The Standard Viva

Vivas vary because every thesis and every candidate are different. Regulations create a layer of structure. Good practice for vivas creates expectations. You can’t have a script but you can reasonably expect a viva to have certain standard features.

  • You can and should expect examiners to prepare.
  • You can ask for a break at any point.
  • Vivas tend to start with a simple question.
  • Corrections are a standard request for candidates.

Success is part of the standard viva. More than anything, it’s expected you will pass.

Then & There

When you find out the date and location for your viva, whether your viva is in-person or over video, write down a few thoughts for each of the following questions:

  • How will I get there and when do I need to be ready?
  • What do I need in that space and how do I get it?
  • Who do I need help from?
  • What can I do to help myself on that day in that space?

Viva prep is not limited to book work and mock vivas. Explore what you need to make your viva venue as helpful as possible to feeling ready to talk with your examiners.

Something To Look Forward To

Can you feel excited for your viva?

Or if not, can you feel excited that soon everything you need for your PhD will be done?

Whatever challenges we face, it can help to have something to look forward to. If that’s not the viva that is coming your way, then perhaps look beyond to your celebration, the relief of passing, the next big thing that you’ll be doing.

What do you have to look forward to?

First and Last Questions

The first question in the viva is likely to be simple: it’s something you will be able to respond to. A question that asks about an aspect of your work that is familiar – maybe a big picture, “How did you get started?” or “How would you summarise your research?” Simple to understand and asked by your examiners to help start the viva well.

Sometimes the first question is characterised as easy, in contrast to an expectation that questions get much harder. Is the last question of the viva supposed to be hard? I’m not sure.

The last question could be, “Have you got any questions for us?” Whatever it is, the last question comes after all of the others. Nervousness should hopefully have faded away. You might be tired from the effort, but you could also be more relaxed than you were at the start of the viva.

All questions in the viva could be challenging. All questions could be well within your capability as a researcher. First and last questions deserve the same attention and focus as any other.

Forget easy and hard. Remember who is being asked, what they’re being asked and why they’re being asked.

Disagreement Is Not Disaster

If one of your examiners doesn’t agree with some aspect of your work that doesn’t automatically mean you fail. It doesn’t mean the outcome of the viva jumps to major corrections. And it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.

It means that they disagree. They could disagree with a question, an idea, a method that you’ve used, a position that you hold or a conclusion that you’ve reached. It means that you’ll need to talk about it – but you have to talk and discuss your work in the viva whatever topic comes up.

Disagreement does mean you need to listen extra carefully. Ask questions to be certain of what your examiner disagrees with. Respond appropriately. It’s not the end of the world or the end of the viva. Disagreement shows a different perspective in some way. Sometimes you just have to listen and take note.

Time To Finish

The viva is framed in lots of different ways.

It’s an exam. It’s a test. It’s a discussion. It’s the end of the PhD journey or the final challenge. You could be excited to be there or telling yourself, “Let’s get this over with…”

Another way to look at is that it’s just time to finish. It’s time. It’s the right time. Years of work, months of anticipation and build-up. New ideas and prospects ahead. You’ve done your PhD for long enough. It’s time to finish and go on to the next thing.

Two questions then: what will help you to finish your PhD well? What will help you to start whatever comes next in the best possible way?

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer is asked this, at least from time to time. Postgraduate researchers are asked this too, particularly in the viva.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“Why did you want to follow this research topic?”

“How did you know to do this?”

In your viva you have to be willing to talk about what started your process, how you knew to do something, why you wanted to do it and so on.

Ideas could come from reading. They could come from your supervisor. There might be a highly personal story or a really mundane, practical reality to them. It may be that on the way to working on one project you spotted something interesting that you needed to explore. There are so many routes to inspiration.

You need to be able to talk about the origin of your ideas in the viva, but don’t forget that as interesting as those ideas are they are nothing without the work that has developed them. Your work might be inspired by 100 papers, a chance encounter or by a funding advertisement – but it’s your work that has created your success, not the idea itself.

Wherever your ideas came from, it’s your work that has taken you so far.

Examiner Feedback

Feedback from your examiners could be a great help if your plan is to continue in academia. Questions, opinions, insights – whatever they offer or you ask for could give you a boost.

If you’re hoping for something from them, it might help to think in advance about what you really want. Make a list of questions, prioritise them; stay on track when the time comes to ask or if a moment comes that seems appropriate to follow up.

Consider again who your examiners are, where their interests lie and what they do. What would you really want to know from them if you had the chance to ask?

The Importance of Expectations

Expectations for the viva are not guarantees but they matter because they show the process at work. Expectations help because they give a platform for preparation. Vivas vary in length, but knowing roughly what to expect helps to prepare for the effort. It helps to know you can ask for breaks. Knowing how they unfold gives you a way forward.

Expectations show the big picture: candidates tend to pass, so you will too. Your viva is a test – the expectations show that too – but it’s a test that most people succeed in, and you’re unlikely to fail. Expectations are important for the viva. Ask friends, read stories and see what stands out to you. Don’t understand something? Look deeper or ask more.

Don’t expect your viva to follow an exact plan; do expect your viva to help you show the best of your work and yourself.

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