How to survive a PhD viva: a terrible guide no one should follow…

I have at one time or another, been on every side of a PhD viva. In about 4 months time I’ll be in another one, watching one of my students hopefully produce a vigorous defence of his thesis. Which is good because I’ve read the thesis and it certainly needs a lot of defence. But I’ve done enough vivas from enough sides now that I think I can provide a detailed guide for every wanna-be PhD graduate on how to survive a PhD viva – preferably with a PhD.

This guide should be all you need to pass your viva with ease, and possibly even get a commendation, or a prize of some kind.

Preparation

One of the best preparations you can do is to know your enemy. In many cases, you should know who your examiners are a couple of months before your viva day.  This gives you ample time to prepare and plan… however, that’s just what they’ll be expecting! They are probably seasoned academics who are used to students coming in knowing about all their papers and their work. Most examiners would really respect any student who came totally unprepared and knowing nothing about them. Shows confidence.

Most, but not all, universities will require you to give a short presentation on your thesis. They see it as an opportunity for you to hammer home the most important points of your work. However, you should see it as a time to show off your depth of knowledge about your work. And nothing demonstrates that better than doing the whole presentation as free form improv. Don’t spend a moment preparing slides or even notes, all you need to do is be yourself and see what comes from within on the day.

The other preparation many people do is looking though their thesis. Many claim this is a good way of refreshing what you did in your mind and helping to think of some questions. But you did go to all that trouble of writing it – seems crazy to now have to read the stupid thing again. Besides, you might see a mistake that got left in and that’s only going to knock your confidence and that’s the last thing you need right now.

Finally, given that you’ve very sensibly streamlined your prep work, you can now spend all your time resting up. A good night’s sleep is very important to a good viva. So a few months of very good night’s sleep and lots of days watching daytime TV will have you in tip top condition.

The room

Come the day of the viva, you’ll want to get there nice and early before all of your examiners. I realise that being early for something will probably feel instinctually wrong but with a viva it’s very much worth getting that little bit early to prepare the field of battle.

Firstly, examine the room. You need to make sure of two things – ensure that you are positioned at one end of the table, preferably with your head directly in the path of the projector. This will act as a spotlight to better give everyone a good view of you.

Secondly, test all the chairs – the key here is to find the most uncomfortable chairs possible and move them to where you want the examiners to sit. This will ensure that the examiners don’t get comfortable and keep the grilling as short as possible. If you can, lower the examiners chairs and remove the height adjustment lever, now make yours as tall as possible. Gives you a more authoritative position.

Finally, order in copious amounts of coffee and tea, far more than you could all ever drink. On the surface this will earn you brownie points because they’ll think how nice of you to get tea and coffee. However, the truth is that it’s very hard to ask probing, deep questions while desperately needing to pee.

The viva presentation

Hopefully you followed the earlier advice and prepared nothing for your presentation and are just standing alone and without any slides in front of the review panel… asking them to love you – maybe not that last bit… If you are, then you need no help from me, you’ll do great, go with what feels right and never shy away from explaining things with interpretive dance.

If you didn’t listen to my advice and foolishly prepared some slides, then you are going to need the next part of this guide – which I hope you listen to, this time.

First off, positioning is important – awkwardly stand in front of the projector so at least half of your body is covered in slide material. This will help the examiners stay focused on you and your content – it saves them from having to look back and forth. Don’t bring a clicker as having to awkwardly mess around with the laptop between each slide will give them extra time to read your slides – some examiners are a bit slow so they’ll need all the time they can get.

From here, there are a number of further things you can do to improve the reception of your presentation but this is better covered in a full length guide that I’ll save for the future.

My final piece of presentation advice is don’t ask “any questions?”. Viva examiners are like vampires and they can’t ask any questions unless you invite them to, so this will neatly prevent any unwanted quizzing over your presentation.

The Viva

Now, once the presentation is over comes the true viva. This is the part where your examiners will open their copies of your thesis and start grilling you on every part of it – in. exquisite. detail. No one is ever going to have read your thesis in as much detail as these examiners. Which is a shame, because they almost certainly scan read it on the train that morning.

So with a good 2-3 hours flicking through, the examiners will now ask a mix of specific questions and a series of standard stock viva questions that all examiners are required to ask by law. Below are the stock questions you’ll get (or a variant there of) and a translation of what they mean to help you craft answers.

What existing work has been done in this area?

Translation: I know you wrote a big ‘prior work’ section but I didn’t read it so can you please read it to me… use voices where appropriate…

Where would you take this project next?

Translation: I also didn’t read the future work section.

What impact has this project had?

Translation: In an alternate reality where people cared about PhD projects, what would these imaginary people like about your project?

How would you have done things differently if you could do it all again?

Translation: How would you have done things differently if you could do it all again, excluding of course, the obvious answer of changing your supervisor to a competent one…

Most people tend to think the specific questions are the most difficult but don’t forget, you are the expert in this work. You literally wrote the book on it! Well, a thesis, anyway… You know it so well that you didn’t even prepare for this viva – that’s how well you know this! So answer with the first thing that comes to your head and stick to it. You’ll probably be right, even if the examiners don’t agree with you at first. Just stick to your guns and I’m sure they’ll realise their mistake later.

Your supervisors may try to give you coded signals during your viva. The most common one will be holding their head in the hands, which is a good sign that your ideas are really making them re-think their understanding of the topic.

Eventually, you’ll be asked to leave so that the examiners can spend a few minutes pretending to consider passing you. Obviously, after a viva performance based on this guide, this is really so that they can google the correct extra award to give you.

After the viva

If you’ve followed all these steps correctly, than you should now be a Doctor – congratulations! However, if for some reason you had a crazy examiner who didn’t see fit to pass you (this will be incredibly rare) then you still have another chance to persuade the examiners that you are a credit to your field, a consummate professional, and worth of the prestigious title of Doctor of Philosophy. You can read more about it in the follow up guide “Bribery, begging and tears: how to get a PhD in exchange for your pride”.

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