Preparing for the viva
1 The PhD examination
1.2 viva: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.