The PhD Viva

Last week I finally had my PhD viva which I passed successfully (no corrections). It marks the end to the most intensive period in my professional career thus far. The weeks before this very special type of final examination in British academia have been quite stressful, as I tried to prepare myself the best I could – which basically meant: I read my own thesis over and over again. In the end, it (luckily!) turned out to be much more of a friendly conversation among colleagues than a classic oral examination situation.

So, I can honestly say that my viva was a very pleasant experience; it was nowhere near any of the stories that I heard in past years about five hour long interrogations and mean spirited examiners. I would like to share a few tips that, I think, helped me to be better prepared for the viva and pass it with a satisfying result. However, it is important to keep in mind that each viva is a highly personalised examination; it depends on a variety of variables and any of the recommendations here may not apply to specific cases; the following points merely give some rough guidelines. Still, I think considering some of them will potentially improve your chances.

What is a PhD Viva?

Most PhD students will know this but for our non-academic colleagues here a brief description: the PhD viva is a traditional oral examination at the very end of the PhD programme at UK universities. It takes place after the thesis was submitted and read by the appointed examiners. Its main purpose is to verify whether the candidate in question has actually written the submitted work and to give her examiners a chance to ask questions, clarify points made in the thesis, and to express criticism. It usually includes the external examiner, the internal examiner (i.e. a member of staff from you home department), the candidate and, more frequently these days, an independent chair who acts as an impartial “referee”. Aside from this, there are no further rules or institutionalised processes, i.e. no fixed guidelines for how the examination proceeds, what examiners are allowed to ask/not to ask, or even how long the viva should be.

Hence, some PhD students may pass within an hour, while other have to defend themselves for more than four hours (the lack of regulation has been repeatedly criticised). Since the outcome of the PhD viva can still decide whether the student has passed or not, the UK version is quite different from its more symbolical counterparts in Europe (e.g. the Netherlands or Germany). It is also held in a private setting and not open to the public. Due to this degree of “non-transparency” and its potential impact on their future careers, PhD candidates are often quite anxious and stressed in the weeks and days before their viva. However, as I said above, how exactly the viva is conducted and what the climate will be like can vary vastly in each individual case.

Write a good thesis

This may seem pretty obvious, if not trivial, to some but I personally think it is the most important thing you want to have before you go into the viva: a thesis that you feel confident about and which is interesting to read – not only for the expert but a broader audience. Try to work on a topic that has real relevance and topicality in your field and look for ways to communicate broader implications beyond your research area. Think of a good structure and do not deter from experimentation to find efficient, maybe even creative forms to share your knowledge. However, cohesion and logic must not suffer under new ideas. Having an honest and good relationship with your supervisor(s) is absolutely crucial for achieving a high quality thesis (which means you need to be open for criticism and be able to re-examine your reasoning).

Find a good external (and internal) examiner

This is almost as important as writing a good thesis: try to find an external examiner who is active in your research area and who will really understand what you’ve been working on the past three years. This raises the chances of having a meaningful, productive conversation about the content of your thesis. You do not want to meet an examiner who doesn’t have a clue about your theoretical framework, methodology, and research subject; he or she may not be able to evaluate your work adequately or, in the worst case, could even dismiss it as irrelevant.

Researching for an external examiner should start roughly a year in advance of your viva and the process should ideally involve your supervisor, as it all comes down to networking at some point. A good supervisor will guide you through the process and help you with the final decision. It is also recommendable to present papers related to your thesis at conferences and to discuss them with high-ranking individuals in your academic field. However, finding an examiner who can relate to your work does not mean that you will pass on the basis of sympathy. It is still about hard work and being able to defend your research professionally.

Read your thesis “sceptically”

It is easy to fall in love with one’s own work, especially if one is very confident about the findings and the thesis altogether; maybe you have already received positive feedback from your supervisors and colleagues (e.g. at conferences). It is indeed very important to be confident about your research, as it often indicates a level of expertise that is absolutely necessary for a PhD degree. However, in the weeks before the viva you need to become your own worst enemy in a sense, by re-reading your thesis from a highly critical perspective.

Try to question everything and make notes on what could be its greatest weaknesses. Come up with your personal worst case scenario and develop counter strategies. The aim of this is not to bring yourself down but to scan your work for potential weak spots and to prepare adequate explanations; you basically need to think of critical questions in advance and prepare good answers. This can minimise the level of surprise and allows you to avoid unpleasant situations; you do not want to appear “caught off guard” and shift into a passive role during the examination. You need to know your thesis by heart, which shouldn’t be too difficult since you’ve (hopefully) written it.

Summarise your thesis

After having read my thesis several times I decided to summarise it in bullet points, with the most important bits of information and potentially controversial aspects listed for each chapter. The new document was roughly 20 pages long and became my constant companion in the final days before the viva. It helped me to memorise key questions, order my thoughts, and structure my replies. When it comes to something as important as your viva, there is no such thing like “being over-prepared”.

Show “passion” for your work

In a way, the viva is also a psychological test in which academic professionals try to assess whether a candidate fits the profession of a researcher (however, whether you actually continue your career in academia is a totally different question). It is in this respect important to show your “passion” for your project, i.e. to communicate that you are truly engaged and motivated when it comes to your work. This alone can indicate a high level of confidence and expertise. You do not want appear as if you could have worked on any random topic but that you have genuine interest in advancing your field of research.

React to criticism professionally and productively

No academic work is perfect and there is always something that is missing or could have been done differently. The trick is to be aware of this and acknowledge one’s thesis’ limits. If your examiners observe shortcomings or missing points, try to explain why you made the decision to leave something out. As long as you can provide a reasonable explanation for each step you took in your thesis, no one can really harm you. After all, you cannot cover everything that is relevant within the limits of 100,000 words.

However, it is also important that you show willingness to accept criticism and to indicate that you can come up with solutions – for instance, by outlining how you would include missing bits in your thesis or by pointing to the potential of future research. Again, honest conversations with your supervisors and presenting papers at conferences are great opportunities to exercise this. It is also recommendable to have a “mock viva” with your supervisors playing the examiners.

Finally, it is very important to keep in mind that the viva is not just a burden or an obstacle. It is a chance to discuss your work with people who have actually read your thesis form page to page – and to present your skills as well as knowledge. It is an opportunity to network with experts in your field and to take the next step in your professional career.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.com

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5 Comments

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  1. Congratulations to you for completing your PhD Dennis. I’m certainly happy for you. Saw a glimpse of your research on LinkedIn and I think it’s interesting.

    I think what you have here is in effect a brief overview of the entire PhD process, at least in my experience so far. I’m in second year at UEA Norwich, looking to complete during summer next year. So I find your tips very useful because I’ve actually been worrying about viva already! So nearly all the issues you raised are relevant to me, especially about being critical of one’s work and choosing the examiners carefully. I already have a short list of examiners in mind, both internal and external. I’ll eventually narrow the list down to two, of course. This is where I have a question: Is it ethically okay to discuss the research with any of these guys? I have not done that though thinking that it might be wrong. Second, falling in love with one’s research. I confess am guilty of that already. I always have this feeling that my research could revolutionize the study of political journalism in Nigeria, Africa and even other new democracies. That is during my most enthusiastic moments on the work. In my more sober moments however, I often feel that it’s all probably hot air. Could you speak a little more about self criticism please? Especially practical tips on how to do that. I think I will need a lot of that to balance my too many bouts of excessive confidence over a research still in progress. Thanks mate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and liking my article. Let me briefly reply to the points that you’ve raised in your comment:

      I totally agree, when I was drafting this article I also had the feeling that most of what I’ve written applies to the PhD process in general. Ideally, you spend three years constantly expanding your knowledge while critically scrutinising what you have achieved with your research, transforming thoughts and observations into an accessible text.

      I did not share any of my research with my examiners before submission and did not contact them in advance. I knew about their work etc. and thought they’d make a brilliant fit when my supervisor proposed them. The only place they might have learnt about my work before submission would have been this blog, though none of the articles that I published in recent years provides any detailed accounts of my research. I wouldn’t call it unethical per se but it never crossed my mind to talk to my examiners before the actual viva either. To me personally, it was very important to let my work speak for itself – all I wanted to ensure was that the external examiner is somebody with experience in my research area.

      As for staying sceptical/critical towards your own work: it’s not that you should question your project in general, it’s more about the details. For example, what could they criticise about your method, especially sampling? What parts could be interpreted ambiguously, i.e. is your language clear and precise? Do you have sufficient and convincing empirical evidence? Did you include all relevant authors and theories? Is your argumentation coherent? Have you missed anything? How do I justify my choices (e.g. why B and not A)? As long as you can link your thesis to some empirical phenomena, I think chances are pretty low that you’re producing “hot air”. However, even the greatest idea can suffer significantly if it is implemented in a sloppy, lazy, and messy way. Ultimately, the goal of reading my thesis critically was to be prepared for all thinkable scenarios and thus to appear in “control” of my research niche. Hope this helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It helps a lot Dennis. And you should consider writing a book about doing a PhD. I believe Anyone doing a postgraduate research would easily connect to your thoughts, as I did. Thanks once again. I’ll stay in touch.

    Like

  3. Hi Dennis,

    Thanks for this article. I had kept it on hand over the last few months to refer to as I was preparing for my own Ph.D. defense – happy to say that I successfully defended recently. This article really helped with the process. Thanks again.

    Like

    • Dr. Dennis Nguyen December 2, 2015 — 7:05 pm

      Dear Michael,

      Congratulations! Glad that these notes were helpful. Good luck with the next stage of your career! In what subject did you complete your Ph.D. if you don’t mind me asking? Best, D.N.

      Like

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