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