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!