Preparing for your Viva: Collected Resources

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The printed copies of my thesis before I submitted them (Photo:  Hannah Awcock)

A few weeks ago, I passed my PhD viva! As my viva got closer, I spoke to lots of people about theirs, and many had actually enjoyed the chance to talk in-depth about their work. I also trusted the work that I have put in over the last four years, and trusted that my supervisors would have told me if they thought my thesis would fail the viva. So whilst I was nervous about my viva, I was also quite looking forward to it. Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed the viva, I definitely would not say it was a negative experience, and it definitely wasn’t the terrifying occasion that some people expect it to be.

I think part of the reason I wasn’t too nervous before and during my viva was the preparation I had done. I read my thesis, trying to identify anything my examiners might ask about, and made notes on a series of general questions that I thought might come up. I found this to be quite a good way of getting ready for the viva; I felt well-prepared. I put the list of possible questions together from advice from my supervisors and others, and from the websites listed below.  The list of questions that I prepared for, in no particular order, are:

  • How did you come to research the topic/how does it relate to your earlier studies?
  • Who are your intellectual influences?
  • Summarise your key findings?
  • Why did you choose your case studies?
  • Explain your relationship with theory.
  • What is original about your work/ what are your contributions to knowledge?
  • How does your work contribute to geographical debates?
  • Which topics overlap with your area?
  • What are the strongest parts of your work? What are the weakest?
  • Looking back, what might you have done differently?
  • Do you have any plans for publishing your work?
  • What did you learn from the process of doing your PhD?
  • What are the main issues and debates in this subject area?
  • Why was your research worth doing?
  • What published work is closest to yours? How is it different?
  • How have you evaluated your work?
  • How has your thinking about the topic changed as your research went on?
  • Did you have any problems with the data collection process?
  • How would you hope that this research could be followed up and taken further?
  • Do you have any questions for the examiners?
  • I didn’t get asked all of these questions during my viva, but most of them came up in some shape or form.

And here is a list of webpages and blogs that I used to collate my list of questions and for other general advice:

Nasty PhD Viva Questions by Dr. Andrew Broad is written from a Computer Science perspective, but I think that most of it is generic enough to be helpful to other subjects. As well as a list of possible viva questions, it also contains advice for preparing for the viva in other ways, such as preparing a summary of your thesis.

Research Essentials: Top 40 Potential Viva Questions is a comprehensive list of questions that your examiners might ask.

University of Leicester Graduate School: Practice Viva Questions is another helpful list.

David Denyer: Questions in a PhD Viva provides another list, as well as some general tips about the attitude with which to approach your viva. Many of the questions are similar to those in the other resources listed here, but I thin that is quite reassuring, as it shows that similar kinds of questions do tend to come up again and again.

The Guardian Higher Education Network: How to Survive a PhD Viva: 17 Top Tips is a compilation of advice from different people. It covers both before and during the viva.

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A celebratory post-viva selfie with my family and partner (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have two main pieces of advice about doing a PhD viva. The first is don’t blag answers; if you feel like you can’t answer a question, or need to spend a bit more time thinking about it, then have the confidence to say that. The second piece of advice is take a few moments to think before you answer each question; there’s no rush, and the examiners will appreciate a more thoughtful answer. Fundamentally though, try to relax– you never know, you might actually enjoy yourself! Whilst the viva itself is important, your thesis is what really matters. The viva lasts only a few hours, but the thesis is your lasting legacy, and in many ways, it speaks for itself.

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