Viva Preparation Tips & Advice

Three historians who have successfully been through their PhD viva at KCL share their practical tips and discuss what you can do to prepare for your viva.


William Tullett – Completed History PhD at KCL on ‘Smells, Smelling and the Senses in England, 1660-1830’.

I would say the most important thing for the viva is not to worry about it but to look forward to it. This is a fantastic opportunity to talk to leading scholars, who’ve spent time reading your work in detail. You are an expert talking about the thing you know best – so it should be a really enjoyable experience. Make sure you read back through your thesis, keeping in mind what your examiners work on, and think about the kind of questions they might ask. Mark up your thesis with post it notes that list questions, weaknesses, strengths, and key arguments. I also created an index with page numbers for key points.

A thesis is never perfect. Part of the viva process is figuring out how you might extend, refine, or rearrange your ideas when it comes to article or book publication. Think about what you would do differently or do more of if you had the time. Is there material you had to leave out? Why did you do so and what might you do with those sources or arguments? Explaining the process of research is important. This includes why you decided to follow some roads and not others. This process might be obvious to you, but may not be to your examiners who may not know the source material as well as you or may not have approached it with the same questions in mind.

I would also say that having my supervisor in the viva was a great choice. Some might find this supportive and comforting (although I realise that not everybody may feel that way). If you’re in the midst of explaining your ideas then having somebody else to make notes and record what’s being said can be a great help. It meant that, after the viva, I was able to supplement my own notes with those of my supervisor, which gave me a more complete picture to guide me as I worked on turning the thesis into a book.


Tom Colville – Submitting revisions for History PhD at KCL on ‘Mental Capacity and the Pursuit of Knowledge in England, 1650-1700’.

A viva is a highly individual experience as so much depends on the nature of your project and what your examiners choose to focus on. However, there were a couple of things I did before my viva which I believe helped me to have a positive experience and might therefore prove useful to other people too.

On a practical level: I decided to take notes from my thesis in a way that helped me to feel confident in precisely what all of my arguments were and how they tied together. When reading through my thesis in the weeks before my viva I kept a notebook with me and made a note of every single argument that I made. This included the really big stuff (why is this thesis necessary? What gap does it fill in the literature?) to the much smaller aspects (why primary source ‘x’ merits re-examination, why I haven’t gone into depth on topic ‘y’, why I slightly disagree with historian ‘z’). This exercise resulted in half a dozen pages of concise notes which I found extremely valuable as something to revisit in the couple of days before the viva. At that late stage it did not feel like a valuable use of time to re-read the thesis another couple of times (you will already know it inside out by that stage) but I found it very useful to have something to refer back to in moments of doubt. Even in the hours before my viva I found these 6 or so pages of notes to be a comforting reminder that there was no aspect of my thesis that I didn’t know from all angles. Importantly, these notes also helped me to focus my attention on the key debates and my authorial choices within the thesis – which are probably the most likely aspects to receive close scrutiny from examiners.

I didn’t have any kind of mock viva in the run-up to the big day but I did practice some answers to the very basic questions which are likely to come up in one form or another. For example: why does this thesis matter? What’s new about your research? Why did you use that structure/methodology rather than a different approach? I don’t recommend having scripted responses memorised for such questions, but knowing that I was able to assertively answer them helped to keep my nerves under control. In my experience, the viva will probably be a combination of some questions you could probably predict and others which take you by surprise. This means that there is no such thing as perfect preparation, but you can help yourself by having spent some time thinking about the nature of your choices, your inclusions/exclusions, and places where a different historian might form a different interpretation from similar evidence.

Though these methods may have helped me to answer questions slightly more effectively, their key benefit is that they allowed me to stay in control (rather than becoming a mess of nerves) in the days prior to the viva. Everyone will have their own methods of doing this but I would recommend doing something along these lines in order to feel like you aren’t leaving any stones unturned.


Rebecca Simon – Completed History PhD at KCL on ‘The Crime of Piracy and its Punishment: The Performance of Maritime Supremacy and its Representations in the British Atlantic World, 1670-1830’.

Preparing for your viva is no easy task. The scariest part of it is the unknown. What will my examiners ask me? Did they like it? Did they hate it? And most importantly, Will I pass? Some people suggest having a “mock viva”. I know people with whom this was very helpful. In hindsight, I am very cautious of a mock viva because only the examiners know what you will be asked to defend. Your supervisor should be able to guide you, but they might have a completely different idea of what you’ll be asked to defend than what actually gets presented. I had a tough viva, so this was the case for me.

In my experience there only two things you can do to prep for your viva. The first thing to do is to read and reread your thesis so you know the information cold. Look at your sources, both primary and secondary. Make notes of other areas of work that didn’t make it into your thesis. Write down sources you looked at but did not use. Look into secondary literature that are only tangentially relevant so you have a wider picture of where your topic fits into the historical narrative. You can’t memorize everything you didn’t cover, so don’t even try. Just know the basics.

The second, and most important, thing to do is defend your thesis. This sounds obvious, but if your examiners question your work and your methodology, you must have a sound reason for doing everything you did. This shows that not only do you know your thesis, you know how to be a historian. Not only that, you need to believe in your work. It’s too easy to doubt yourself, but you have to swallow down those doubts during your viva. Do not let those doubts show. Show enthusiasm for your project and do your best to project an air of confidence even if you’re quaking inside. I cannot stress this enough. My thesis had a terrible introduction, so my examiners focused their questions on my research methodology. Therefore, I had to answer a lot of questions about why I did not talk about this area or that. Over and over I replied with something similar to, “I’m glad you asked. I researched such-and-such, [gave examples], but I felt it would pull too much away from my argument because [explained why]; but in the future that’s an area I intend to expand upon.” In my final report, both examiners highlighted how impressed they were with my knowledge of the subject, enthusiasm, and how well I justified my research. I’m convinced this saved me from more corrections.

So, to sum up: Know your thesis and the wider historical scope backwards and forwards; defend the hell out of your thesis. Acknowledge their concerns, but if you believe in your work then do not waver from your argument and intentions. Good luck!


LAHP Doctoral Training Opportunity

Setting out their Stall: creating the East End Women’s Museum and researching women’s work at London’s markets


Dr Alana Harris (KCL), Dr Andrew Flinn (UCL) and Sarah Jackson and Sara Huws (East End Women’s Museum)


Responding to the perversion of local government planning processes in the establishment of the Jack the Ripper Museum in place of a promised space celebrating women’s history, feminists and community activists Sarah Jackson and Sara Huws are planning the creation of an East End Women’s Museum by 2018.


This project seeks to introduce doctoral students to the creative opportunities and challenges of public history and community heritage through exploring this unique opportunity for involvement in the establishment of a new museum and, secondly, to develop practical skills through contributing in tangible ways to the development of its permanent collection. Targeted at historians of gender and modern London, as well as those wishing to work with oral history or in archival and heritage management as well as cultural institutions, this intensely practical and outcome driven initiative will provide demonstrable methodological and employability skills as well as the opportunity to work with local volunteers and feminists activists.


Following an introduction to academic literatures and methodologies surrounding community-based archives, heritage and the practice of oral history, students will participate in a ‘pop up reminiscence project’ examining the history of market stalls in East London. They will undertake archival research on the economic, social and political dimensions of women’s work at East London markets (such as Crisp Street, Roman Road or Rathbone Market), conduct oral history interviews with East End residents who operated or shopped at these markets, and will then produce a series of outputs (encompassing blogs/microsites, poster displays and potential exhibitions) to feed these findings back to participants and residents as well as producing a lasting legacy for the intended museum.


Students in the first or second years of their doctoral programmes are eligible to participate. Applicants for one of the fifteen available places should forward their CV and a one-page covering letter outlining their interest in the project and its contribution to their career development to by Friday 25 November 2016. They should also be available for a preliminary meeting on Monday 12 December 2016. Thereafter, sessions will be held fortnightly on Monday evenings during semesters two and three and fieldwork will also be required on two Saturdays in May/June 2017. Chosen participants will need to commit to the entirety of the programme.



5 Must-Reads: Words and Concepts in History


In the second installment of our new series (5 Must-Reads), Tom Colville, PhD Candidate (KCL), chooses 5 books that helped him get into the complex world of concepts and words in history.


In my work on early modern conceptions of mental capacity (essentially the notion that some people have stronger, better, superior minds to other people) I try to engage as closely as possible with the historiography of words and concepts in history.  This, however, is a complex and difficult field.  So, for anyone else out there working on a concepts and words in past societies, I hope that this list of 5 books I’ve found helpful will point you in useful and challenging directions.


 Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, (London: Croon Helm, 1976).

Any list of key works in relation to words in history would be incomplete without Raymond Williams’ iconic work.  Keywords is far from problem free (it is heavily focussed upon political and social keywords at the expense of a great deal that cultural historians would consider key), however, it puts forward the truly valuable proposition that by looking at a certain set of significant and contested words we can gain an insight into the ideas and concepts which motivated historical actors and propelled past events.  Every historian now has their own list of keywords; as a prompt to debate Raymond Williams’ work is unparalleled in the field.


Iain Hampsher-Monk, Karin Tilmans, and Frank van Vree (eds.), History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998).

The history of words and concepts is one of those tricky fields of study (for English speaking historians) in which many vital contributions have stemmed from non-Anglophone countries.  This edited volume is a particularly useful way in to everything from Begriffsgeschichte to Sattelzeit and parole to taligheid.  There won’t be a methodological or theoretical question about concepts and words that isn’t at least considered in these 12 chapters by leading historians in the field.  If Williams’ Keywords is the light entré to the topic then History of Concepts offers the full three-courses alongside a good stein of German beer.


Peter de Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

Peter de Bolla’s exploration of the concept of ‘Universal Human Rights’ takes the opportunities of digital archives seriously, and uses keyword and proximity searches in order to make a real argument about how a concept is made and articulated.  The nature of this field of research is that within 3 or 4 years de Bolla’s methods will feel outdated, but this work will remain valuable because of its close engagement with relationship between words and concepts.  The notion of a concept having an ‘architecture’ is particularly insightful and will provide food-for-thought for anyone wanting to think critically about the fact that concepts are vague constructs, but with some fairly strict constraints.


Barbara Cassin (ed.), Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).

It would seem that nothing could make the relationship between words and concepts seem more brazenly complex and important, until, that is, you introduce the idea of translation.  In a sense, of course, translation is what historians of concepts do every day – they translate conceptions and meanings from a previous time period into a modern analytical framework.  However, the methodological problems are highlighted and compounded by translating between different languages.  The brain child of Barbara Cassin is surely one of the most ambitious academic projects ever attempted.  By considering the vast range of terms that remain untranslated in translations (e.g. polis and “matter of fact”), and those terms which cause the most problems to translators, Cassin’s Dictionary engages with the relationship between words and their meaning in such a way that redefines the significance of concepts.


Richard Scholar, The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe: encounters with a certain something, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

This book is not a general or theoretical work on words and concepts but it has found a spot in this list because I think it intelligently encapsulates the grey area between words and concepts in history, and the value that comes from exploring that lacuna.  Scholar’s work demonstrates that historical concepts need not be clearly articulated in order to be significant.  Moreover, his interest in the ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ provides a clear example that historical actors were often acutely aware of the limitations of language when it came to expressing significant concepts.  If, therefore, we limit our analysis to keywords then, as historians, we can artificially impose clarity or definition where the unarticulated, or inexplicable, was just as important.


Top Tips for the Part-Time History Postgrad

Once or twice a week I’ve been leaving my desk in the middle of day to swap meetings for manuscripts, reports for the Reformation.


John Amabilino (MA Early Modern History) discusses the pleasures and difficulties of part-time postgraduate study.

For almost two years I’ve been combining a career in communications with early modern history. Once or twice a week I’ve been leaving my desk in the middle of day to swap meetings for manuscripts, reports for the Reformation. How has this worked out? And could part-time study work for you too?


My part-time MA degree in Early Modern History at KCL has made me think differently about my day-to-day life. It’s also allowed me to pursue the niche historical interests which I’ve harboured since undergraduate days, read more widely, and meet fascinating people. Returning to serious study after a gap of several years has been a fantastic experience – but it’s not something to be done without some serious planning.


So what should you consider when applying?


  1. Plan and apply early: you generally apply for MA courses directly through your chosen institution – this is certainly the case at KCL. Don’t let reassuringly distant application deadlines lull you into applying late though. I actually delayed applying for a year because I’d missed various deadlines for funding support which closed around 6 months before my chosen MA was due to begin. Think seriously about your application during Christmas of the year you want to apply, and plan to apply 4-6 months in advance. Besides anticipating possible funding deadlines and helping to ensure a place on your course, this will also help you:
    1. Pull together a decent application – remember you’ll probably need supporting references and sample writing too
    2. Save towards fees/application costs/materials
    3. Make arrangements in good time with your employer



  1. Respect your employer: your wages will probably make study possible. As far as my experience goes, I’ve worked full-time in office-based jobs while studying with two different employers, private and public sector. Both have been busy career roles, so lots of notice for planning was essential. Some things to consider:
    1. I already worked flexible hours, so I made sure to check workplace policies on special and study leave. I found that my current role only allowed study leave for vocational study, but that I could apply for up to 10 days special unpaid leave.
    2. Remember that returning to study is not a one-way street: does your choice of MA bring benefits to your employer too? E.g. a highly qualified workforce, staff motivation &c.


What to consider when your studies start:


  1. Enjoy it: you may be studying towards a career change, or to broaden your intellectual horizons, and it’s crucial you give your MA the time it needs. You’ll encounter staid and badly written monographs aplenty and the novelty of being back at school quickly wanes. However, enjoying your course will make the reading and writing more worthwhile, you’ll absorb more, and working into the evening will not seem a chore. If all this fails, remember that you’re investing in yourself and have the rare opportunity to study a subject you love in a world class institution.



  1. Think of annual leave as study time: as an employed postgraduate, time is your most precious commodity. While your full-time peers may agonise over train fares to archives or the understandable urge to blow the rent money on a nice edition of Umberto Eco’s essays, you are likely to be battling for adequate study/writing time.
    1. Plan your time in advance –using a digital calendar like Google Calendar or academic Outlook can remove the risk (and angst) of double-booking. Be pragmatic – you’ll be surprised how many of your full time counterparts complain of ‘not having enough time’.
    2. Think of your annual leave simply as time to study – after the novelty of studying wears off this can be especially tough, but it’s worth the effort when you get your essay feedback
    3. Plan downtime – I’m not very good at this, but it’s crucial that you also plan time to do something neither work nor study-related.



  1. Identify ‘humps’: Your end of term essay is likely to demand the greatest concerted writing and reading time. Plan your leave well in advance around these periods of pressure, and start discussing with your course tutor what you’d like to write on around half way through term so there’s no last-minute surprises. Your dissertation is also something you’ll need to consider well in advance – I counted up free days that I had well in advance and planned around this number.


Make the most of your resources - know your London libraries!

Make the most of your resources – know your London libraries!

  1. Know your resources: KCL is not alone in providing access to superb online resources, and offering library hours which cater easily to the part-time student’s needs. Plan to research all available resources and facilities before embarking on your course. This is particularly important for those who have not studied for some time – available resources have multiplied exponentially in the last 10 years or so, and tablet computers make article reading ‘on-the-go’ a doddle. While this could just as easily apply to any student, it’s surprising how many of your peers won’t know they can access x resource or y reference library with their Student ID and password. All of JSTOR and EEBO await, and as a part-time history student these and similar resources will be invaluable. If inductions to libraries etc. are in the middle of the working day, then email the librarian and ask for an evening or weekend session.
    1. If you don’t live near to college, consider whether remote document supply services, like those operated by the British Library and the National Archives could be helpful. I’ve also found the London Library helpful in borrowing unusual titles, though bear in mind that all of these services entail a (potentially significant) cost.


I hope you’ve found this useful – best of luck with any part-time study you choose to pursue, and please feel free to leave questions or comments below.