Questions for Graduates

To find out more about vivas ask people who’ve had them. Talk to graduates from your department. If you ask, “How was your viva?” you’ll likely get an answer along the lines of “Fine!” This will be true, but it will be short: the person you’re asking probably thinks you want reassurance; they think you want to know others have succeeded and felt fine in the viva.

You do, but if all you get is “Fine!” then you’ll feel unsure later. To get more from your friends, ask them specific questions. Ask them questions that will give you details. Start with:

  • How did your viva begin?
  • What surprised you?
  • What was the tone like?
  • How would you describe the structure?
  • How long was your viva? Did it feel like that?
  • What questions do you remember?
  • What was challenging?
  • How did your viva end?

Ask about how they prepared and what helped them. Ask about what corrections they got and how they completed them. Get as much help as you can from the people around you; there’s a lot of help available.

Be prepared to help others when your viva is past too.

What You Have

It’s not wrong to think about what you want or need for your viva. Better to focus first on what you already have to help you succeed.

You have a thesis.

You have experience.

You have regulations.

You have expectations.

You have examiners.

You have a supervisor.

You have colleagues.

You have friends.

You have talent – you must have this if your viva is coming up!

You have a lot to help you. Maybe you have doubts too, but you don’t want or need those. What are you going to use to work on beating them?

10 Opportunities For Sharing

Both before and after you submit your thesis, one of the best things you can do to prepare for the viva is find opportunities to share your work.

Telling others about what you’ve done helps you think about how you explain your work. It can give you space to practise structuring your research. It can lead to questions, which then help you to think again and fill in the blanks for your audience, whether it’s one person or one hundred.

There are lots of ways you could talk or write about your research. Here are ten opportunities for sharing just off the top of my head! You can probably think of more that would be relevant for you:

  1. Give a talk, big or small, in your department or at a conference.
  2. Share your work via outreach.
  3. Go for coffee with a friend.
  4. Have a meeting with your supervisor.
  5. Write a paper and submit it for publication or preprint comments.
  6. Write a blog post summarising your progress.
  7. Send an email to a contact at another institution.
  8. Tweet something short, sweet and simple! #awesome
  9. Be a guest on a podcast about research (@PlanetPhD is a new one I found recently!)
  10. Find some friendly first-years who want to hear from someone with experience.

None of these are free: they always cost something, particularly in terms of time. Coffee with a friend might be an hour, a blog post could be a few, but a paper or a talk could be days or weeks of work.

Think of it is an investment rather than a cost. Every time you share your work, the return on the investment will be greater than what you’ve “spent”. Every opportunity you find or make will give you a chance to improve.

A Few Sentences

Viva prep doesn’t always feel easy. If you find it tough to get going, or you feel stuck, or you only have a little time, you can still do something small that will make a difference. Writing a few sentences could be a good way to start.

  • Write a few sentences on key authors or papers you’ve used.
  • Write a few sentences to summarise your key contribution.
  • Write a few sentences to frame the challenge you’ve undertaken.
  • Write a few sentences to reflect on how far you’ve come.
  • Write a few sentences to unpick your methods.
  • Write a few sentences about your biggest achievement.

You can write a lot more if you want to, but you can get something nice, short and valuable from even a little reflection and writing.

Reasons You Could Enjoy Your Viva

You could enjoy your viva. A lot of people do, and many do even if they’re nervous.

You could enjoy your viva because…

  • …it’s your work and you know it better than anyone.
  • …you wrote your thesis and you know what it took to make it.
  • …you’re meeting two experienced academics, not two people who know nothing.
  • …the viva is the last big thing you have to get done for your PhD.
  • …you get to demonstrate how talented you are.
  • …your PhD is almost finished and soon you can start something new.

It’s not wrong to have your reasons for being nervous, but also look for reasons why you could enjoy your viva.

What’s New?

You have to make original contributions in your thesis. It’s good to reflect on this before your viva. There are lots of questions that can help stimulate ideas and connections:

  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • What is different in your work from other work in this area?
  • How did your work build on earlier research?
  • What have you learned?
  • What are the outputs of your research?
  • What new questions do we now know to ask?

If one question doesn’t spark an answer, see if another will. What’s new?

Time For Prep

There’s no meaningful viva prep that needs to happen before submission. Given the kinds of tasks involved – reading your whole thesis carefully, making notes, having some kind of meaningful practice with questions, and so on – an estimate of around 20 to 30 hours of work seems reasonable. But rather than simply block that much time out in your diary, I think it’s better to ask more useful questions about the post-submission period:

  1. How long might you have between submission and the viva?
  2. How busy is your life, or how much of your time is already accounted for?
  3. What do you think you need to do in order to feel happy about your viva?
  4. How long do you think that might take? (and how certain are you of that estimate?)
  5. Given the answers to the previous questions, how much time can you regularly commit to your preparation?

And finally given the answers to all of these questions, when do you likely need to start preparing for the viva?

Twenty to thirty hours could be right, but it depends on many factors. Pay attention to your situation and how you feel. Make a little plan and then take the time you need.

7 Questions To Help Make An Edited Bibliography

I’ve advised candidates for a long time to think about making an edited bibliography as part of their viva preparations. Your research is based on a body of work: the edited bibliography is the skeleton you can identify supporting what you’ve done.

You could write it simply by thinking about what papers are important. If you need help, then try the following questions to start a list:

  1. What references have most informed your background reading?
  2. What references have most shaped your methods?
  3. What references have provided the most useful data or information?
  4. What references have helped you be sure about your conclusions?
  5. For each chapter of your thesis in turn, what references are most crucial to the material you present?
  6. Which papers do you need to remember?
  7. Which papers do you find it hard to remember?

Trim out any duplicates from the list this makes. Make sure you add the details of the authors, the journals, the year of publications. Then answer two questions for each reference: which chapter is it most relevant to? Why?

An edited bibliography can be a useful resource. I wonder if it’s even more useful when you’re creating it? Reflecting on where your research comes from is a valuable task in preparation for the viva.

Eight Useful Reflection Starter Questions

I encourage candidates to reflect on their research, their examiners’ publications and think about how these things connect. It’s useful advice but at the same time a little vague. What concrete steps can candidates take? It isn’t always clear to know what to think or do, so here are eight questions to get the process of digging deeper started:

  1. What are your examiners known for?
  2. If you have cited them, how have you used or been influenced by their work?
  3. How do you think your work connects with theirs?
  4. What is your research contribution?
  5. What are your examiners’ recent contributions?
  6. What would you like to ask them about their work?
  7. What do you think they would like to ask you about your work?
  8. What do you hope they will take from your research?

Saying “reflect” is easy; doing it can be hard. Use these questions to start the process, and if you find other questions that help then share them.

Ten Questions For Better Answers In The Viva

You hear your examiners ask a question. You have a first thought, the shape of an answer appears. Ask yourself another question then to help that shape develop. Try one of the following:

  1. Is this the best thing that you could say?
  2. What else do you know?
  3. What do you not know about this area?
  4. What’s your best evidence to support this idea?
  5. Have you definitely understood the question?
  6. What could you point to in your thesis to support this response?
  7. When have you answered a similar question before?
  8. What’s the first sentence of your response?
  9. What objections could someone raise to what you’re about to say?
  10. Is what you’re saying an opinion, a suggestion or a fact?

Speech and thought overlap in conversation. While you’re talking, you’re thinking. You don’t need to memorise these ten questions for the viva, but do find questions to help make your answers better.