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How I Survived my PhD Viva

By Apr.08, 2014

I submitted my thesis on 24th January. Soon after, I was given a date for my viva: 26th March. Once I had the date, I felt able to think more clearly about the viva and how I’d prepare for it. During my preparations I came across a number of blog posts by other researchers, which I found extremely helpful:

Don’t Mock the Mock: Jenna Condie 

PhD Defence Questions: Thusitha Mabotuwana

Dr Jill’s Viva Tips

A Guide to Preparing for a PhD Viva: Susan Sellers 

They also inspired me to write my own post about my viva experience.

 

Preparation

My preparation started about three weeks before my viva. I’d been asked to give a seminar about my research at Oxford Brookes University – this was a great opportunity to talk about my work. I told the organisers that I was preparing for my viva, and they encouraged the audience to ask as many questions as possible. I received some good feedback on my research, which really boosted my confidence ahead of the viva.

A couple of weeks before, I re-read my thesis (which I hadn’t looked at since I submitted), made a list of typos and used post-it notes to mark the chapters and certain sections on which I thought I might be questioned. I marked the pages where I thought I’d made a mistake and wrote down how I’d correct it. I made sure that I knew the details of the methods and statistics I’d chosen to use and why, and wrote extra notes in case I was asked about them.

I scoured the internet looking for lists of potential questions and it soon became apparent that whilst you can’t predict exactly what your examiners will ask, there are certain general themes that are likely to come up. So I decided to write lists of bullet points under the following headings:

  • Main findings: the main results and conclusions from each chapter
  • Originality/contribution to knowledge: what’s new about my study?
  • Wider applications: how could the findings be applied more generally in the field?
  • Gaps/weaknesses/mistakes: what are the limitations of my research? What could I have done differently?

This helped me to make sure I was clear on the key findings, contribution to knowledge and originality of my work. I also wrote a quick summary of my thesis in preparation for a first question such as “tell us about your research”. Questions like these are supposed to put the candidate at ease but I found the prospect of this as a first question rather daunting, so I wanted to be prepared.

I carried out another literature search for recent publications in the field. This turned up one or two new articles that I’m sure I’d have cited if I was still writing, so I read them and wrote brief notes. I also found a paper quite similar to my research that was a couple of years old and I hadn’t cited. I made some notes about the main findings and how my research is different, in case I was asked about it.

Finally, I wrote a publication plan consisting of a list of potential articles, which thesis chapters they’ll come from and which journals I’ll target.

One week before, I had a mock viva with my supervisor. This turned out to be rather disastrous as I found it difficult to talk about my research. For some reason I found it more difficult to speak to a single person than a whole room full! However my supervisor was still confident that I was ready, and it was useful because it highlighted some things I hadn’t thought about. I was concerned that I’d found the mock so difficult, so two days before the viva my husband kindly went through some questions with me. Even though he’s not an expert, it was useful to speak to someone one-on-one about my work.

The day before, I decided to have a day off. I didn’t pick up my thesis or any papers, or look at my preparation notes. I thought that if I wasn’t prepared by now, I never would be!

I found preparing for my viva rather frustrating because there was no way of knowing what my examiners were going to ask me about. However the work I did leading up to it did give me confidence on the day that I’d done enough, and when the morning of the viva arrived, I felt ready.

 

On the day

My viva was in a different University building to the one in which I’m based. It was in the morning so I went straight there without calling in at the office. I arrived about an hour before and had arranged to meet two friends for coffee, who are also doing PhDs in different departments. Seeing them really helped, as they were both confident that I’d pass. My supervisor arrived about half an hour before for a last minute chat, mostly reassuring me that I was ready and that my thesis was good enough. We’d decided that having him in the room would add to the pressure, so he went back to his office and said he’d catch up with me later.

I had with me my post-it-filled copy of my thesis, my list of typos, my preparation notes and the papers I’d had published. As it turned out, I didn’t look at any of my notes but I felt better for having them with me.

At our University the viva panel consists of the internal examiner, external examiner and an independent chair. The independent chair was there to make sure the viva was fair and conducted within University regulations. It helped that I’d met the external examiner before at conferences. He started by explaining that both examiners would be asking questions. Some would be to clarify what I’d written, some would be to check their own understanding, some would be simply because they were interested and none would be to try and catch me out.

The first question I was asked was how the project had originated. After that we went through the thesis chapter by chapter and their questions were more specific to my thesis and less general. One other general question I remember was “a lot of research has been published recently in this area, how is yours different?”, for which I did have an answer prepared.

It definitely felt like a discussion with people who were interested in my research, rather than an interrogation. Although the atmosphere was friendly I did feel I had to defend my work, in particular my choice of methods. I’ve published a paper using the same methods and this gave me confidence in my defence. Typically, I wasn’t asked about any of the details that I’d made extra notes about, or the new (and old!) papers I’d found. But I did feel better for having thought about these in advance, just in case.

The viva lasted just over two hours. The examiners asked me to leave the room whilst they came to their decision. My supervisor had returned, so I waited with him and we discussed how it had gone, before we were invited into the room for the result. Both examiners said how good my thesis was and how well I’d answered their questions, which was lovely to hear. Their recommendation was that I should pass with minor corrections, to be completed within four weeks. Their list of corrections only included three suggested changes, all of which we’d discussed during the viva.

Given my experiences in the Interim Assessment and Internal Evaluation, I thought I’d find the viva much more difficult than I actually did. Previously, I’ve written about thinking I was wrong when being questioned and not mentioning the literature in my answers. I had these points on my mind during my preparation and was determined to put them right on the day, which I’m pleased to say I did.

My advice to other PhD students is to have confidence in your work; you DO know it better than your examiners. If you can, publish a paper or two as it will help. The examiners are not expecting your research to be perfect. They are expecting you to understand it and where it sits within your field.

I was told beforehand that the viva is an opportunity to talk about your work with people who have read your thesis and are interested in it, so you should relish this opportunity and enjoy it. I can’t say that this helped me in my preparation, or that I thought to myself “I’m really enjoying this!” at the time. But looking back, that’s exactly what my viva was like.


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3 Comments

3 thoughts on “How I Survived my PhD Viva

  1. 3 years ago  

    Lovely blog post Carly and congratulations on completing your PhD. I have heard of some awful viva experiences recently so it was good to read this. Thank you for sharing and I still think you had the best PhD topic ever!

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