At the end of the long road of your PhD research, lies the viva examination. Just as every PhD is different, then every viva is different. But there are some things that all PhD candidates can do ahead of time to prepare academically, mentally and physically for the viva examination. Handing in your thesis at the first submission as it gets passed to the examiners feels like a huge weight has been lifted. However, it can be some weeks, even months between that hand in date and the viva. What this time gives you is distance and a chance to prepare.
Re-read your thesis
No matter the length of time between submission and the day of the viva, good preparation is key. In the first instance, as the viva date approaches giving yourself plenty of time, read your thesis, from cover to cover. This seems obvious, but that distance between submission and viva date allows you to step back from your research and allows you to read over it again with a more critical eye. In the midst of the final weeks of research and writing, ensuring all referencing is correct, all figures are identified, and getting copies printed and bound, PhD candidates are so close to their work that it is difficult to see the full picture of the thesis. Re-reading with some distance from submission will help to familiarise yourself with your work again, and to see it as a whole cohesive piece of research.
So what to keep in mind when you are re-reading? In addition to taking in the whole thesis, during the re-read go over your methodology again, in good detail. Make sure that you know your research design and the reasons for that methodology inside and out. A common viva question, regardless of discipline, will be centred on your methodological design. Why did you design it in the way that you did? What were the benefits of your methodology, and were there any problems along the way?
When you have read your thesis, have a think about and form succinct answers to these questions.
- What is your contribution to your field? Why is your study important?
- What was the inspiration for the study and what is it about? It can be a useful exercise to write a one page summary of each chapter.
- What did you do – be able to explain your methodology and how you went about doing it.
- What did you find, what were your outcomes?
Think about and prepare answers to these questions, write them down and importantly, practice saying them out loud. This is a preparation point that everyone should do. In much the same way that you might practice giving a speech or a conference paper, practice – with these questions as a guideline – talking about your thesis out loud. This will help you to avoid getting tongue-tied, and you will be able to answer your examiners’ questions smoothly. You can take these notes into the viva with you.
Know about developments in your field
Another thing to be up to date on is other developments in your field that occurred during the process of your own PhD research. And crucially, where would you position yourself and your work in your field? This is essential to the viva examination, as knowing your position in your particular academic field shows that you understand the past and current academic frameworks and contexts around your own thesis subject. It is also helpful to think about where your research will take you next. Does your thesis open doors for more research? Development into a publication?
Make sure that you know in advance where the viva will take place, where the building is and what room number. Have your journey planned, taking into account public transport access, parking or avoiding busy rush hours. Nothing will add to pre-viva stress than being late. Get a good nights sleep the night before, and make sure that you eat before you begin your viva.
What to take with you
Take a bottle of water in with you. It is also useful to take in with you a notebook and pen. Write down the questions as your examiners ask you, or make notes as you discuss your work. This way you can refer to what they have asked and what is being discussed with confidence.
It is perfectly acceptable to ask for clarification on anything that your examiners ask you, and you can and should take time to think before you answer. Even write down your points before you start to answer. It is good practice to take a printed copy of your thesis into the viva with you. The examiners will have their copies, your own copy to refer to will be helpful. You can also prepare some questions that you might like to ask of your examiners.
The viva can seem incredibly daunting and makes all PhD candidates nervous. But your viva can actually be a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience. Your examiners have been chosen as the ideal professionals in the field to read and feedback on your research. They want to see you do well, they are not there to make problems or to try and trip you up. Remember, your PhD examiners are on your side and they are interested in your work and they want to hear you talk about it.
Research your examiners
Take some time to do a little background research on your examiners. What are their interests, and what are they working on. A relaxed and fulfilling viva often becomes more of a mutual discussion between yourself and the examiners, rather than them only firing questions at you. Of course, there can be no guarantee what questions the examiners might ask you and what they might not. As long as you are very familiar with your own research, your methods, your outcomes and results, and your contribution to the knowledge of your field, the viva will go smoothly. You might even enjoy it.