Surviving your Viva – Getting it (Ph)Done

It has been 3+ years since you began your journey as a graduate; fresh-faced and ready for action.  From your first day to your first data set, you’ve been spurred on by the potentially life-changing results that come through hard work and persistence; it has been a rollercoaster of good days and bad days, encouraging data sets and disheartening data sets, but despite all of the ups and downs, you have come through the tunnel and are fast approaching the end of your PhD.

As you approach the final hurdles, you may start to panic (I still need more data!) but do not despair, you WILL make it through.  Keep your head down and make that final push towards the end, I promise you, it is worth it.

You will have been glued to your PC/laptop for the past number of months trying to amalgamate your mountains of data and methodologies into several coherent chapters to produce a well-written, professional-looking thesis.  This is your prized possession, it has taken 99.99% of your life energy to create, but now, as you look at it in all its entirety, you can’t help but feel intensely proud of yourself for making it through.

Once you have handed in your thesis, you will organise to have an expert in your field travel to your university to examine you in a 2-3 hr Viva.  This is the final hurdle of your journey which can evoke a whole host of mixed emotions which change in their intensity as the date gets closer and closer.

You will feel a great relief once you have handed in your thesis, while also wondering what to do with all of this free time that you suddenly have.

I will outline some tips that I hope will help you in the time you have before the big day.  I will also try and advise you on what to do/not do during the viva and also, the ever important post-viva celebrations.

Before the viva 

  1. Take a break once you have handed in your thesis.  Your body and mind will need sufficient recovery and relaxation after an intense 3+ years of hard work (at least a fortnight).  I suggest going on holiday somewhere that will completely relax your mind and body with friends/family.
  2. Before entering into your viva, where you will face an expert in your field, I suggest downloading and reading through the papers your external examiner has published. It does not have to be every single paper they have ever published but it should definitely include those that are most relevant to the work you have carried out in your thesis. By reading these papers closely, you should be able to have a fair idea about what kind of angle they will approach when asking questions about your thesis (i.e. Will their questions be more molecular-based or do they tend to focus on the bigger picture of the research?)
  3. Read around your subject – Knowledge is power; remember, the viva is a conversation between you and the external examiner.  They want to know what you have learned during your time carrying out your work.  This includes having a broad knowledge of your area and areas that are closely-related.  It pays off to know about studies in different organisms whereby perhaps they have used similar techniques as you or even different techniques in the same organism you have been studying.
  4. Make a list of mock viva questions – Writing out every conceivable question you think you may be asked will pay dividends in the long run.  If you can think of a question to ask yourself about your work, write it down, along with the most detailed answer you can think of.  By doing so, you will have made yourself think critically about your work, and by getting it down on paper you can see what you know/what you don’t know. When you have done this, you do not have to learn each answer off by heart; however I do advise learning off key questions like “What impact/broad implications will your research have on the current state of the field?” and “Briefly describe your thesis, explaining where you have made a contribution of knowledge to the field”.
  5. Have a mock viva  – Ask your supervisor to have a mock viva interview with you so that they can ask you questions about your thesis.  This will identify areas of your thesis that you are unsure about/not 100% confident answering and will therefore make you much more confident about the thesis overall when the real viva day comes around. You can also ask PhD students or Post-docs in your building to ask you questions regarding your research so that they can ask you questions you may not have thought about.  By engaging with people outside your area, they can identify fundamental points of your research that  you may have overlooked because you might have thought they were obvious.  Before your viva date, you will want to know your thesis inside and out, be able to answer any question regarding any method, result or idea that you have discussed or presented in your thesis. Ensure that you know your ‘Introduction’ chapter in great detail as this is what the examiner will most likely spend the vast majority of the viva talking about.

During your viva

  1. When you meet your external examiner for the first time, be polite and engage with them.  Be confident, you are there to defend your work that you have been doing for over 3 years; no one knows it better than you! Do not be intimidated by your examiner, they are nervous too; think of it as the greatest opportunity to discuss your work with a leading expert in your field, this is a rare occurrence and will not  come around again.
  2. Take your time when answering questions about your work; pause for a moment and really think about what is being asked.  When answering a question, make eye contact and maintain an enthusiastic expression to show you are engaging them with a positive attitude about your work. Make sure you take regular sips of water throughout your viva; you will be speaking for long periods (up to 90 minutes at a time) so you want to make sure you are well hydrated.
  3. Do not be afraid to ask an examiner to repeat or rephrase a question so that you understand what they are asking. There is no point trying to answer what you think they asked when you could simply ask them to repeat their question for your own clarity.
  4. When you engage with your examiner and begin to have conversations over certain topics, do not be afraid to ask their opinion! It is enlightening to hear experts in your field discuss their opinions on certain aspects of your work while you give your own.  As your viva goes on, you will relax into it and be able to perform much better.  Do not be disheartened at the start of your viva, as it can take 5-10 minutes to really settle into the flow of it.

After your viva

  1. Once your viva is over, you will wait outside while the examiners come to a decision about the outcome.  This is probably the most nerve-wracking time, so I suggest getting a glass of water and a biscuit to replenish your energy levels which will probably be taking a dip at this point.  If a friend is nearby or outside, engage in conversation, this will help to relax you and make the time move faster (or so you think).
  2. Once you have been given the outcome of your viva, thank the external for taking the time out of their schedule to be there today.  It will be a huge relief when it is over, go see your friends and fellow PhD students to tell them the good news.  The time in between post-viva and graduation is a strange ‘limbo’ and it probably won’t hit you that you are now a Doctor of Philosophy.  That moment will come when you walk across the stage during your graduation.

Those are my tips for the entire viva process, I hope that at least some of them will be helpful to students getting ready for their own viva.

As always, leave comments or questions either down below or find me on Twitter (@drmikeographer).

Thank you for taking the time to read this – Dr. Mike 🙂


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