If you are reading this article, it means that you may already have submitted your PhD Thesis and are now waiting to be thoroughly grilled by a viva voce (often shortened to ‘viva’), which happens to be an oral examination conducted by a panel of examiners at the university.
Often do we find some students terming this oral examination as a storm because its preparation makes them feel devastated completely. With this information-rich article, you will learn about the purpose of viva as well as some amazing tips on how to ride out this storm confidently.
THE PURPOSE OF VIVA
This intellectually-gruelling oral examination is held in order to check on:
- Whether your PhD Thesis is an original piece of research work (i.e. plagiarism-free) or not;
- If you understand all the aspects of the recently-submitted doctoral thesis of yours thoroughly;
- How significant your PhD Thesis is to the wider research field; and
- Your plans for future publication and research options.
While there are some confident PhD students who consider viva as an opportunity to impress the examiners with the research work they have passionately completed over a period of 3-4 years, there are many who start to get worried at the very thought of responding to a number of penetrating questions and engaging in critical debates with academic experts in the oral examination soon after they submit their PhD Thesis.
What these frightened or worried PhD students do not realise is the fact that they have already done a great deal of preparation for viva during the period of conducting their PhD research work and a little more preparation is all that is needed to get through the oral examination with flying colours.
If you are one of the worried doctoral students, you should remember the time when you presented your PhD work at a conference or an in-house seminar and answered the challenging questions from the academic audience confidently. You may also have explained your research work in detail to a friend, a relative or a next-door neighbour while working on your PhD Thesis lately. Going over such past memories/experiences should definitely enthuse your to face the fast-approaching viva to some extent.
Now that you feel a little bit confident, let us take you through the ‘to-do list’ for viva preparation so that any remaining fear left inside your heart vanishes completely for good and you’re able to face the oral examination with full confidence:
1. CONFIRM DATE, TIME AND VENUE FOR VIVA
After submitting your PhD Thesis, you are fully entitled to celebrate. But, celebrations must not deter you from being prepared for the forthcoming viva. Before you set out to engage in your desired activities and meet your dear ones, you need to get in touch with the university to confirm the date, time and venue for the oral examination. This information would help you allocate your time to the fun-activities and viva preparation wisely. You might want to consider making a time-table to remain organised and glued to the viva preparation at this stage.
2. CHECK ON EXAMINERS
As soon as you have the details about when and where viva would be conducted, you should enquire the university about who your examiners would be. Generally speaking, there are two examiners to conduct the oral examination, one from the university and another one from any external institution. However, the number of examiners may increase to more than two in some cases where the research area is interdisciplinary.
Once you know the names of examiners, you must go about conducting research into their areas of expertise and their published research papers (especially the ones relevant to your PhD Thesis) to be able to anticipate the questions they might be asking you at the viva. A thorough research on the examiners will definitely stand you in good stead at the oral examination.
It is to be noted here that your PhD supervisor would not be available at the viva unless his/her presence has been specifically requested for by the examiners. So, do not be on the look out for biased support from the supervisor while you are being grilled by the examiners in relation to your PhD Thesis.
3. STAY UPDATED WITH THE LATEST RESEARCH
It is vital that you look into any relevant research paper that may have been published post the submission of your PhD Thesis to keep updated with developments in your chosen area of research. Keeping your abreast with up-to-date knowledge will help you deal with the viva panel better.
4. READ YOUR PHD THESIS AGAIN
In order to face the oral examination confidently, you need to read over your PhD Thesis meticulously.
If you come across errors in the PhD Thesis while reading it over, please pen those down on a piece of a paper without panicking. Detection of such mistakes in advance will help you not look surprised to the panel of examiners in the oral examination. You can certainly address the detected issues while working on final corrections suggested by the panel post the completion of viva.
Apart from detecting errors in your PhD Thesis, you need to write on each page its main points. Thereafter, print the table of contents page with enough spacing under each heading to accommodate the previously-noted main points.
Once you have the printed page handy, try explaining your entire research work in 2 minutes. Thereafter, you could try explaining each chapter of your PhD Thesis in 2 minutes. The 2-minute verbal explanations will help you describe your research work briefly and precisely to the examiners when viva kicks off.
5. BRAINSTORM ON POINTS YOU WILL DEFEND
You need to mull over what you will be defending to the end and what you are willing to concede at the oral examination.
It is vital that you defend your claims about originality of your research work and significant contribution which your PhD Thesis has made to the existing body of knowledge, and highlight the theoretical, research and practical implications of your findings at viva.
Additionally, you need to be ready to identify the limitations of the study and provide your opinion on how you could have done things differently or better to avoid the highlighted limitations to the examiners. You should not hesitate discussing the limitations of your PhD Thesis as no research work is perfect, and the examiners will appreciate the fact that you have thought through both the pros and cons of your PhD research properly.
When you are confronted by any examiner in relation to the weaknesses of your research study, the following approach might help:
- You should take time to think over the mentioned weaknesses before you respond. Giving a generic answer, such as ‘weaknesses are found out in every study’, might not be an appropriate way to deal with the discussion pertaining to limitations of the study at viva.
- How ever small the weakness is, you should never play it down when it is mentioned by your examiners at viva. You must answer it sensibly;
- Avoid pinning the blame on your supervisor or collected research data for any weakness of your PhD Thesis;
- You must not take any criticism of your research to your heart and get angry at any given point in time during the oral examination. Rather, you should take a deep breath and address the criticisms positively without feeling offended in any way.
6. PRACTICE ANSWERING THE EXPECTED VIVA QUESTIONS VERBALLY
While PhD Thesis demonstrates one’s ability to write one’s research work in a structured and organised manner, viva displays one’s verbal capacity to discuss one’s written research work with academic audience critically and clearly. Hence, you must prepare a list of probable viva questions and practice answering those aloud, in order to face the viva panel confidently at the oral examination.
- Describe your PhD Thesis in brief.
- Why did you choose a specific research question?
- Describe the most fascinating parts of your PhD Thesis.
- Does the topic of your research fully justify its content?
- Why is the topic significant and who might it be important to?
- What did you enjoy the most while conducting your research?
- Did any part of your PhD Thesis take you by surprise?
- How do you think you have developed as a researcher during your tenure as a PhD student?
- What are the key findings?
- Describe the originality of your PhD Thesis and the contributions it has made to the existing body of knowledge.
ii) Literature Review
- Author ‘XYZ’ has been mentioned in your PhD Thesis on a number of occasions. Could you enlarge upon the author’s work and its significance for your research study?
- Could you talk us through the developments that have taken place in this research area since you kicked off with your PhD study?
- You have made use of a particular reference or theory briefly in your PhD Thesis. Why has this reference or theory been played down by you?
- How did you about selecting the references for your PhD Thesis while writing the literature review?
- How well does the literature align with research topic, research question and other parts of your PhD Thesis?
- Could you name three publications that have left a great deal of impact on your PhD Thesis?
- Could you comment on the effectiveness of the research design?
- Did you ever think about applying a different design to your research study at any given point in time?
- How did the research question/s translate into the chosen data collection instruments?
- What are the philosophical assumptions in your research study?
- Where are YOU in this particular study?
- What all problems did you come across while collecting data for your research work and what did you do to solve those issues (if any)?
- It appears that you have incorporated an existing research method into your study after modifying it to some extent. Could you apprise us of the reasons as to why such modification was required?
- Could you describe your sample and how it was recruited? Please highlight the shortcomings of the recruited sample too.
- Could you talk us through the strengths and weaknesses of the collected data?
- Could you please explain the theoretical framework of the study?
- Did you have any ethical issue to deal with? If yes, could you describe the issues in detail and how those were tackled by you?
- How did you limit the scope of data collection?
iv) Analysis & Findings
- Could you describe the method that has been used to analyse the gathered data?
- How was the framework of analysis constructed?
- What was not included in the framework?
- Did you face any problem with the application of the adopted method of analysing data?
- Do you reckon that the collected data appropriately addresses the research question of your research? If not, please give your opinion on the data you would like have collected to answer the research question more appropriately.
- Was induction combined together with deduction in the analysis? If yes, please share few examples of the same.
- Would you care to detail the main findings?
- If you were given the opportunity to start your research all over again, what all changes would you consider making to your approach toward the PhD?
- Do you reckon that the findings may have been interpreted differently?
- How would justify the originality of your PhD Thesis?
- Would you care to explain the theoretical, research and practical implications of your findings in detail?
- What are your recommendations to other researchers regarding future research?
7. CARRY ALONG A COPY OF PHD THESIS IDENTICAL TO THE ONE SHARED WITH EXAMINERS
You need to make sure that you and your viva examiners have the same copy of PhD Thesis so that any reference made with regard to any specific page of the thesis is dealt with immediately.
Do not forget to highlight the important quotes and sections of your thesis on the copy that you hold. This would enable you to hold the discussion of your research work smoothly and confidently.
Some examiners may go to the extent of checking the collected data, software used to analyse the data and other supporting evidence related to your research. So, have it all ready and accessible before the viva kicks off.
8. BREAK THE ICE CONFIDENTLY
In the oral examination, you would be expected to break the ice by introducing your research work and its key findings over the first 5-10 minutes. So, be prepared to start the introduction on a positive note with confidence.
9. DO NOT BE UPSET BY EXAMINERS’ SILENCE
Do not expect the viva panel to offer any feedback on your PhD Thesis while the oral examination is on. Examiners may choose to keep silence on the quality of your research work because of any restriction imposed by university’s policy. So, what you must do is remain self-motivated and carry on with the discussion of your research work without being negatively influenced by examiners’ silence until the end of viva.
10. TALK ABOUT WEAKNESSES ONLY WHEN ASKED TO
You must not mention about the weaknesses of your PhD research study on your own. Let the examiners point out the shortcomings of your PhD Thesis instead.
11. AVOID ANSWERING LIKE A ROBOT
You must prepare yourself well to answer any question spontaneously. If you try to memorise expected questions’ answers, there is a possibility that you might read out the memorised answers like a robot in response to the real viva questions without being, even a bit, concerned about whether the questions are being addressed appropriately and adequately. So, develop spontaneity to avoid sounding like a robot during the viva.
12. REGAIN CONTROL IF YOU GET STUCK IN THE MIDDLE OF VIVA
Even if you have eaten properly, slept adequately and de-stressed yourself completely before the 1-3 hour viva kicks off, there is a possibility that you might go blank when a difficult or an unexpected question is put forward for you to answer. What do you do in this case? Well, keep calm and seek permission from the examiners to look something up in your PhD Thesis. Thereafter, start flipping through the relevant pages of your PhD Thesis. Once you have an idea as to how you could answer that specific question, start talking again.
If you follow the above-given pieces of advice and tips, you should not have any trouble facing the panel of viva examiners with confidence and getting through the oral examination with flying colours.
It is to be noted here though that most of the PhD students get asked to re-submit their PhD Thesis after incorporating minor or major changes suggested by the panel of examiners. So, be ready to work on the final set of amendments (requested by the viva panel) before the PhD degree is awarded to you eventually.
We wish you luck with your viva!