmitting my final draft. 

Congratulations, Doctor!

If you’re doing your viva online, from the comfort of your own home, it can feel a little anti-climactic when you leave the Teams meeting, and suddenly it’s all over. I had a glass of fizz waiting for me after my viva – which definitely was needed! Remember to celebrate, give yourself a pat on the back, and take a few weeks off before thinking about your corrections!

Once you’ve sent your final draft to your examiner, detailing what corrections you have made, they will advise whether they are satisfied you have addressed all their comments, and let the Research office know that you can now hand in your final thesis. Once this has happened, within a couple of weeks, you will receive a diploma, and you are officially a Dr!

Best of luck!

Written by Dr Angharad Mountford, IMLR alumna

Check out the other A-Z Challenge participants as well!

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