Preparing for a viva

Preparing for the Viva and what to expect

(Advice from Socrel list members)
After a request was posted on the mailing list for some hints and advice regarding the PhD viva examination, numerous points were made by list members, and it was decided to compile them together in the form of a dedicated page on the Socrel website. So here are some general tips regarding what to do (and equally, what not to do!) during the viva.

Before the Viva

  • Read your thesis over and over again so you know it inside out
  • Does your University run a viva preparation course? If so, get on it.
  • Write out what you think the main contributions of your thesis are
  • Compile a list of key themes, and consider how they relate to each other
  • Write out chapter summaries of each chapter so that you’re clear on what each chapter achieves, what its central arguments are, and so on.
  • Prepare example answers and take your notes in with you.
  • Get fellow students to ask you the questions you dread, and have a mock viva with your supervisor.
  • Use post-it notes to flag significant pages in your thesis (and make sure you take the thesis in with you!).
  • Make sure you understand your University’s regulations about procedures for corrections (minor or major).

During the Viva

  • Remember that this is one exam where you’ll know more about the subject than your examiners.
  • The examiners will probably start out by asking you what your thesis is about. Don’t let this throw you – it doesn’t mean they haven’t read it but rather that they are required to ascertain whether or not you wrote it.
  • Know what you have to defend and what you can let go. It’s OK to disagree with your examiners’ reading of your work and their own position vis-à-vis what you propose. But you need to know where to draw the line and to concede the point.
  • Bear in mind that it is unlikely that your examiners will have read every single thing you’ve written in your thesis and will therefore more likely confine discussion to the broad themes, and the broad implications of your thesis – you can cleverly guide them to this by making sure that your thesis is well signposted with good clear introductions and conclusions to each chapter.
  • Examiners may ask you about ‘fuzzy’ terminology – terms like postmodernism etc. can be quite woolly and the examiners may wish to clarify their usage with you to be sure you are aware of debates surrounding such terms.
  • It’s important to remember that what examiners are really trying to assess is your competence in the wider field in which you’re situated and so you should try and link what you’ve done to some of the big debates in your field. Be clear about what you bring to the table and what it contributes to other work in a similar area.
  • Use examples and evidence from the thesis in your discussion with the examiners and don’t rush your answers.
  • Don’t worry if some of the questions seem a little aggressive or unsympathetic. You are not being personally attacked and so you should try to relish the chance to defend what you’ve worked so hard on for so long.
  • Produce a list of typos etc. so that you can present them to the examiners if appropriate (this can help to avoid being given corrections).
  • Try to relax and enjoy it – a viva is the first (and probably the last) chance where you’ll have the undivided attention of two people interested in your work.

After the viva

Make sure that after your viva you go out and let your hair down with some friends. It’s a chance to celebrate your success but also to thank your friends for putting up with you for the last however long!

Books and resources list members have found useful:

  • Cryer, Pat. (2006) The Research Student’s Guide to Success, Open University Press.
  • Joseph Levine’s
  • Murray, Rowena. (2003) How to Survive Your Viva, Open University Press.
  • Phillips, E. M. and D.S. Pugh. (2000) How to Get a PhD, Open University Press.
  • Rugg, Gordon and Marian Petire. (2004) The Unwritten Rules of PhD Success, Open University Press.
  • The Good Viva Guide, (video) Angel productions (