The Viva: Getting ready for the big day!

Hello everyone,

This piece is dedicated to members of the Doctoral Community who are approaching the end of their journeys. Well Done! You have made it to this final stage. I thought I would share with you some tips for getting ready for the big day, and you are more than welcome to add your own insights, suggestions, and even questions. As with my former piece on writing-up this one is also relatively long 🙂 .

1) In my opinion, the most significant aspect of preparing for the viva is how you perceive your own work. The examiner’s evaluation of your thesis is important, but what is more so is the value of your contribution in your own eyes. You should always try to maintain a feeling of inner peace and satisfaction with the 3/4+  years of hard work invested in crafting this significant piece of research as well as a sense of pride in your academic accomplishments regardless of the dynamics or the outcome of your viva. Easier said than done?.. Maybe.. but you have to try. After all, by the time you complete your thesis, you will know more about your specific topic than your supervisors and your examiners. Even if there are corrections to be made, this will only make your thesis better. However, if you know deep inside that you have not given it what it deserves, that’s another story.

2) We need to realize that the stress typically associated with the viva is not only related to our performance on the day, but there can be deeper underlying sources of pressure such as fear of ‘shaming’ your supervisors, disappointing your family, running into (more) debts, or losing a potential job opportunity.  Moments of reflection can help in pointing out the exact source(s) of viva tension and addressing it/them.

3) What adds another layer of complexity is the fact that the viva though marks the end of a PhD also signals the beginning of a new – and often ambiguous – stage in our lives. Personally, I used to have mixed feelings in this regard. On the one hand, I was pleased that I will soon complete my studies and stop thinking about teacher cognition and technology use day in day out, but on the other hand, there was a shade of sadness as I was soon leaving it all.. supervisors, friends, LTE, Manchester.. etc. Actually, I think the Doctoral Community blog has helped reduce the intensity of these feelings for I remained a member of my old group but in a different capacity.

4) Unfortunately, what contributes to this feeling of loss is the attitude of the University itself. If you end up with minor corrections, your IT account closes down some weeks after your viva in a bit of an abrupt “Thank you and goodbye!”. This means that you no longer have access to main university facilities.  However, it’s good to know that although you lose access to your email account the latter does not close down. A good advice that an IT personnel offered me was to direct my university email to another (personal) one. This way even if people continue to send emails to my student account I will still get them even when I longer have access to it. And don’t forget to apply for an alumni library card for it offers you limited on-site access to library facilities (incl. journals) especially if you plan to publish parts of your thesis.

5) It is crucial to talk to fellow PhD students at a similar stage of their studies or recent graduates about your feelings for sometimes it’s good to know that certain (seemingly strange) thoughts or emotions are also experienced by others.

6) Confidence is key to any oral examination especially the viva, but as we know, it is not developed overnight. Contributing to conferences and seminars provides you with opportunities to present your work to different audiences, to defend aspects of it, and to develop a wide range of personal and interpersonal skills.

7) Some students like to choose their external examiners themselves. I have no problem with that but your supervisor’s opinion is very important in this regard especially if you don’t know your potential examiner in person.

8 ) It is wise to familiarize yourself with the work of your external (and possibly internal) examiner even if it is not directly related to your thesis, for it is a reflection of their frame of reference and epistimological stance which s/he will inevitably draw upon.

9) One interesting way of preparing for a viva is to sit in one (or more). I sat in a friend’s viva two weeks before mine, which taught me so much about PhD defense. For example a) I realized that there was nothing really to be anxious about, b) the line of questioning made me think about my own thesis and as I was taking down her examiners’ questions I started to think about how I would respond to similar queries, c) I was the first to congratulate my friend when they told her she had passed! Because of this positive experience, I was happy to invite other students to my viva.. (and believe me, you will be too busy to notice their presence). Also, there is an assumption that students don’t like others to attend their viva. This might be true (and we should respect their right not to have anyone there), but interestingly, sometimes people find comfort in having others in the room. For example, after my defense, I offered to sit in a colleagues’ viva when I felt he was a bit anxious and he was very appreciative. If, however, you don’t wish other students to be present, don’t hesitate to decline their requests no matter how close they are to you. Perhaps the only disadvantage of sitting in someone else’s viva is the tendency to compare, especially if you get a relatively longer viva, less friendly examiners, smaller room, or a more complex set of questions 🙁 .

10) I didn’t realize the importance of a mock viva until I had one. It helps you see unclear areas in your work and to develop better arguments especially if there is say a week’s time between the mock viva and the actual one. Audio recording your mock viva is also very useful for in addition to helping you review the questions asked, you listen to the feedback, have the chance to evaluate your own responses, and better articulate your ideas. After my mock viva, I wrote notes in my thesis next to the sections that needed further clarification. This was very helpful during the actual viva for the sequence of my arguments was already there 😉 .

11) One thing I became sure about after my viva was the importance of knowing one’s thesis inside-out, for questions can go into very minute details. Color-coding sections in your document is helpful in this respect. At the same time, one has to be familiar with the outer boundaries of one’s work (e.g., the general interviewing literature).. and still there is no guarantee for the types of questions one might get.

12) Another tip for preparing for your viva is to go over the notes (and possibly transcripts) of your meetings with your supervisors, right from the beginning. They help you see what paths you have chosen to follow or not to follow and why (this ‘why’ often comes up in questions). If you have kept a researcher diary throughout your PhD, this is the time to review it.

13) In my former writing-up piece I mentioned the importance of proof-reading your thesis (especially if you are a non-native speaker of English). Well, even if you do that, you might still discover a typo here, a phrase that should have been deleted there. In case of such minor errors, just ignore them with the hope that your examiner won’t notice them 🙂 .

.. If, however, after submission you notice a serious problem with your thesis caused by say the university IT system (eg. change in thesis format, or section numbering), you have to mention that to your supervisor right away. To avoid such stressful situation, is advisable to convert the final draft of your thesis into PDF on your machine and then print it anywhere you wish.

14) Having a list/ lists of possible viva questions is essential for preparing for the day. After attempting to answer these questions, you can ask a friend or a colleague (preferably from the same school) to go over some of them with you. This does not have to be a dull encounter in a dark corner in the library. On the contrary, I had a session with a friend in a coffee shop the day before her viva and it was quite fun.

15) The following are sets of typical viva questions that I have collected over time. I encourage you to add to them so we have a complete collection 🙂 .

a)   This list was kindly offered by Julian Edge:

  1. What motivated you to get involved in this research?
  2. Which other researchers did you find most useful or influential on your thinking?
  3. What made you decide to design the research in the way you did? What alternatives did you consider?
  4. Did your fieldwork change the research in any way?
  5. What led you to analyse the data in the ways that you did? What alternatives did you consider?
  6. What methods did you use to corroborate your findings?
  7. How will the outcomes of this research actually contribute, do you think, to work in this environment? Do you have plans?
  8. You also talk about a contribution to the literature, how do you think that that might be taken forward?
  9. Do you believe that you have made any specific methodological contribution?
  10. What do you see as the greatest weakness of the research?
  11. What are you most pleased about?
  12. Is there anything that we haven’t asked you about that you would like to say about your research?

b) The following are some questions that were taken down during my viva (Thanks, Eljee!):

  1. Tell us more why you chose this study?
  2. What aspects of your study are you particularly proud of and if you could do it differently, what would you do?
  3. Why did you choose to do a case study as opposed to other approaches?
  4. Why did you use “cognition” (terminology)? What’s the relationship between “cognition” and “belief”? How about “cognition” and “practice”?
  5. Would you consider doing more case studies or use a different approach?
  6. There seems to be a contradiction between the research questions and the data.  Can you clarify?
  7. You use a lot of instruments, why didn’t you present how they were related to each other?
  8. Why is some data not used in the final data set?  Where did that data go?
  9. Are you familiar with the concept of co-construction, the issue of the interviewer with regards to insider researcher?
  10. What was the process of saturation and how did the categories emerge?
  11. What are the ethical issues?

c)   The following are additional questions that I took down in my friend’s viva:

  1. What brought you into this? What was your motivation?
  2. Please describe your participants.
  3. What do you mean by (definition of certain terms)?
  4. What have you done to minimize researcher bias? What is your epistimological stance in this regard (the role of the researcher)?
  5. How did you manage your data? For example, did you use a software?
  6. How did you develop your literature review? How did you chose the articles in the literature review chapter?
  7. Could you please talk us through the process of analysis?
  8. How did you know that your codes were saturated?
  9. Are the names of the people mentioned in your thesis their real names? Do you mention anything about that in your thesis?

16) Preferred questioning styles may vary from one examiner to another. For example, you might get questions in the negative. e.g. “you don’t seem to have an organized structure for..” and you know for sure you have added a table for that. Don’t panic! Relax, find the information, and present your evidence. It is therefore important to mark your thesis, and a mock viva might signal areas for potential questions.

17) If you encounter a question that you don’t know the answer to, again don’t panic or try to make up an answer. First, ask the examiner to re-phrase it. If you still don’t get it, then admit that you don’t know the answer and maybe state that this is an area that you wish to explore further.. and move on (don’t continue to think about that  %#@$* question for it might distract you from answering others).

18) Some examiners tell students that they have passed at the beginning of the viva and some don’t. I wasn’t told, but my examiners started the session by telling me that this was an opportunity to celebrate my work and the discussion progressed as a formal/serious interaction. Some examiners can get a bit too serious, or insist on a point that you might think is totally insignificant. Remain calm, defend your position, and don’t let any of this throw you off or shake your self-confidence. At the same time, we need to accept the fact that there are different ways of perceiving the same text. So, it’s a matter of finding the right balance, which you can only achieve if your mind is clear and your emotions are stable, and that in turn happens when you are at peace with yourself (as mentioned in point #1).

19) During the viva itself, if you really feel the need for a break, ask for one. Remember, this is not a police investigation!

20) The University of Manchester offers various resources that you can make use of as you prepare for your viva:

  • There is a detailed video on the University website on what one might expect on the day. It is called “The Good Viva Video”  accessible through the left-hand side menu on this page.
  • Humanities Skills Training offer a useful course by the title “Viva Survivor” which you can join.
  • The DOC BLOG for PGRs (by Humanities Skills training) also has a very helpful entry on the viva entitled “How to survive your viva”. It also has a long and comprehensive set of typical viva questions.
  • Humanities Skills Training have also directed me to this article:
    Harding, S. (2009). Training for the viva examination: A translation studies student perspective. The Interpreter and Translator Trainer, 3(1), 29-46.  (It is freely available on the Internet, as it seems)

21) You might also have a quick look at these references on the topic:

Watts, H. J. (2011). Preparing doctoral candidates for the viva: issues for students and supervisors. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 1-11, iFirst Article.

Wellington, J. (2010). Supporting students’ preparation for the viva: Their pre-conceptions and implications for practice. Teaching in Higher Education, 15(1), 71-84.

22) Finally, don’t spend the night before your viva reading through your thesis. Rather, go over main points and marked sections, and do something you like (e.g. go out for a walk, meet friends, watch football..).

23) .. and of course the typical question: What to wear to the viva? In such situations it is better to err on the side of caution and dress a bit more formally (in this article on it is stated that “it is often the case that dressing formally focuses the mind for the task ahead. If you are neat and tidy in appearance, perhaps your thoughts will be well ordered too”.. Maybe). However, make sure that whatever you wear is comfortable. Your viva might last for two hours, so there is no need for additional tension because of a tight belt or an uncomfortable pair shoes!

24) Make sure you are there a bit early.. and before you leave, have you remembered to take your thesis with you (and maybe a small bottle of water)?

Now, all that’s remaining is to wish you all the best.. Congratulations in advance, Doctor!



Related post: Lighten-up Your Writing-up