Well done on getting to the stage of preparing for a PhD viva!
There is some useful viva advice also at
- http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/jan/08/how-to-survive-a-phd-viva-17-top-tips and also at
- Galway’s PhD viva guide http://www.nuigalway.ie/media/graduatestudies/files/phdvivaguide/phd_viva_guide.pdf
Make sure to take time before the viva to read the thesis a couple of times, and make sure to get a good night’s rest in the run up to the viva
Remember that the day is about you and your work so try and enjoy it. It is not that common that you will get two people who have read everything you have written and want to spend time discussing it with you so try to enjoy!
Generally examiners are genuinely interested in the topic and want to have a discussion about interesting aspects of it. I generally think that if they ask difficult questions then this is a good sign (because they think you can answer).
The viva itself – UK vivas usually have an external examiner, an internal examiner and possibly a chair (some universities do not require a chair; some also provide the possibility to record the viva). Universities also often permit one supervisor to attend the viva.
During the viva, the examiners may start by asking you to do a short presentation on why you became interested in this topic and what you think the original contribution is so have 5 – 10 minutes or so prepared on this. They might not ask for this but it is common.
Vivas typically last 1-2 hours but can last longer. If you need a comfort break at any time just ask for one; that is a reasonable request.
Usually, the external examiner will lead with questions with internal chipping in from time to time. The chair will probably open but not say much after that. The supervisor if present pretty much never speaks, but it is good to have someone there who can take notes for possible amendments.
Questions: they will always want to know what is original and significant about the thesis. Sometimes this gets asked in different ways or a combination of them (be prepared for any or all of the following in one form or another):
- What is the ‘thesis of your thesis’? Or what is your research question and your conclusion on that question? What is your argument?
- What does your thesis add to human knowledge? How does this differ from what XYZ have said?
- How did you establish this rigorously (ie what is your methodology)? How robust is the methodology?
Examiners are entitled to go off on a tangent and often do. Do not be afraid to address them if they do and you feel you can – the examiners will be interested to hear your thoughts – but also be prepared to bring them back to what you say you establish. Always keep focused in your own mind on the above questions as they are your ‘go-to’ place.
Bring a copy of your thesis; you might find it useful to use post-its or something so you can quickly find what you think are the most important parts. Examiners often ask (on page 67 you say…) so a copy is essential. And similarly if you can remember where in the thesis you address a point you might want to refer the examiners to it.
Be prepared to answer questions both in detail and also briefly. Examiners do not like a large number of short one sentence answers. They like to know the candidate has researched and thought extensively.
At the same time, they do not like long meandering answers which do not answer the question. So be prepared to answer in detail at length but also to sum up where necessary key messages in a sentence or two. It is a question of balance also – a viva of one sentence answers or very very long answers may not go down well. I like point 8 in http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/jan/08/how-to-survive-a-phd-viva-17-top-tips
Try to remember the examiners are there to have a dialogue with you and listen to your thoughts. The worst vivas are where the candidate becomes defensive – remember the examiners are not out to ‘get’ you but to learn from you and have a genuine conversation. Try to set a tone of genuine interest and intellectual curiosity.
If they ask difficult questions this is a good sign – it means they think you are able to give interesting answers to them.
At the end, the examiners and chair will confer in private and then call you back for a verbal decision (technically it is a recommendation to the university).
UK universities have a number of different viva results as you know. The Ulster rules for example are:
10.6. For a submission for the degree of PhD the report of the Board of Examiners shall recommend:
a) that the degree should be awarded, or
b) that the degree should be awarded subject to minor corrections to the thesis being made, or to clarifications and/or enhancements being completed, to the satisfaction of the internal examiner within three months of the oral examination in accordance with the definition of ‘minor corrections’ as detailed in the Handbook for Examiners, or
c) that the degree should be awarded subject to corrections to the thesis being made to the satisfaction of the internal examiner within six months of the oral examination in accordance with the definition of ‘corrections’ as detailed in the Handbook for Examiners, or
d) that the candidate should revise and resubmit the thesis for the degree of PhD, or
e) that the candidate should revise and resubmit the thesis for the degree of MPhil, or
f) that the candidate should be awarded the degree of MPhil subject to the presentation of an amended thesis in accordance with the provisions for the presentation of a thesis for the degree of MPhil.
g) that the degree should not be awarded and no resubmission permitted
Of these, the most common by far are b,c,d. In practice, any of these usually mean you will get the PhD sooner or later. An award without corrections is unusual though not unheard of.
I sometimes get asked ‘’How many details of how many authors would you recommend me to remember?’
I would not try to memorise details by heart, but you will be expected to know names and key influences. And you might be expected to discuss in some detail how your work relates to some of the major figures cited. I could imagine questions along the lines of which authors have most influenced the work, and perhaps more importantly how does your analysis add to or challenge the analysis of some of the key authors you cite writing in these fields.
I also sometimes get asked ‘ I have reviewed the literature included in the thesis and I have also read some new literature. How far should I go with this update? Is it common to be asked about new books-articles in the field?’
If something is very new ie post your submission then examiners might ask about it to hear your views but would not create problems if you have not had a chance to read. If of course you have and can discuss then that makes for a more interesting viva. But the focus will be on the research available when you were writing the thesis. It is not uncommon for examiners to suggest you might look at specific authors if you have not already.
Good, luck and remember: it is your day! These people have read every word in your thesis. ENJOY!