The Insider's Guide to Vivas
Preparing for your viva? Our PhD viva tips will help you to walk into your exam feeling confident that you can cross the finish line. Get advice from some of our staff and recent PhD graduates.
This blog post was developed from an event entitled ‘The Insider’s Guide to Vivas’, which was organised by research staff from the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine in collaboration with the Institute for Academic Development. You can find a full recording of the event via the following link:
In this article we’ll take a look at some key pieces of advice to help you prepare for the viva, plus we’ve included some practical tips on what to expect on the day. We also have a special section devoted to Zoom vivas, with advice from one of our recently viva’d PhD students.
Before the viva
During the gap between thesis hand-in and the day of your viva, it can be easy to start worrying you’ve missed something, or that your work isn’t good enough to pass. Before you know it, panic mode sets in.
One of the most important bits of advice our research graduates and examiners have passed on is to be confident! Even if you’re not really feeling it, try to acknowledge that you are the expert on this particular area of research.
You should go into it feeling very confident that you are able to discuss and defend it.
There’s no need to over-prepare
It can be tempting to pressure yourself into spending hours and hours preparing for the viva. However, this really isn’t necessary. Some of our graduates explained that they had confidence in their knowledge of the thesis and didn’t spend every waking minute before the viva reading and re-reading.
Marlene spent three days before her viva assessing her thesis, highlighting areas she might need to look out for during the viva itself.
I was going over it [the thesis] and putting a lot of Post-Its on the parts I wasn’t sure about or if I had a question about.
Natalie went away for a month after submitting her viva then came back with about a month to prepare, but she didn’t view this as a problem.
It doesn’t really matter how long you are away from your thesis for, you’re the one that knows it best and knows the research.
Accept that there will be mistakes
When you do get round to reviewing your thesis, don’t be concerned if you come across the odd mistake. Try to accept that there’s a good chance you will find some errors, such as a silly typo or a mislabelled axis. You will definitely find at least one so be mentally prepared for that moment and don’t let it get you down.
Accepting that there will be a couple of mistakes actually gives you confidence because you won’t be surprised or put on the spot by someone highlighting them in the viva itself.
What is key is you go through your thesis with no stress.
During the viva
On the day
These practical tips will help you to go into the viva with confidence. If you think your viva will be held via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, you can still adapt the advice below to your particular situation:
- Dress smartly – this puts you in the right frame of mind for the occasion
- Check timings and arrange to wait somewhere to be called for your defence
- Bring along a soft bound printed copy of your thesis
- Take some paper and a few pens in case you need to make notes
- Take some water in case none is supplied
The viva format
Once you’ve greeted your examiners and taken a seat, the process will likely begin with some informal chat to help make you feel a bit more relaxed. You might be asked what you’re planning on doing after the PhD, for instance.
In terms of the main discussion, some examiners go through the thesis chapter by chapter, while others work freely back and forth. It all depends on how your examiners want to structure the conversation.
Pre-viva PhD students often get hung up on timings. This is especially true if you already have friends and colleagues who have had wildly different experiences. However, Dr Gray estimates that the typical viva lasts around 2 to 2.5 hours. Sometimes discussions can extend a lot longer, but this is usually a good thing and often means the examiners are having fun delving into your research. It’s a lot more unusual for a discussion to go on longer because there are major problems with the thesis.
Try to enjoy it!
This might be easier said than done, but it’s a useful point to remember all the same. You will never get quite another opportunity like the viva – it’s a chance to discuss your research in-depth with people who have read your thesis and want to ask you questions and delve into your knowledge of a subject area you’re hopefully(!) still passionate about.
It’s a work you have been doing for years and this is time you have set aside to talk about your science.
You are allowed to say “I don’t know”
Being able to admit when you don’t know the answer is a useful skill to hone in any type of industry or subject area. But it’s particularly vital to remember this during a viva. Your examiners want to help you examine the thesis critically, which might lead you down certain avenues of discussion which you aren’t quite as familiar with. You may be asked questions that you simply don’t know the answer to.
They’re going to push you as far as they can on certain topics and see how far they can get you, but it’s not a test.
Remember that the viva is a discussion, not a test on whether you can remember a certain fact from a particular textbook or research paper. You don’t have to know everything and of course, this is impossible anyway!
‘Zoom vivas’ or online vivas are a necessary consequence of the ongoing Covid-19 situation. It can be hard for some people to adapt to this new way of working, especially when your expectation for so long has been that you will complete your research, submit and then your viva will last a few hours in-person.
However, Nathanael completed his Zoom viva very recently and believes that, no matter how your viva will be conducted, it’s important to remember that the hard work has already been done.
Once you hand in – that was the hard bit. I think that the hardest bit by far is writing your thesis.
Of course, there are a few practical points to consider. First and foremost, ensure that you test your internet connection on the day of the viva. Furthermore, you may have to warn any house mates or loved ones not to disturb you during the viva itself.
In spite of the circumstances, there are some perks to conducting a viva over Zoom or Microsoft Teams. It means that you likely get to celebrate with family or house mates as soon as you’ve been told the magical words “You’ve passed!”
There’s also no requirement for examiners to be in the same place at the same time, so the likelihood is that your viva will occur fairly soon after you’ve handed in your thesis.
And remember – examiners are also having to adjust to online vivas. Everyone is in the same boat.
This is new for everyone, so it’s going to be designed to help you through it.