There are already quite a few excellent blog posts available on how to prepare for a doctoral viva. I don’t want to simply repeat what has been said elsewhere but thought I would provide some of my own thoughts on the doctoral viva. I have been a PhD student, PhD and DPA supervisor and PhD examiner. My thoughts are based on this experience though I would also freely admit that I am still learning. Being awarded a doctoral level degree does not mark the end of a process – it is a recognition that you are ready to start on the next stage.
This post was inspired by a question at the recent Doctoral Workshop at the PAC Annual Conference (a free workshop for doctoral students from PAC member institutions). The question was about how best to prepare for the viva. I hope some of the below will, at the very least, provide some reassurance if you are about to have your viva. Do though speak to your supervisors regularly in the run up to your viva – they will always be best placed to advise you.
1. You are ready
The first thing I would stress is that, by the time you have submitted your thesis, you will have spent anywhere between 3-7 years preparing for your viva. All the time you have spent reading, writing and researching is preparation time. No-one will have prepared more for the viva than you have – and no-one will know more about your thesis than you do. That said, there are some things you can do to help get ready for your viva and to avoid some of the more common pitfalls.
2. Be active in choice of examiner
It is important that you contribute to discussions around the selection of examiner. You should by now have presented at a number of academic conferences and you may have a view on who you would, or would not, like to have as an examiner. It’s important that you have a discussion with your supervision team about potential options and that your views are taken into account. That said, the final decision is likely to rest with your director of studies and will need to be ratified by a committee within the university.
3. Know your examiner
Of course an examiner cannot be a close friend, family, co-author, former or current employee. But you should get to know your examiner through their academic work. For example, some academics are very interested in methodology and philosophy of research methods whilst others have a much more pragmatic approach to research. This will significantly alter the type of questions you might expect to get and even the type of answers the examiner may be looking for. Likewise some academics have methodological preferences with some highly focused on quantitative methods, others have a strong preference for qualitative and (you guessed it) some lean towards mixed methods. This is something that your supervision team should take carefully into account when selecting an examiner – but again it’s important that you input to these discussions.
4. Reference your examiner
It is also important that you know your examiners academic publications. What journals have they published in, which editorial boards do they sit on, what are their most cited articles, what is the general theme of their research? Yes, do reference the work of your examiner, also reference their journal (if they are a journal editor) and it’s also worth taking note of their co-authors.
5. Do a mock
Again your supervisor should set up a mock viva for you but if this doesn’t happen then you should be proactive in organising your own mock viva. Ideally this should be with someone who has significant experience of examining doctoral work and the mock should be as true to life as possible. This will help you practice your answers and overall approach to the viva. It’s worth getting someone to observe or you may want to record the mock in order to review back.
6. Think about your answers
When it comes to the viva it is likely that you will feel nervous, excited, energised or all of the above! Undoubtedly adrenaline will be taking effect. In these circumstances it is really important to take a breath before you answer any question – don’t just rush in with the first thing that comes into your head. Silence in the room can seem daunting and you may feel the urge simply to speak in order to avoid awkward silences. But it is important to listen carefully to the question, think carefully about your answer, and then speak.
7. Answer the question you are asked – not the question you want to answer
So take your time, think, clarify, think, reply. I really want to stress the importance of listening carefully to the question being asked. It’s essential that you understand the question, think, and then answer the question. If you are not sure what the examiners mean by their question then ask for clarification. It can be quite frustrating for an examiner when a doctoral candidate gives political answers to viva questions (in other words answering the question you want to answer rather than the question you were asked). Likewise it is important not to digress or ramble as this can also be quite frustrating and you run the risk of opening up lines of questioning that the examiner hadn’t anticipated by addressing other topics or issues. So remember, listen to the question, clarify if needs be, think, and then answer.
8. Accept flaws and bounded rationality
A PhD is by nature an in-depth study of a highly specialised topic. That means that you will be expected to be highly proficient within the area that you have studied. You will also be expected to have some understanding of the wider academic literature and methods and how your work is located within the broader field. But should absolutely not be expected to be expert in everything.
With particular concepts or bodies of literature that you have used within your thesis you will be expected to be highly knowledgeable. There may be key authors within the wider academic subject-area that again you would be expected to be familiar with. Doing some relevant teaching while you are completing your doctoral research can really help with this broader preparation. But you should not be expected to be expert in all literature, all academics, all concepts. We all have limits to our knowledge and it is important that we acknowledge those. Therefore it is ok to say that you don’t know, that the examiner has raised an interesting point that you hadn’t previously considered or that you had considered it but had chosen to focus on something else. What you should do in these circumstances is try to shift the focus back to what you did do – not what you didn’t do. So, for example, yes, I hadn’t considered that particular analytical framework but within the scope of this piece of research I did focus on this analytical framework and that was relevant for this particular research because x, y, z.
9. Stick to what you did and not what you could have done / didn’t do
One, fairly common, type of unhelpful question goes along the lines of “why did you not do a questionnaire” or “couldn’t you have used Foucaulian Discourse Analysis” or “don’t you think you should have conducted more focus groups”. These are unhelpful in that they focus on what you have not done rather than what you did do. It’s not your job, strictly speaking, to defend what you didn’t do – but to defend what you did do. As noted above there may be things outwith the bounds of the thesis that you should be familiar with – but it shouldn’t be necessary to defend what you didn’t do. Nonetheless this type of question may well come up so it’s important to be prepared.
10. Own the process
The PhD / DBA / DProf is a process, it is a product, and importantly it is a person – you are receiving a doctorate on the basis of your knowledge and ability to conduct academic research. So you may be asked about things that are not within your thesis. It is important that you can engage in these questions. You should also be prepared to acknowledge the things within your thesis that you would do differently if you were to do it again – you should recognise that the thesis represents the result of a learning process. That learning process does not end with the production of the thesis but will continue far beyond your formal doctoral studies. You should therefore be able to reflect on the process and the journey that you have taken. But first and foremost you represent the doctorate moreso than the thesis so it is ok to diverge from what was written, don’t be overly defensive of the work, and demonstrate that you are continuing to develop and learn as an independent researcher. You will have spent many years preparing for the viva. Undoubtedly there will have been many ups and downs. The viva is your opportunity to talk about that process, about what you have learned, what you did, what you didn’t do, what you would do differently and how your work represents an original contribution to knowledge. You will be discussing this with examiners who are also experts in your subject area, who have read your thesis and who will be really interested in what you have to say – that may not happen again! So yes, enjoy it!
Some other useful sources