Preparing for viva – Khwanita style

I passed my viva voce (a PhD oral exam, aka thesis/dissertation defense) with minor corrections in July and celebrated my graduation three days afterward (by wearing a proper robe and funny hat and taking pictures with my colleagues and friends). Now that the result of my degree has been published, I think it’s time to share with you some aspects of my viva preparation. I will blog my thesis writing and submission experience in another post.

Many of my friends said, ‘You’ll be great’. This sounded reassuring, but how to be or feel ‘great’ in my viva was an important question I asked myself because I did not just want to pass but to perform well. I learned from my supervisors and those who had passed their viva before me (I haven’t met anyone who did not pass theirs yet). I also read around advices from books and the web on how to ‘survive’ a viva. Nevertheless, each thesis is different and so is the viva. Hence, the following are some strategies I found useful for me in my very viva – Khwanita style!

Two weeks before viva

After submitting my thesis, working as an exam invigilator, taking some day trips, volunteering at the International Society, watching episodes of Sherlock Holmes (1980s), and teaching my language, I began the preparation process exactly two weeks before my viva. Richard, my main supervisor suggested that I should not start too soon. I didn’t ask him why, but I understood that preparing too soon would stress me out and I could get exhausted and bored of the preparation and my own thesis. The two-week period worked for me as it was not too short; I had 14 days to go, yet it was not too far away from the actual day it gave me some adrenaline, I think, to be alert and of course to be nervous.

Mock viva

I’m a nervous person and I always need a lot of preparation for any of my performance until I feel ready. So, when Richard asked how much prep I needed, I replied, ‘as much as I can’. Richard was as very kind as always to give me his time (altogether, we met for four times in two weeks!) When we met, we had a mock viva in which Richard pretended to be a/an (not-very- kind and once or twice a nasty) external examiner. We then discussed the strategies for answering different types of questions. These strategies included listening to the questions carefully and knowing what exactly the question is; asking for clarification; taking time to think; giving specific answers and linking them to the thesis; and talking about broader literature. I was struggling in the first couple sessions, but Richard said nobody is ready for the viva until the viva day!

Overcoming nerves

About one week before the viva, the nerves got me. I was sick and grew more nervous, but I did much better in the third mock viva. Further, I received an email from my co supervisor, Susan Brown reminding me about my performance in giving papers and being selected to be a finalist in the UoM Three-Minute Thesis competition. Her message reminded me of what I generally do well when speaking publicly. I thought about my viva differently ever since. In my previous presentations (as reflected in some of my previous posts HERE), I always aimed to entertain the audience rather than boring them with the descriptive details of my PhD, to let them know who I am as a person, to be fluent, confident but with humility plus some sense of humour. Suddenly, I said to myself and my husband that I would entertain my examiners in my viva! I felt more excited than nervous and couldn’t wait for the day to come. I was also able to project some positive images and the outcomes of the viva in my head.

Extracting gist

Many people said that I should know my thesis inside out (approx. 72,000 word-long). This is supposed to be true, but still I needed to be certain about where things were and how I talked about them in the thesis. I could not memorise them word-for-word, but instead, I divided the thesis into basic areas, namely: motivation, contextual background, conceptual framework, research design, methods, data analysis, findings, implications and contributions. Then, I zoomed into each area, extracted the gist of each area and identified the main points. For instance, I identified the four main features of my research design, namely: 1) a qualitative case study; 2) a multiple-method study; 3) an insider research; and 4) a multilingual research. These were the main points I would like to highlight in the viva and not something too general, trivial, irrelevant or something that could weaken the thesis (I discuss how I talked about ‘limitations’ in another post). In addition, as most examiners are kind, they would normally make us at ease in the viva room. Most of them would begin by asking us to talk about the overall picture (a summary) of the thesis. I was certain that I could prepare this summary to get off to a good start.

Structuring answers by taking notes

A strategy I learned from Murray’s (2011) book ‘How to write a thesis’ was structuring my answers by taking notes. In the mock and the actual one, I wrote down the keywords of the examiners’ questions. Doing so helped me to keep calm and as the keywords were in front of me, it reminded me of the actual question. I therefore stayed focused on answering the question (rather than straying away or ‘digging my own grave’ – Richard’s words). Then, I outlined my answer by writing keywords or phrases. For example, I had a question regarding my contribution beyond Thailand’s context. I was thinking that I could talk about the contribution to the body of knowledge in TESOL. While listing the three areas (the strategy I described earlier) on my notepad, I said it aloud to my examiners before telling them that I would explain each area shortly. After the viva, my internal examiner said that although she was puzzled in the beginning, she found the note-taking strategy really efficient.

On the viva day

After a good two weeks of intensive preparation, I finally felt ready for my viva. Luckily, everything went as planned. I received about 15 questions, 11 or 12 of which I had expected and prepared my answers for. I did not get any tricky questions and most of my answers seemed to satisfy my examiners. The examiners provided useful suggestions which would help strengthen my thesis. So, all in all, I could say that I enjoyed my viva and was pleased with my performance.


(From left) Dr Richard Fay (main supervisor), Dr Zeynep Onat-Stelma (internal examiner) and Dr Will Baker (external examiner)


Finally, I am grateful for EVERYONE who helped me directly and indirectly so I could own a positive viva experience. Thank you for reading this long message and I hope you find some aspects of it useful. Good luck and enjoy your viva.

A post-viva celebration. Thanks everyone!