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What is a PhD Viva? - How to prepare and strategise

Thu, 26 May, 2022

PhD Viva Meaning

A doctoral degree consists of two parts, a research work to which 90% of the doctoral degree’s time is allocated and an oral examination consisting of 20% of the evaluation or viva. It is mandatory and no student is allowed to skip.

The most terrifying thing for students after submitting their doctoral thesis is waiting to appear in an oral examination also known as Viva – commonly used terminology in the UK, while the USA use "defence" to refer to oral doctoral thesis evaluation.

One thing which every final year PhD student needs to do before entering the room for an external or panel evaluation is reassure oneself, because you are becoming a subject expert, particularly in the field of engineering.

In other words, you will be solving future problems. Therefore, it is important to use this opportunity to network and to get into an intellectual debate with industry experts rather than feel intimidated by the externals.

So, to take control of the situation, here are a few things that you can add to your preparation list, and if everything is done in the right way then there will be far less chance of something catching you by surprise.

In a rare case, the feedback given by external happens to invalidate research or render it suitable for M.Phil. level. Therefore it is important to pay attention to how you are preparing for your Viva.

Above all, remember to enjoy the process, as your years of hard work will pay off.

How to be best prepare for your doctoral defence... Photo: UnSplash
How to be best prepare for your doctoral defence... Photo: UnSplash

How to prepare for a PhD Viva...

Like every successful plan, it is important that you strategies your oral exam in three stages, start with preparation, make a checklist with a tentative deadline to keep everything organized, followed by the execution phase during the viva and post viva checklist.

Here are some pointers to help you understand how one should prepare for viva three months ahead of the examination date to viva with flying colours.

Before your Doctoral Viva

The first thing you need to know is, that your supervisor can not participate in the examination, he or she can only act as an observer. You will be alone in the examination, therefore you need to prepare everything in advance. Secondly, post-graduation viva is equal to an event for many institutes, sometimes they ask students enrolled in MSc. Or MPhil to participate. However, in the UK, the oral examination is conducted in a closed room with restricted access. Also, the policy may vary depending on your university.

Apart from being an observer, the supervisor plays an important role in the timely completion of your doctoral degree, from the very beginning of your thesis submission and selection of examiner. Also, he or she is responsible for making all the arrangements such as coordinating availability, venue selection, and mode of viva - onsite or online – for both student and external examiner.

Viva date allocation and external examiner selection take a maximum of three months from the date of submission, a hard copy of the doctoral thesis. In the meantime, it is recommended to read your thesis at least three times and prepare a presentation that addresses key aspects of your research. It should also include a summary of each chapter.

Another thing that you can do is to request your supervisor to arrange a mock viva to practice your doctoral speech. In between, you can note down questions and points raised by the mock examiners and also enlist the good and bad points about your response. It will help you improvise and improve your delivery.

The most significant step is to research your examiner and read through their research work to familiarize yourself with the examiners' expertise and style.

Lastly, invest your time to create a checklist of frequently asked by externals evaluator.

During your Viva

Often PhD students think the viva is a rapid-fire round in which you need to answer quickly. Contrary, it is completely the opposite. Therefore, you must take your time to understand the question and ask the examiner for any clarification if needed. Also, it is of equal importance to provide an answer in the same format.

Remember, during viva assessment examiner is obliged to provide a constructive critique of your research, it can address both the weakness and strengths, one encounter while reading through your work. This does not mean to take it to heart, rather, it means to provide a logical argument backed by your findings or the literature. Additionally, PhD viva is an open book examination and you can bring supportive material such as your reference material or notebook along with you.

Post-Viva preparation

The final stage of every PhD viva is to invest time in making amendments and minor corrections to the thesis and resubmitting your work. Afterwards, you can celebrate with your loved ones that have achieved the greatest level of education.

What does PhD Viva mean? Photo: UnSplash
What does PhD Viva mean? Photo: UnSplash

Typical PhD Viva questions asked by external

  1. Summarize PhD thesis in two or three minutes.
  2. What is your rationale for selecting a particular subject?
  3. What original contribution has your research made to the subject matter?
  4. What limitations did you encounter during the research degree
  5. What future recommendations do you suggest?
  6. If you take on the same research project in future, what changes you would make in it?
  7. What recent development has been made in your field, and how does your study contribute to it?

Checklist for PhD viva preparation

  • Read through your thesis
  • Prepared a summary for each chapter
  • Create tabs in your thesis to reach specific diagrams and chapters quickly during the viva
  • Prepare a speech to explain your study in three minutes, answering how your study contributes to the society or industry and fit into the big picture
  • Read the newly published research article after submission of your thesis
  • Prepare answers for frequently asked questions
  • Have a hard copy of your thesis to hand
  • Talk to your senior and ask for advice to pass PhD viva
  • Participated in mock viva


Discover more from NSIRC:

Advice from NSIRC graduates (now Dr's) on how to survive your PhD Viva

Structural Integrity Theses research from our PhD Researchers