Preparing for the Viva

As if the PhD itself wasn’t hard enough, once you’ve navigated the precarious road of relationships with your supervisor, experiments that don’t work as expected, reluctant interviewees and the despair of writing up, you have to face the viva.

What is the viva?

The viva voce (literally: live voice, or by the living voice) is an oral examination whereby your PhD work is examined by two examiners, usually specialists in the field selected by you and your supervisor.  You can, and are expected to, take your thesis into the examination with you (it is not a “closed book” exam in the traditional sense) and you engage in a debate with your examiners where they will try to establish some of the following:

  1. Firstly and most importantly, that it is your work and that you wrote the thesis.  This may sound obvious but until the viva, they have no hard evidence that your supervisor didn’t write the thesis for you.  You will be expected to show good knowledge of what you’ve written and your way around the thesis.
  2. The level of originality and whether this makes a PhD.
  3. Your knowledge of the literature – including whether anything has been published in the field recently.  So keeping up to date with the literature right up to the date of the viva is important.
  4. Why you chose to do the research in the way that you did.  You will need to be able to justify your research methods but also show that you considered other alternative approaches and why you dismissed them.
  5. Where the research could go in the future, and, if you were going to continue doing research, where you would like to take it and how.

The viva is seen as being an intimidating event.  In every university there are bad stories circulating about so-and-so’s viva which went on for 10 hours, was absolutely gruelling and then he / she was failed outright at the end.  The reality is that the majority of vivas are not anything like this but because they continue to happen behind closed doors, no-one is ever certain what they are really like.

What to expect

  • Most vivas last between 2 and 3 hours.  Mine took 2.5 hours (fairly average) but my best friend’s took 45 minutes (which is really unusual).
  • An academic debate.  If you have chosen your examiners carefully and in discussion with your supervisor then you should be able to have a robust and engaging academic debate.  Only if you chose your examiners badly and set yourself up with someone who feels threatened by you and your research will you be likely to end with a bad experience where you feel attacked.
  • Your supervisor will not be able to participate.  You can ask for your supervisor to attend the viva to watch but they are not allowed to participate or communicate during the viva in any way.  Some university regulations allow for an “independent chair” of the viva who’s key role is to ensure that the examiners follow the university’s procedures and rules.  In other universities, it is assumed that this role will be taken by the internal examiner.
  • You will have one internal examiner and one external examiner.  The colleges of the federal University of London specify that the internal examiner must come from another college and that the external examiner must be from an institution outside of the University of London.  So it does vary.  Check your institution’s requirements.
  • The examiners will tell you whether you have passed and degree of corrections required at the end of the viva.  You will also be told how long you have to do the corrections, whether a resubmission is required etc and this will then be followed up in writing.

Familiarise yourself with the university’s regulations on vivas and postgraduate research degrees so that you know more of what to expect – particularly in terms of the variety of outcomes from the viva.

Make sure you have discussed the viva with your supervisor.  S/he should have some thoughts on areas that are likely to come up and questions that your examiners might raise.

Find a training course to prepare you for the viva and ask your supervisor to organise a mock viva, with colleagues from your department.  Practicing the viva will help with nerves and give you an idea of questions that might come up.

You can also complete the Preparing for the Viva online course as part of the Graduate School’s Researcher Development Programme (access is through KEATS with a KCL username and password).

This is a guest post by Dr. Fiona Denney – Graduate School, King’s College London