Ph.D Viva Preparation Tips

Every Ph.D examination is different.

I say this not only as a matter of fact, with the procedure itself varying considerably, but given that every Doctoral thesis is unique, the course of the viva is also unique.

Nonetheless, I am compelled to share some viva preparation tips from my recent examination that I hope will be useful to prospective viva survivors out there.

And so, below is a list of six different viva preparation tips. They are not presented in order of importance, but rather in a sequence which is intuitive to read and understand.

[UPDATE: find a podcast which supplements this post here]

Reading and preparing your thesis for the examination

First things first: read your thesis. Ideally, do so after a sizeable break from the final edit.

When reading your thesis, carefully note any typos (if you have any) to go back to later. Don’t let them bother you. Also, don’t amend them yet. It’s vital you have the same thesis that you submitted so that you and your examiners are quite literally on the same page.

It’s also useful to fold over or mark different chapters or key sections so you can quickly find particular pages on the day — the more you fumble about, the longer the silences and the more exam-like the viva will be. Being able to respond as quickly as possible will ensure things move along more like a regular meeting or conversation.

It’s also worth getting someone else to read your thesis, if you can. Ask an informed novice, and get them to make notes about any sections that are unclear or confusing — these will be the ones the examiners will focus on.

If you have ever given a presentation and someone asks, “What was your methodology?” or something similar, and, having explained it, you need to spend time re-stating what you already said, then the harsh fact is that you didn’t do a good enough job the first time around. In all likelihood, you assumed too much of the audience. Same goes for your Doctoral thesis.

Do the ‘column method’

I scoffed at this initially, but I absolutely rate it as a necessity.

In relation to the first point, to actually read your thesis, the ‘column method’ offers a structured way to revisit your thesis in a systematic way which will benefit your viva.

Let me explain.

Get a brand new A4 notepad, and write the page number of every page of your thesis on every second margin — this will leave a complete blank line between each.

Then, summarise every page of your thesis on each corresponding line.

This might sound ridiculous and time consuming, but it’s really not. Firstly, it’s a fun challenge, and one you should be used to from academic writing thus far. Concise writing is good writing. Secondly, it doesn’t take long at all. It took me two afternoons, and my thesis was over 75,000 words, excluding end matter (which I mostly discounted for this exercise).

As well as facilitating an engaging way to read your thesis in preparation for the viva, it also aids a quick way for you to check a particular section, informing, at-a-glance, the bigger picture of what you are trying to say on page 192. This will speed things up a lot on the big day, moving things along calmly.

Prepare summaries

One of the first things I did when I was putting together an action plan for my viva, was to basically re-write core sections of my thesis in sequence. This was very straightforward to do, starting with a simple cut-and-paste job.

The main purpose here was to allow me to read over key parts of my thesis on public transport without having to lug around my incredibly heavy thesis.

Lending to sheer paranoia that I might be asked about the details of specific articles (it could happen), as a means to ensure I was aware of the literature in my field, I also made a series of support notes on the following topics: lists of key authors; lists of key research articles; lists of key special issues of journals; and lists of key books.

I had already made such lists for blog entries to signpost readers to research, so this was another easy one to do. An unexpected benefit of doing this was to re-familiarise myself with the relative presence of different disciplines in the field publishing research on my chosen topic.

Practice actually talking about your thesis

The best tip I picked up when preparing for my viva was to practice talking about my thesis. The viva is, after all, an oral assessment.

Accordingly, I read aloud all of the documents noted above and recorded them on an app on my phone, listening back to them in the background. I toyed with putting them on my iPod and listening to them when commuting, but figured this was a bit much — the viva is not like a conventional exam where you want to retain as much information as possible, existing temporarily in short-term memory. It’s about knowing what you have done and why.

Reading aloud the discussion section was something I found useful, picking up on the key words which deserved to be emphasised in various ways.

I also entered the ‘three minute thesis’ competition at my institution to help me wrestle with communicating key aspects of my research concisely, with enthusiasm. Remember, your examiners might be experienced researchers, but they simply do not know the details of your research. Only you do, and you need to be able to summarise those details clearly for your examiners.

My external examiner asked me to explain how bit-Torrent works. I explained, frankly, that it is beyond my comprehension. Then, I hit him with an analogy. It came out of nowhere, and I am still sort of amazed by it. I gestured towards a chair and explained that if he was to try and steal it, he would risk being caught walking around with it. But, if he was to disassemble it and take only a leg or two, with the other examiner taking other pieces on a few trips to later put it back together, it would not arouse suspicion.

I had a formal chair overseeing proceedings in my viva, and I am still disappointed I missed an opportunity to make an awesome joke.

I have never made that analogy before, and the only reason I pulled it out of nowhere is because I knew what I was talking about. It’s not the sort of thing you can study for.

Consider common viva questions

Related to the above is to dig out a list of common viva questions — there are many on the internet.

The questions are typically broad and so will apply to your research project.

There is a risk, if you are so inclined, to rehearse answers to these questions — don’t. What to do is practice answering them in different ways, facilitating multiple lead-in’s to say certain things you want to say, regardless of how a particular question is asked. Use the common viva questions as a way to discover the ways in which you can weave together various facets of your thesis in a fluid, conversational manner.

In doing so, you can also reflect back on the thesis in a fun way. Why did you choose the topic? Why that particular theory? These broad questions offer a good way to consider the wider backdrop to the research and the research journey, not incredibly specific aspects which almost certainly won’t come up in the viva.

Think about the big stuff. It’s important.

It might be a good idea to request some help from a trusted friend to hit you with some of these common questions (they don’t need to understand them or your research) when you least expect it, to put you on the spot. It might ruin dinner, but it will be good practice.

The viva itself

You are on your own. No really.

Mine was a joy from start to finish, relaxed and engaging. I led for the most part, with my answers generating discussion between the examiners. Both were looking at the research from different points of view, but both with enthusiasm. And that’s not just because the right examiners were selected, but because I had produced a good Doctoral thesis. There was not really anything that could have gone wrong.

I could go into more detail about how long it lasted, the exact questions asked, etc., but I won’t. Because it won’t be useful.

Working through the pre-viva preparation tips listed above will be. So get on with it.

Oh, and plan a party or something afterwards.

Assuming you’re into that sort of thing.