Survive your viva
The viva causes much anxiety to research students, partly because having to talk about one’s research work in an examination situation is scary enough anyway and partly because of lack of common practice causes confusion as to what is expected. However, as with other stressful situations, you can make things easier for yourself if you take control and prepare as much as you can.
In some countries, such as the UK, it is usual for a degree based on research (notably the PhD and MPhil) to be examined orally before the final award is given. The purpose is to allow the student to meet with examiners, who should be scholars of some standing in the field, and discuss their research with a view to explaining why they approached it the way that they did. It is called viva from the Latin viva voce, meaning living voice.
Conventions vary from country to country: the oral examination for a research degree (and in some cases, the research component for a taught degree) is pretty universal in the UK, but in Australia only occurs in borderline cases, while in Europe a public defence against an ‘adversary’ is more common, and the thesis may be in the form of a small volume of published papers.
In the UK, open defences are less common (although there has been some call for vivas to be made public), and while the exact procedure varies from institution to institution, the following practices are common:
- Appointment of internal (from the home institution) and external (from another institution) examiners.
- The examiners read the thesis, and decide whether it is ready to be examined (if it’s not of sufficient standard, the viva should not take place).
- If it is ready to be examined, the student’s supervisor agrees the date with all concerned, and makes sure that a room is available, with refreshments etc.
Duration varies but normally two to two and a half hours is felt to be sufficient. The student can ask for a break. In addition to the internal and external examiner and the candidate, the supervisor may be present as a ‘silent witness’, to be a ‘friendly face’ for the candidate and to witness to any required amendments; the Head of Department and a representative of a funding body may also attend.
Your preparation for your viva should start when you start to work for your degree, as you familiarise yourself with your institution’s criteria for awarding a PhD/MPhil.
Around the time of submission
The trigger for the examination process is your actual submission of the thesis; the ensuing viva will take place after about three months. Before you submit, you should know who your external examiner is likely to be (your supervisor may have discussed names with you before you submit, giving you a chance to make sure you incorporate any key works in your thesis). At the stage of submission, you should find out
- Who the external and internal examiners will be, and as much about the former as you can: what research has he/she done in your area and is the viewpoint different? Any personal quirks?
- What form the viva will take.
In the month before the viva
This is the time when you need to concentrate on your most important preparation: rereading the thesis itself, working through each chapter. Make sure you know:
- What were the steps you took in the research: why did you decide on your research design, and use the methodologies, data collection methods and samples that you did?
- What are the major strengths and weakness of the thesis? You need to make sure that you highlight the former in your viva, but also that you are aware of the latter. Are there any omissions? Is there anything that is unclear? Your weaknesses will not necessarily fail you: no research is perfect. However, awareness of them gives the message that you are a reflective scholar, able to criticise and see all points of view.
One strategy for reading a thesis critically (Phillips and Pugh, 2000, p. 153) is to get a couple of sides of feint-ruled A4 paper, and draw a column in the middle of each, so that you have two columns each with 35 lines. Put a page number on each line, followed by a brief summary of the idea contained on that page.
As you read through your thesis, you will notice minor errors such as typos and incomplete references. Make a list of these and see that the examiners have a copy.
You should also try and prepare in your mind the sorts of questions you are likely to be asked. Remember to word questions in different ways, so that you are not thrown if the examiner does so. Candidates are often asked to provide summaries of their thesis as an opening question, so prepare longer and shorter versions. You should also prepare some questions for the examiners, for example you could ask their advice on getting published.
It is a good idea to prepare yourself more formally by having a mock viva with others acting as examiners: you should prepare for this as carefully as you would for the real thing, and should receive feedback. Those who ‘examine’ you should be familiar with the subject and should know the usual practices.
Finally, make sure that you are aware of new developments in the literature in the period between submission of your thesis and your viva.
The days before the viva
As the viva approaches, if you have followed the above advice you should be thoroughly mentally prepared. Now is the time to prepare yourself physically as you would before any major life event: make sure that you have enough rest; eat properly; avoid excess drugs and alcohol; be positive and spend time with positive people.
Don’t leave decisions about what you will wear to the last moment: you don’t want to wake up on the day and find that that suit at the back of the wardrobe has got stains down the front. Decide a week beforehand what you will wear: this should normally be smart, unless you are in a part of academia where grunge is the norm, in which case you will not want to upstage the examiner!
The viva itself
Equip yourself with what you need, which should be:
- A copy of your thesis
- Pen and paper, to make notes of the questions and your responses
- Food and water
Decide where you are going to wait: in the general administrative office, or will you prefer to be somewhere private?
The precise form of vivas vary however certain conventions are common:
- After panel members have been introduced, you will be asked some easy, ‘social’ questions designed to put you at your ease, for example how have you enjoyed studying at that particular university. Thereafter, questions will divide into:
- General questions, for example:
+ A request to summarise your thesis
+ Why did you choose this particular subject?
+ Questions about your conceptual framework
- Specific questions, possibly on a very particular part of the thesis in which case examiners should provide page references and give you time to look up the reference. These will commonly be on:
- The literature review – the examiners will want to know that you have a broad understanding of the research in the field.
- The methodology –
+ Why did you choose that particular design and what are its limitations?
+ How did you ensure against bias?
+ What is the link with your research questions?
+ How did you ensure validity and reliability?
+ Detailed questions about your sample, method of analysis etc.
- Broader issues: how does your research contribute to the field?
Broadly speaking, the examiners are concerned to establish that your thesis is adequate for the type of award concerned. For a PhD, the thesis should make a distinct contribution to knowledge and be original. There have been a number of attempts to define the criteria for PhD research and one is given below (Sharp and Howard, 1996, p. 218).
- Evidence of original investigation or the testing of ideas.
- Competence in independent work or experimentation.
- An understanding of the appropriate techniques.
- Ability to make critical use of published work and source materials.
- Appreciation of the relationship of the special theme to the wider field of knowledge.
- Worthy, in part, of publication.
- Originality as shown by the topic researched or the methodology employed.
- Distinct contribution to knowledge.
Take your time answering questions: make notes of the questions and of your response, and look up the relevant part of the thesis. If you are not clear about what the examiners mean, ask for clarification. Talk about your research in the past tense.
We have already stressed the importance of being thoroughly familiar with your thesis; however your attitude is important and the wrong attitude may cost you the viva. Here are some common pitfalls:
- Being over defensive. You are defending your thesis in a scholarly sense, not in a court of law! It is common in this context to talk about the ‘define-defend’ approach, in other words you are explaining what you did and why, but acknowledging that there are alternatives.
- Confidence, over or under. Showing too much confidence is not a good thing; better to be modest. On the other hand, lack of confidence is not good either: you worked hard for your thesis, and prepared well for your viva, so you have every reason to feel in control.
- Finding it difficult to talk about your thesis, perhaps because you feel bored with it, or you are not used to talking about your own work. These are inhibitions you need to overcome, by focusing on your work’s strengths, and also by looking at it as objectively as possible.
- Being over anxious. It is natural to feel nervous, but nerves can hamper your performance if not controlled. A good way of combating stress is to control what you can, which you can best do by practicing answers and making sure you are thoroughly familiar with your thesis.
After the viva is complete, the examiners will ask you to leave the room whilst they deliberate. There are a number of possible outcomes:
- Immediate award of the thesis, without any revision (rare).
- Minor revisions required.
- Major revisions required.
- Downgrade to MPhil.
- Outright fail.
Of these possible outcomes, clearly only the first two are desirable, while the third is becoming more common now that people are being encouraged by the Research Councils to complete theses in a shorter time span. You should bear in mind, however, that a decision to award the degree will be based partly on the quality of the thesis itself and partly on the performance in the viva. You can greatly enhance your performance in the latter by careful preparation.
References & further reading
- Murray, R. (2003), How to Survive your Viva , Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
- Phillips, E.M. and Pugh, D.S. (2000), How to get a PhD: a handbook for students and their supervisors , 3rd edition, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK
- Sharp, J.A. and Howard, K. (1996), The Management of a Student Research Project , 2nd edition, Gower Publishing, Aldershot, UK
- Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2004), The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK