You’ve just passed a massive milestone: writing and submitting your PhD thesis. This has been the culmination of at least three years of work and is definitely a cause for celebration. But the journey’s not fully over just yet – you still have the viva to pass. In the UK the viva usually lasts a few hours and involves a detailed discussion of your thesis with two expert examiners; your primary supervisor may or may not sit in this. Expect the viva to be tough – you’ll need to be able to defend your PhD thesis and respond to questions designed to really probe your understanding of your subject. But if you prepare for it well, you’re likely to come out of it having had an enjoyable experience discussing your work with people genuinely interested in your project.
Here are some tips from us to help you prepare for the day.
1. Know your thesis
You should expect your examiners to have spent a considerable about of time going through your PhD thesis and the content of it will be fresh in their mind; make sure it’s fresh in yours too. Yes, you’re the one that’s written it but, if you’ve planned well, you may have written some of your chapter content quite a while ago. Equally, we would definitely recommend checking to see if any new papers in your field have been published since writing your chapters and submitting your thesis.
2. Know your examiners
Your examiners will be experts in their fields and at least one (if not both) will be experts in the same field of your research. Make sure you look up papers they’ve published and think about how they fit in with your work. It’s likely that some of their line of questioning in the viva will be based around their contributions to the research area.
3. Think of possible questions
It’s a good idea to spend time with your supervisors thinking of the types of questions you may be asked by the examiners. In particular, can you predict the tough questions that might come your way and how you might best answer them? Are there any areas within your work that you would consider as limitations for your studies and that you should be prepared to acknowledge as such? Some preparation here and even a mock interview will go a long way in making the real thing feel easier.
4. Bring a copy of your thesis
Make sure you have your own printed copy of your PhD thesis that you bring along with you to the viva. Make notes and highlight pages and sections within it that you especially want to bring attention to. You might also find it useful to print separate larger copies of key results (e.g. graphs or figures) that you think would be useful to discuss. Some props that help explain concepts (if relevant) can also be a great way to guide the discussions to areas you’re most comfortable with.
5. Focus on your strengths
Try to view the viva as an opportunity to showcase the new knowledge you have added to your field of research. Focus on the positives that have come out of your work; all projects will have some areas of weakness but there’s no need to highlight these to your examiners unless directly asked about them. We think coming into your viva with one or two papers published (if possible) is a great positive – it’ll give you confidence that your work has already stood up to peer-review and is a very good way to present your contributions to research.