Viva, a shorthand for the Latin term, ‘viva voce’, is an oral examination of your doctoral thesis. Quite often, this is when you respond to a series of questions about your doctoral research by an internal examiner and an external examiner, and it can last for anything from just one hour to a few hours.
While having a viva can sometimes be nerve-racking, you will find comfort in learning that, unlike viva in Scandinavian countries where you respond to your opponent’s questions about your thesis in front of a panel of academics in a big room full of your friends and family members, a viva here in the UK is often done in a private setting with just you and your two examiners.
Below you will find useful peer-to-peer tips on how to prepare for and do well in your viva by Sheikha Majid (PhD candidate) and Ruth Samuel (EdD candidate) – both of whom have successfully defended their doctoral thesis at a recent viva with only minor amendment.
Sheikha Majid’s research was on English language lecturers’ usage of code switching in the classroom focusing on the types of code switching using Muysken’s typology and the functions of code switching used in the classroom. Sheikha’s supervisors are Prof. Jeanine Treffers-Daller and Dr. Naomi Flynn, and her viva examiners were Dr. Daisy Powell (University of Reading) and Dr. Yap Ngee Thai (University Putra Malaysia).
Ruth Samuel’s research examined teacher values among low income female teachers in India. Ruth’s supervisors are Prof. Rebecca Harris and Dr. Naomi Flynn, and her viva examiners were Prof. Carol Fuller (University of Reading) and Prof. Kalwant Bhopal (University of Birmingham).
Preparation for the viva
The feelings of relief and liberation are felt when you submit your thesis. However, the feelings of nervousness, stress, anxiety and panic will take over prior to viva. These are normal feelings and part of the process. Don’t worry: here are a few tips to help you prepare for the viva.
Firstly, give yourself time. Once you have submitted, take a break from your thesis as long as you feel fit. But not too long! Your brain needs a break. Travel around, see your family and friends or fulfil your bucket list. You deserve it! I went sky diving after my submission, and it was the best experience of my life! You have spent three to four years looking at your thesis to the point of exhaustion. The break will help you to ‘miss’ your thesis and when you open your thesis again to refresh your memory, the contents and information of your thesis will easily come to you.
Secondly, when you do open your thesis again, ask your PhD peers to help you. Have them ask questions once in a while about your thesis as a little viva practice. They are your friends and it would be less daunting compared to having a mock viva with your supervisors. This helps especially if you are the type of person who forget words and information due to panic and nervousness.
Thirdly, please arrange a mock viva with your supervisors. This is vital because they have plenty of experience when it comes to viva. They have examined PhD students and yes, they were in your shoes as well! They will advise the best ways to answer the questions and they can predict common questions that will surely come up during the viva.
Finally, don’t view your examiners as judge, jury and executioner. Instead, view them as colleagues who are interested in understanding your thesis. They are not there to purposely attack you. The basics are that, they simply want to know the whats, the whys and the hows of your study and if something in your study is not sufficient, it will be managed during the correction phase after the viva.
Following a thesis submission, it is important to take a break from your thesis. It helps to develop much needed perspective as you emerge from under a heady fog of phrases, section titles and endless paragraph formatting.
You could use specialist literature to get you started on viva preparation. I found Peter Smith’s (2014) ‘The PhD viva: How to prepare for your oral examination’ useful in providing a set of questions that acted as a framework to approach my thesis.
You are better prepared to read through your work if you approach your thesis with a degree of critical detachment and objectivity. As I read through and made notes on key sections of my thesis, I found that questioning and responding to an imagined conversation between my examiners and I helped to develop a deeper understanding of my written work and articulate my responses. Better still, a practice viva with your supervisors is invaluable preparation as imagined discussion is transformed into real and interactive dialogue.
There are key areas that are central within a viva. You could start with multiple pages of notes, but it is best to aim for clear and concise notes that simplify and define your responses. Think about:
- What prompted you to examine your thesis topic and why. Define your research problem as outlined in your introduction, but articulate further as to any specific observations or motivations that are relevant or pertinent to your explanation.
- Locate and review key texts within your literature review. Think about why these texts are crucial to your research and its particular relevance to your theoretical framework and/or research objectives and questions.
- Define a clear and concise rationale behind your methodology, from your research design to ethics. You will need to spend additional time reviewing your methodology as your confidence in various methodology terminologies and their applicability to your research will go a long way in taking ownership of your thesis.
- Summarise your findings and thesis contributions. Try to get this as concise as possible to get to the core of your thesis.
During the viva
During the viva, my first advice would be to open up your mind and listen to the examiners, because different examiners have different styles of conducting the viva. Some examiners would go through your thesis chapter by chapter. However, some examiners would ask the important points that they need from you and might go from Chapter 1 to Chapter 3 and return to Chapter 1.
Have a glass of water ready next to you. When you are feeling stuck and you need time to think of your answers, a drink of water would be a nice way to give you time. Just say, “I’m sorry I need a drink of water.” Drink the water slowly while contemplating your answers. Plus, water is soothing. Viva could last for a few hours. You will need water to quench your thirst!
Have some notes or important print outs (tables or graphs) from your thesis ready so you can directly point it out when needed. This is better than flipping pages of your thick thesis as it could be a waste of time. Similarly, labelling the thesis with variant coloured sticky notes is also a good way to ease locating information in the thesis.
Do not be afraid to say that you do not understand the question asked. The examiners will be happy to rephrase the question for clarity. If you are still unsure about the question you could try to restate it in your own words and the examiners will clarify whether it is what they wanted from you.
Your viva is an important opportunity for you to demonstrate the extent of your expert knowledge on your thesis subject as well as take ownership of your research. It is a formal part of your thesis examination however a certain amount of informality in your speech could help you relax and open up to your examiners. They are keen to speak to you and find out more about your research and this is your opportunity to share and inform. Although you are ‘defending’ your thesis, to take this literally would make the viva experience a great deal more difficult for you and your examiners. The oral nature of the viva, in terms of the immediacy of verbal response, allows you to construct meaning from what you instinctively know about your research. For this, you need to be comfortable and confident about your work.
The doctoral viva may be one of those events that inspires fear and apprehension to those who await it. If viewed as an opportunity to discuss your work and outline its significance, the viva is crucial preparation for future discussions of your research. The viva may be at the end of your doctoral journey, but it heralds the beginning of an exciting future, enhanced by the experience of the viva itself.
We hope you find this blog post useful. If you need more advice on preparing for and doing well in your viva, your doctoral supervisors will be able to give you further advice. We wish you the best of luck if your viva is coming soon!
Finally, many congratulations to Sheikha and Ruth on having successfully defended their thesis!