Preparing for the viva

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

1 The PhD examination

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.