Your PhD viva is the file milestone of your PhD. It is also sometimes referred to as your PhD defence, well because that’s exactly what it is. Your PhD viva is the final milestone you complete after you submit your thesis. Here, you are faced with usually 2, or maybe more, ‘experts’ in your field who essentially question, critique and pick apart your entire work. Sounds fun right? In fact, the PhD viva is probably one of the most stressful and anxiety provoking parts of your PhD, so make sure you’re well rested. It feels as though the PhD viva is the deciding factor as to whether you pass or fail. However, is this true?
In some ways – yes, but in a lot of other ways – no. Your PhD viva is the final hurdle you need to complete and if you do it awfully, you’re likely to set yourself back 12 months. However, if you’ve done a reasonable job at completing your PhD and you’ve actually managed to compose a thesis in the first place, then most of the hard work is done and the main thing is that you show up. As discussed elsewhere, if you’ve published work and incorporated it within your thesis the need to ‘prove’ your work to your examiners can be significantly easier. For two reasons. Firstly, you’ve already demonstrated that your work is valuable as you’ve been able to contribute to the evidence base. Secondly, your publication would have gone through peer-review meaning that any potential issues have already been resolved (leaving only small ones) or you’ve got some practice on defending the methodology or decisions you’ve made for that respective publication/chapter.
If you haven’t published by the time you get to your PhD viva, still don’t fret. Thousands of people pass their PhD viva without having a publication – it is not a formal ‘requirement’ for a PhD. However, as you’ve had less ‘eyes’ look over your thesis such as you would in peer-review you might have more corrections to make. Typically, a PhD viva is assessed in a binary pass/fail format. The vast majority of students fall into the pass category. As mentioned above, if you’ve composed a reasonably good thesis, engaged with your supervisor (even if they’re difficult), and thought about the decisions you’ve made along the way you’ll be okay. The bit that gets a bit tricky is that this pass category is often divided down into further sub-sections. This includes passing without corrections (the gold standard, and often quite rare), passing with minor corrections (usually given 3 months to amend your thesis), and passing with major corrections (here you might get 12-24 months to amend your thesis). Personally, you want to aim for passing without corrections, or more realistically, passing with minor corrections.
To pass your PhD viva it’s important to think about what its purpose is. Of course, it’s to determine whether you pass or fail and is sometimes referred to as a ‘defence’, although this isn’t necessarily the best way to look at it. It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of seeing your examiners as the enemy. Your PhD viva might feel quite hostile at time as you are asked difficult and slippery questions. However, the questions do not come from a place of deliberately trying to catch you out. Your examiners are not trying to fail you or catch you off guard. This is quite important to consider as it will influence how you respond in your PhD viva and how you navigate the tricker questions. Instead, your examiners are there to essentially ‘sense’ check your thesis.
Their main goal is to firstly confirm that your work is valuable and impactful to the field (hence why publications help). Secondly, they want to confirm whether this work is actually your work and not written or driven by your supervisor. Therefore, the questions they ask you will require you to explain your decision-making process for the specific chapter in question. Their ‘why’s’ are not because they think you’re wrong, it’s to sense check to see if you understand and have thought about the problem at hand logically. This is also why problem solving and critical thinking are common transferable skills all PhD students possess.
If you’re unable to convey to your examiners that you understand your own work, it can give the impression that you don’t fully understand what you’ve done or that someone else has taken the lead on your PhD. The third key objective of your examiners is to just have a bit of fun. It’s very rare that you find yourself in a room with other experts of your field. Some examiners like to use this opportunity to discuss, bounce ideas, be creative and explore new concepts with someone else who is equally, if not more informed, about the subject than them. When making it to your PhD viva, you too have become an expert in this field. Depending on the niche of your PhD, you’re likely to be the most knowledge person about that subject area on the planet at that moment in time. Often, other academics and researchers don’t have time to stay up to date with the literature as they are focusing on other ventures within their work. With this in mind, try to lean into your PhD viva with excitement. You’ll likely never have anyone else ever again express as much interest in your PhD than in your viva. Appreciate it.
If you’re able to hit these three points well enough and you have a reasonable thesis, you shouldn’t have any issues with passing. Depending on how well you’ve written or explained some concepts within your thesis you may have to make some edits just so it’s clearer in your writing (minor corrections). If there’s some serious problematic issue where you’ve missed out key theories, reading material, or have incomplete data you may have to go back and revise more work than incorporates this – hence major corrections. But all in all, you’ll pass.
But how do you prepare for your PhD viva? To prepare, the key thing here really is to refresh your memory of your work and the decisions you’ve made along the way. Spend slightly more time looking at your method sections and thinking about why you chose A over B. Why did you do X and not Y? Even if they seem quite obvious and clear to you because you’ve been eating and drinking this stuff for 3 or more years, be explicit. You don’t want to fail on a question because you’ve not been detailed enough. Having this in mind it can be useful to answer your questions with such formula. Rather than answering the question off the bat in a more ‘conversational’ style it can be useful to buffer your answer with a ‘the objective/goal was this’ and so I did ‘this’. For instance, re-introduce the examiners question by explaining what you were trying to achieve before explaining what you did and the reasoning behind it. This can take some practice to get into a groove, but essentially that’s the best way to go about constructing your answers.
The objective/goal was to….. + so I did ….. + because …..
Once you have this formula nailed down ready for your PhD viva, it’s good to think about some of the questions you might get. Of course, every PhD is different and so there is no standardised questions. This is another reason why getting this formula down is useful as it enables you to answer anything! Common questions for a PhD viva however usually centre around your methods – obviously this is the best place to sense check someone’s logic and decision making. So, get this straight in your mind.
Other common questions you might get asked in your PhD viva also include:
“In one sentence, what is your thesis about?”
“What have you done that merits a PhD?”
“What was the theory underpinning your research?”
“Why did you want to do a PhD?”
“What are the 3 most important papers in this field? and critique them”
“Summarise your key findings”
“What are the strengths and weaknesses of your PhD?”
“What would your next step be?”
“What have you learned from doing this PhD/What would you do different?”
Obviously, these are more general and generic questions. You’re also likely to be asked more questions that are specific and tailored to your PhD. This is why re-reading your thesis comes in handy.
The final and last tip to prepare for your PhD viva is to read up about your examiners. These will be confirmed beforehand so you should have plenty of time to get a feel for their work. Here you can try to get a sense of what their viewpoint on your field is, what area are they interested in and what do they like to research/publish. This can anticipate certain questions or at least give you a card up your sleeve if you want to win them over. Academics like it when you read their work and compliment it.
No matter what happens, understand that it’s not that easy to prepare for your PhD viva other than be confident with your thesis, put your imposter syndrome to bed, keep things fresh in your mind, and communicate clearly and effectively to the questions. It’s okay to not know things or accept that your PhD has weaknesses. Just remember to trust in your ability and the work you have done and that will be enough to get you through – I promise.
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