Preparing for the viva

Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: a PORT for Modern Languages
Book: Preparing for the viva
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Date: Wednesday, 23 September 2020, 11:11 AM

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a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

1 The PhD examination

Part of the PhD examination is the submission of the PhD dissertation. The second part is an oral examination, the PhD viva, in which you will be defending the outcome of your research project before two academic experts in your field. In the following sections of this tutorial, you can find out what the assessment criteria of the PhD are and what you have to expect on the day of your viva.

Prof. David Henn- PhD Viva Sound File (13.7 Mb):

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1.1 assessment criteria

General advice

First of all, consult your university regulations: they will state what needs to be done to be awarded the degree. Knowing the criteria that your examiners will adopt is of prime importance for all the stages of your examination, since it will enable you to

  • anticipate the questions you will be asked and, consequently, to prepare more effectively;
  • to understand what happens during the viva and feel a certain measure of control;
  • to understand the reasons for your result.

Assessment criteria concerning form

  • Clarity of presentation: the layout of your thesis must be as clear as its language and structure. It has to be as readable from the linguistic/stylistic point of view as it is from the organizational point of view. It has to be underpinned by effective cross-references, so that your examiners can easily find the parts (chapters, paragraphs or tables) they are most interested in. Your bibliography and footnote references should be free from structural and stylistic inconsistencies. 

Assessment criteria concerning methodology

  • Coherence: a PhD cannot simply be a cluster of considerations and analyses, however cogent and original. It has to reflect a coherent research process from the acquisition of its basic data to its final findings. The rationale behind your research must be clear and persuasive.
  • Methods of enquiry: a PhD must not only be methodologically sound but also explicitly discuss the rationale behind it. The appropriateness of the method chosen is one of the qualifying points of any research and its adoption must be based on the explicit awareness of its advantages and disadvantages.
  • Data (or textual) analysis: this constitutes one of the key points of any PhD, since its outcome usually offers the most original contribution to the whole project. The criteria used in selecting data (or textual extracts), the method of enquiry and the results of each analysis must therefore be clear and consistent.

Assessment criteria concerning contents

  • Review of relevant literature: no worthwhile piece of research can do without a first-hand knowledge of the relevant literature. This cannot be attested by a mere list of articles; you are supposed to compare and evaluate the most important contributions to your area, highlighting both their limits and merits.
  • Research problem: your PhD should look like the solution to a research issue which had not been previously investigated, but which was clearly worthy of study; which may already have already identified, but which had not yet been solved. This issue should emerge naturally from your analysis of the current state of knowledge in your area.
  • Contribution to knowledge: a PhD should not limit itself to demonstrating your knowledge of the discipline. It should also be a new contribution to it, a contribution worth becoming in turn part of the literature.
  • Originality: it is the magic word of any PhD. As difficult as it is to define 'originality', it certainly means that: the thesis you submit must be your own work; it has to reveal a proper degree of independent working; it has to include an original contribution to your field of study.
  • Discussion of outcomes: no piece of research can be definitive. Real research proceeds by stages. Your thesis should reveal this awareness by placing your research in the context of current literature, on the one hand, and, on the other, by indicating which parts would be worthy of further investigation. Being prepared to discuss the limitations, in addition to the achievements, of your research will be equally appreciated.

1.2 viva: basics

The basics
The PhD viva does not simply represent the conclusive moment of your PhD research: it also constitutes a turning point in your academic career, since it officially marks your passage from the status of postgraduate student to the status of real researcher. It is therefore quite understandable that you feel anxious about your viva, but there is no need to be overcome with fear. On the contrary, there are at least four reasons why you should face this test with reasonable serenity:

  • You are probably one of the world experts on the precise topic investigated in your thesis.
  • The large majority of the questions you will be asked are real questions, motivated by a genuine interest in your research. Again, it is understandable that you should expect your thesis to be scrutinized in detail, but examiners are certainly more inclined to debate the results of your research rather than try to demolish them.
  • The viva is an important, not to mention all too rare opportunity for you to get serious feedback from specialists in your field, and you should make the most of it.

Reminder

It ought to be mentioned that the information here on how to prepare for vivas and what to expect is unofficial and does not in any way supercede or replace your own university’s regulations, which you should acquaint yourself with and which take precedence in all cases. Our aim is merely to provide advice which we hope you will find useful.

Why?
The aim of the viva is to offer you the opportunity to restate in brief and in a different register the main aims and points of the thesis and furthermore to discuss the results of your research with two experts. You will also be proving – on a more fundamental level – that you are really the person who wrote the material, and that you have the basic qualifications to join the academic community. It may seem like any other examination, but it differs from all of them because this time you may know more about your topic than your examiners. The success of your viva largely depends on your ability to show that your research is an original and significant contribution to the development of your discipline.

Where?
In other European countries the viva is often held in a public auditorium, in front of dozens of people; in Britain it is more reassuringly held privately, in a quiet room, such as your internal examiner’s office. 

Who?
The examining board is usually composed of two people, that is, an internal and an external examiner. Your supervisor may in some cases be present at the viva if you wish (depending on your university regulations) but is not allowed to contribute to the discussion or interfere in any other way in the debate. One of the examiners will open the debate and then they will share the more detailed questions.

The internal examiner is commonly from your own department, or from a cognate department in your institution. S/he is an examiner to all intents and purposes, which means s/he will question you in her/his turn, but s/he also has the task of ensuring that the rules of your university are not broken.

The external examiner is usually appointed by your department. You may be involved in the choice and even be asked to suggest some names, but it will not be your decision as far as university regulations are concerned. Each university has its own rules about the eligibility and suitability of external examiners, but all of them agree on the fact that s/he has to be experienced and knowledgeable about your field of research. Do not forget that the external examiner will probably be an important referee when trying to publish your thesis and when applying for jobs. In a sense, the viva is also a form of practice for job interviews.

When?
The date, as well as the venue, for the viva is arranged in order to meet the different (and sometimes conflicting) needs of all parties involved. The time between the submission of your PhD and its discussion can therefore vary greatly. University regulations usually give at least two weeks’ notice before the viva, which means that you are unlikely to be called for it earlier than three to four weeks after submitting your thesis. Likewise, the cases of candidates forced to wait many months (even a year) for their viva are rare: the usual “gap” is two to three months. It is best, if possible, to time your submission NOT to coincide with the busiest time of the academic year, ie September/October and May/June.

You won’t have to wait for long to find out about the result of your viva: you will generally be told on the day of the viva and in writing a couple of weeks later, although again this depends on your institution’s regulations – however much examiners may want to let you know that you have passed with flying colours, they may not be allowed to until various formalities (notification of head of department, etc) have been observed. 

How long?
Even in this case the only rule to which we can refer is custom. The duration of a PhD viva can last from one hour to one day, but in most cases it does not exceed two to three hours. In advance, this may seem like a lifetime, but during the viva, as during any other examination, time flies by. 

1.3 what is expected

The aim of the viva process is to satisfy the examiners that

  • the thesis that you submitted is your own original work
  • you have a good command of your subject
  • you have developed and applied an appropriate critical methodology
  • your thesis represents a valid contribution to its area and consequently deserves a PhD.

You are not supposed, in other words, to know everything about your area of study, but only the aspects you investigated during your PhD research (check your university regulations!). Likewise, you are not expected to answer all questions perfectly, because no one can cover everything in depth in three years and, in any case, you are just at the beginning of your academic career and some flaws or gaps are still understandable.

On the other hand, you cannot look uncertain or evasive about the results of your research and the methods by which you obtained them: you must be ready and able to defend them by clarifying any queries from the examiners and at the same time support your choices with a convincing argument. In conclusion the viva is a demanding but not an insurmountable task, provided that you prepare for it. If you have not been given any documentation on viva-preparation by your institution, it is worth contacting your Graduate School or academic office to ask if they have any guidelines.

1.4 how to prepare

Re-reading and summarising your thesis

The first rule about re-reading your thesis is that it should not be a passive activity. During your viva you may be asked to produce a persuasive overview of some of your thesis as well as its details. When you re-read your thesis try therefore to identify and note down on the one hand its rationale (that is, its argument and logical structure) and, on the other, its most contentious aspects. It is also sensible to prepare a brief summary of each chapter, so that you can have a clear view of the contents and structure of your thesis, which you can systematically go back over. These notes and summaries will finally help you to sense what questions you will be probably asked and, consequently, to prepare the most effective replies. 

Literature used

Make sure you have clear in your mind the key contributions and different approaches to your subject. Do not forget to check that all or at least the main references in your thesis are accurate. It is also advisable to devote some time, depending on time constraints, to reading the most important essays that have come out since you submitted your thesis, as you are supposed to know about major contributions to your field of study, including the most recent ones. 

Examiners' field of interest

Although the viva will be centred on your own research work, it is a good idea to be as knowledgeable as you can about your examiner’s published work, so that you can sense their approach and probable reaction to your work. That said, the fact that your approaches and/or interpretations may differ would not normally affect in any way the examiners’ objectivity and professionalism. They are more likely to be keenly interested and stimulated by a different approach from their own, rather than opposite. 

Anticipating questions

In your preparation for your viva you should try to anticipate the questions you will get, and prepare answers to them. This can be an frustrating experience, since no-one can really know in advance what questions your examiners will ask you. Nonetheless it is worth trying because certain questions tend to come up repeatedly. We list some of these recurring questions on this site, but there are many other ways of getting a list of much more specific questions ready. You can for example

  • think about some of the points your supervisor raised with you as you were writing drafts of the thesis
  • inquire about your examiners' specific research interest, so that you can anticipate their attitude towards your thesis
  • think again about any questions posed after any seminar papers or lectures you may have given

Practice in answering questions on your work often proves to be useful even if you are not asked any of the precise questions you took into consideration, and it will increase your confidence. 

Reviews

Finding academic staff, other than your supervisor, willing to read your entire thesis is not very likely, given their heavy workload. Finding friends prepared to do the same thing is not easy either. However, it should be much easier to find a colleague or a knowledgeable friend willing to read a chapter (or a section) of your thesis and to give their frank feedback. You could also ask academics, colleagues and friends to note down some possible questions, concerning the part they have read, to add to your list of anticipated questions. Many universities run yearly monitoring reviews and/or work in progress seminars, all of which give practice in verbal examination and the last of which will often be a rehearsal for the viva. 

Papers

As we suggested earlier, giving papers and writing articles on single aspects of your PhD research is another effective method to prepare for your viva, since they enable you on the one hand

  • to verify the accuracy of your intuitions
  • to advance those particular aspects of your research
  • to keep up to date with the latest developments in your subject area
  • to make you feel part of the research community
  • to receive suggestions from your listeners and reviewers and, on the other hand, to improve your skills in speaking in front of an audience of specialists
  • to expect the unexpected, that is, to be able to respond to unforeseen questions without panicking. 

Book proposal

An intriguing method to prepare for your viva is to write a book proposal for your thesis. It will encourage you to think hard about:

  • what is original in your research
  • what its position is as regards the literature of its area
  • why it is worth publishing your thesis, that is, why your thesis should be made available to other experts in your area and why they should read it.
     

1.5 how to approach the viva

How will it start and what will happen?

Given that each viva is necessarily different from all others in some way, you are likely to be called into the examining room by your supervisor or by the internal examiner. Before you arrive, the examiners will have already discussed their opinion of your thesis (and exchanged, where required, their independent reports). They will also have already decided the strategy of the examination (that is, who is going to ask which questions and in what order).

The examiners will then introduce themselves and inform you about the general procedure of the examination. Remember that they will be unlikely to give you any indication about their agreed evaluation of your thesis. Some examiners prefer to tell you the expected result of your viva beforehand but this is not by any means the general practice, so be prepared for either approach, bearing in mind that if they don't tell you it doesn't mean anything about your result one way or the other.

The first question will almost certainly be a very general one, such as

  • describe the rationale of your research project
  • what are the key findings of your thesis?
  • what is original in it?
  • what is its position in relation to the current state of knowledge in your area?

Their training may have encouraged them to start with a simple warm-up question such as this - do not assume that it is a trap: it isn't.

After some general questions, you should expect more detailed questions. Examiners may go so far as to refer to a single statement ("on page x, line y."), asking you to justify/explain or expand on it. You are not supposed to know your thesis by heart, but you still need to remember its general structure and the key points of each section. (You can bring a copy of your thesis with you).

The closing questions may concern the potential development of your (and in your) field of research, that is

  • what is the position of your contribution as to the most recent developments in your area?
  • can you take your research further?
  • what do you expect the next steps in your area to be?
  • what are your publication plans?

As soon as your viva ends, you will be asked to leave the room, so that examiners can freely exchange their views about your exam. The results may be communicated on the same day as the viva, but again this is not the rule and depends on your institution's stipulations and who actually holds the authority to recommend the degree.

Nota bene: Unfortunately it is very common to spend time on minor errors, such as inconsistencies in scholarly presentation. This is a depressing waste of interesting discussion time, since the viva constitutes a rare and precious opportunity to get serious feedback from specialists in your field. Therefore try to get the presentation right so that the viva is not taken up by typos and other minor imperfections. 

What will they ask me?

Granted once again that each viva is unique in its own way, a certain number of questions tends to recur. We can group them into these five sections (what you will find below is a concise version; it is very likely that the examiners will expand these "cores" into a fuller question):

General (opening) questions about contents

  •  What is your thesis about?
  •   Explain in your own words what you have done?
  •  What is the contribution of your thesis to scholarly knowledge?
  •  Summarise your key findings
  •  Why did you choose this topic?
  •  Why have you chosen to organize your research into these  stages/chapters?
  •  Why is the problem you have investigated worth investigating?
  •  Is it possible to draw a general rule from your single observations?
  •  How have you evaluated your work?
  •  How do you know that your findings are correct?
  •  How do your findings relate to the critical literature in this field of studies?
  •  What have you done to be awarded a PhD?
  •  What is original in your thesis?

General questions about method

  •  Why did you choose this method to analyze your topic?
  •  Describe your methodological approach
  •  Would your approach be as effective for other periods and places?
  •  What have you learned by carrying out your PhD?
  •  What would you do differently today if you were to start again?
  •  What are the alternatives to your approach?

Questions concerning one specific aspect of your research

  •  What do you know about the history of this particular aspect of your research?
  •  What are the recent major developments in this topic?
  •  Which are the most important papers concerning this aspect of your research?
  •  Why have you tackled this problem in this way?

Questions about possible development of your research

  •  Do you have any plans for publication?
  •  Which aspects of your thesis are worth publishing?
  •  Where will you publish your work?

Questions about the future development in your area of study

  •  What is the relevance of your contribution to other researchers?
  •  How do you expect the research in your field to progress over the next few years?
  •  Where do you think your research will move in the future?

What language will we use?

Vivas in Britain and Ireland are generally conducted in English, even if some faculties allow students to submit the thesis in their mother-tongue or in the language of the country to which they devote their thesis (since the vast majority of primary sources - and quotations - are necessarily in that language). If you wish to have your viva conducted in a language other than English, this must be agreed beforehand, and depends on your university regulations. Candidates should in general be prepared to do their viva in English using appropriate registers and terminology.

What can I bring with me?

No academic, however experienced, gives a public lecture, or even the simplest lesson, without notes. There is therefore no reason to attend your viva without your thesis or your notes, in the hope of making a better impression. You are supposed to have carried out your PhD research and to have written your thesis, not to have learned it by heart. You should bring

  •  your thesis (with all the notes and yellow post-its you want)
  •  pen and paper, so that you can take notes of the questions and of any advice. 

What attitude am I supposed to adopt?

Do not forget that the large majority of the questions you are asked are real not trick ones and should not represent a problem, so long as you did your thesis yourself, since no one can clarify its foundations and outcomes better than you. Remember at the same time that you are expected to defend your PhD firmly, showing confidence in your achievements, but that you should not be over-self-confident and confrontational. Do not rush your answers, that is

  •  let your examiners finish their question!
  •   do not answer a question you have not properly understood: ask for clarifications (after all, they are doing the same thing, by asking you to clarify some aspects of your thesis).
  •  take all the time you need to structure your answer effectively.

Keep icy calm even if you realize that you are not answering a question as you are supposed to or if you do not know its answer at all: it will not jeopardize your viva. But do not start clutching at straws, be honest: say you cannot answer the question on the spot, but you will immediately delve into that aspect. In the very unlikely case that an examiner finds a real weakness in your thesis, do not aggravate the situation by irritating the entire panel with a flimsy defence: concede the point, acknowledge that it limits the validity of your conclusions but go through it all in detail underlining the aspects which are not affected by the weaknesses they have highlighted. Finally, do not start panicking if they go on firing new questions on the same subject. It does not imply that they are not satisfied with your replies; it is often the result of the examiners' genuine interest in a particular aspect of your research.

1.6 After the viva

What results will I get?

Each university has its own range of grades, so check with your university’s exam office and make sure you discuss this with your supervisor, who normally also plays a key role in helping you apply the examiners’ suggestions for changes and in checking the corrections where applicable. From a general point of view, it is nevertheless possible to identify the following scale:

1. Award of PhD: if both your thesis and your viva are entirely satisfying (or if your thesis requires minor amendments (e.g.: typos) which can be carried out in one day, before your thesis is deposited in the Library).
2. Pass with minor amendments: deferment of the award until specific amendments will have been implemented within a set period of time (e.g.: at the University of London within three months).
3. Referral: deferment of the award for a period that can vary from six to eighteen months: if your thesis needs substantial modifications. In this case you will be sent a written statement - listing precisely all amendments required and fixing a new deadline for its re-submission within a couple of weeks. You may also be asked to take a new oral examination in front of the same board.
4. Downgrading to the award of M.Phil: if your thesis does not meet the requirements to be awarded a PhD (e.g.: it lacks originality), but it deserves a postgraduate degree for its critical investigation and evaluation of the existing body of knowledge.
5. Deferment of the award of M.Phil for a period that can vary from six to twelve months: if your thesis needs substantial modifications even to be awarded an M.Phil
6. No award of any kind: if your thesis does not meet the requirements to be awarded either a PhD or an M.Phil, and its general structure does not seem to allow for any effective amendments. 

Can I appeal against this result?

Appeal regulations vary from University to University. Below you can find as an example the guidelines of the University of London as regards reasons for appealing against the outcome of your examination and the evidence you will be asked to provide. If you think that the decision of the examining board results from improper conduct on the part of the examiners, you may be able to appeal on the following grounds:

  • Illness: for example, a certificate or letter from a medical practitioner setting out the condition and its symptoms and effects, together with a statement from the appellant describing the condition and the difficulties he/she experienced. The Committee will be particularly concerned to establish that the illness affected the appellant's performance on the date of the oral examination.

  • Prejudice - bias or inadequate assessment: for example, a statement by the appellant, or comments emanating from a third party, recording comments or remarks made by the examiners, whether at the oral examination or otherwise, disclosing prejudice or bias or suggesting inadequate assessment. The comments, remarks or facts which in the appellant's view indicate prejudice, bias or inadequate assessment, must be set out fully and clearly.

  • Procedural irregularities: the appellant must set out clearly and fully what in his/her view are the irregularities or error, how and when they occurred and the person responsible, to the extent that this is known, and how it may have or did affect the outcome.

Please consider that appeal procedures are a lengthy process. If you want to appeal you will be required to submit a written report to the relevant authorities. You will have to prepare sound evidence for your reasons of questioning the examination results when you appear before the appeal committee. Moreover, it is important to understand that you are not allowed to call the examiner's academic judgemment into question. Appeals are not conducted in order to re-assess the scholarly quality of your dissertation. According to the University of London regulations

  • the appeal committee is not charged with re-examining the thesis; the members will not have read the thesis: its sole purpose is to determine whether or not the examination was properly conducted.

Again it is sensible to ask your supervisor for support and help. If, on the contrary, it is your supervisor about whom you are complaining, you can refer to the Head of your Department or directly to the office of your university that deals with postgraduate matters (e.g.: graduate schools, offices and boards).