The Viva Exam: things to consider when preparing for your exam
(Last updated: 21 September 2023)
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What’s a Viva (Viva Voce)?
As I stood outside, knowing my examiners were on the other side of that door, I was trembling. I had worked incredibly hard on my PhD and had spent years perfecting my language, all leading up to this one moment: my viva voce interview. As I waited, patiently, to begin my defence, the door opened and the committee chair said, “we are ready for you now”. I walked through the door, took a deep breath, and never looked back.
A viva voce examination, widely known as the viva, is an oral examination at the culmination of your PhD. It is comprised of a committee of both internal and external examiners who look through your work and, essentially, decide whether you pass or fail your PhD. It is an interview and there are a number of different ways that a viva can be conducted. In some cases, the viva is open to the public, which means that anyone who is interested can attend. In other cases, they are closed, which means that it is just you and a panel of examiners.
In either case, the examiners generally include internal reviewers (someone in your department who has interests in your subject area but who has not helped you with the PhD) and external reviewers (usually 2-4 people who have expertise in your discipline, but who do not teach/work at the university that you are affiliated with).
A viva voce interview usually lasts between 1-3 hours, and consists of a variety of questions related to the PhD you have recently submitted. All of the examiners will have read your PhD in its entirety prior to the beginning of the viva, and each will have compiled a list of questions. It is your job to answer these questions satisfactorily in order to pass the viva.
In this post, we are going to describe some of the most common things to consider and to remember when preparing for a PhD viva.
How to prepare for the interview
Preparing for a viva interview is a lot like preparing for a job interview. While you cannot possibly imagine every question that others might ask of you, you can certainly practice so that you put your best foot forward right from the start.
Identify the weaknesses in your PhD
Let’s face it: no one has the perfect research protocol. There are always limitations. These limitations are a perfectly acceptable part of the process, but as the researcher, it is your job to explain why you chose to conduct your study using the methodology that you did.
Usually, you can ask your supervisor(s) to help you with this. They can be a very useful resource. They might also have suggestions about what questions the examiners are likely to ask.
In addition to the imperfections, it is important to be able to justify your approach. So, if you chose to undertake a questionnaire, why was this the preferable method over other approaches? Try not to solely rely on the current circumstances (e.g. because of COVID-19 might be a possible answer, but is there a better one?). Try to think about all the strengths of your research protocol and use this information to justify your choices.
What to wear
While you might not think that clothing is an important piece to the viva, it is something that you certainly should consider. Wear something that is professional, but comfortable. This is typically a collared shirt for men at a minimum, though a suit jacket and tie are also pretty common. For women, wear a skirt or trousers, and a sweater, blouse, or suit jacket.
In all cases, wear professional – but comfortable – shoes. There is nothing worse than feeling a blister emerging as you are trying to focus on your talk! Different countries have different standards, but typically you should wear something similar to what you might wear to a job interview.
Things to remember
It is very likely that you will get a list of who your examiners will be prior to going into the viva interview. This information can be really valuable. As a first step, go and look at the publications that each of these members has produced. By reading their most recent publications, you will gain insight into what they find interesting and what they do not.
What’s more, if you have referenced any of their work in your PhD, you might be able to mention this in the viva to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable and have aligned your work with other excellent scholars (like your examiners). A little bit of flattery is always a good thing (but do not go overboard).
What questions are they going to ask?
Justifying your arguments
It is important to think about your project. It is likely that the first question they will ask you is: Can you summarise your thesis? Try and have an answer ready that takes less than three minutes to explain and uses common language that someone who does not understand your field will be able to comprehend (i.e. keep it simple).
Justifying what you left out
As noted above, no research protocol is perfect. Further, once you have collected the data, you will likely have a lot to say. Not all of the data you collected will have ended up in your final thesis. You had to decide what to keep and what to leave out. Your examiners might want to know what you left out (and why).
Usually with these types of questions you can draw their attention back to your research questions and then tell them that the other data fell outside of the scope of the research project, but that it might be worthwhile examining in a future project.
Questioning your contribution to research
Why was your research important or worthwhile? It is important to consider what motivated you to pursue your project in the first place. What was the gap that you saw in the current research framework that needed to be filled?
Your answer does not have to be some epic achievement (though it can be). Instead, think about what the problem was and how you contributed to it.
Discussing areas for future development
Your PhD might be done, but where are you going next? What are your plans for the future? Even if your plans are to run as far as you can from the next possible research project, it is worthwhile coming up with a statement about how your research could be further developed (even if you, personally, have no interest in developing it further). You have probably made these suggestions in your actual PhD thesis, so this is just an opportunity to provide a bit more detail about how this might actually proceed.
Tips and tricks to succeed in the viva
You are likely going to know people who have participated in the viva process before, and therefore, using them as experts can be a good opportunity for practice. Now, despite saying this, people often like to exaggerate what happened during their viva voce exam, so if the person you are talking to decides to describe a stressful and uncomfortable situation, maybe try to find other, more supportive, colleagues.
You can also create a list of practise questions that you can give to a friend, colleague, or family member so that you can practise how you will respond. Even if the person who is asking a question is not an expert on your topic, they will usually be able to determine whether your answer is overly detailed and repetitive (bad) or succinctly concise and organised (good). The more you practise, the more comfortable you will get with the idea of explaining your research to strangers, which is essentially what happens in a viva voce exam.
Listen carefully to the questions being asked
There are a couple of significant places where a candidate can go wrong in a viva voce exam, and failing to answer the question asked is one of those place. First, if an examiner poses a question, do not try to jump in or talk over them. Let them ask their question, in full, before you start on your response (even if you think that you know what they will ask).
Once the examiner has asked their question, take a breath and a moment to compose your thoughts. The second mistake that candidates often make is to go off track to a tangent that is irrelevant to the question. By taking that moment to compose your thoughts, you will be able to make sure that your answer provides a clear and appropriate response to whatever has been asked.
Focus on the positives
In thinking about the questions that you might be asked, it is often human nature to dwell on the negatives; to try and justify away the negative elements of your study. You could have had a larger sample, incorporated another research method, or undertaken a more comprehensive statistical analysis of your data. You could have focused on a different theme or provided more details on a certain area of interest.
By the time you get to the viva, none of these things really matter – the study is finished, and your PhD has been submitted, read, and reviewed. So if you are asked a question where you could potentially answer in a positive way, choose that as your option. The examiners do not need to hear about what you could have done (unless they explicitly ask, which is possible). The examiners want to know why you chose the route that you did.
Let’s say, as an example, that you conducted interviews in your research study. Instead of telling the examiners why you could have also employed a questionnaire, tell them about the many ways that interviews offered you the opportunity to obtain comprehensive data that you would not have received from questionnaires. Tell the examiners how the detailed data from the interviews allowed you to delve into themes of interest and ask follow up questions in areas that you did not understand. Remain positive.
Smile (and breathe)
It is only human to be nervous going into your viva voce examination; there is a lot of pressure associated with this step in the PhD process. The examiners will know that you are nervous. If they are experienced, they will have seen many students that have been in your position. If they are new to viva exams, then they will likely remember how it feels to be a candidate. Good communication is key here.
Remember that these people are humans, too. Although they are, in a way, the gatekeeper to your success, that doesn’t make them monsters. Appeal to their good nature. Be friendly and smile, but also don’t try and hide your nerves, if you find that makes you feel awkward.
Lastly, take deep breaths. This might sound obvious, but our breath can really help to control our adrenalin levels, which when pumping, can wreak havoc with our normal behaviour. If you forget to breathe, you may, for example, stumble over your words or forget your train of thought. Take nice, deep breaths regularly, especially when the examiners are talking!
The more you practise, the more comfortable you will get with the idea of explaining your research to strangers, which is essentially what happens in a viva voce exam.
When I left my viva, my committee made me sit in the hallway to await their decision. There are really four options at this point: 1. Pass, 2. Pass but make minor corrections, 3. Pass but make major corrections, and 4. Fail.
I remember feeling confident enough to know that I passed, but some of the questions were really hard and so I was thinking about how many corrections I was going to have to make (and how long that was going to take because I’d already spent years on this project). By this point, I felt like the hard part was over, there was nothing that I could do from this point that would change the outcome (but this did not make the waiting any easier). It was probably about ten minutes between the time I left the room and the time that they called me back but it felt like an eternity.
As the Committee Chair opened the door to call me back in, she only said two words… “Congratulations, Doctor”. I smiled, breathed a sigh of relief, and knew it was a great day.