Surviving the PhD Viva : a few dos and don’ts

BW, PhD thesis

DO remember that you are the expert in the room. If your supervisors agreed with you that it was the right time to submit your thesis, then you are being examined on a piece of work that is PhD worthy – an original contribution to knowledge in your specific area.

DO enjoy the examiners’ warm-up questions about why you chose your subject, etc. They are an opportunity for you to get talking, and will put you at ease before the more difficult stuff starts.

DO know when to be quiet, as well as when to defend your case. I’ve heard people compare the viva to a boxing match, in which case you want to land a few more blows than your examiners in order to ‘win’. You don’t need to try and ‘knock out’ anyone; attempting to do so will only count against you. There will be times in the viva when you need to defend your argument, your methodology, your approach, but there will also be times when you need to concede that your project is partial, that there are other ways of doing things, and that no thesis, however meticulously conceived, researched and written, is ever ‘perfect’. Listen, and take the useful criticisms on board.

DO read through the thesis again before the viva exam. It will help to set your mind at rest. Stick post-it notes at key points, too, so you can find them easily during the viva. It’s also a good idea to make a list of corrections you’ve spotted to hand to your examiners. A thesis is a massive piece of work, so there will be errors; but it looks good if you’ve spotted some in re-reading the thing post-submission.

DON’T fall into the trap of thinking criticism, especially of the sparring kind, is personal or unkind. Genuine criticism is engagement. If the examiners are asking you testing and difficult questions, it shows that a) they have read your thesis with real interest and are keen to fully discuss its merits and b) that they want to give you a chance to show how good a researcher you are.

DON’T respond to questions with answers along the lines of ‘it’s in the thesis’. An obvious one perhaps, but when the examiners are asking clarifying and calibrating questions – to check they are on the same page as you, that you mean what they think you mean, etc. – more than one viva candidate will have doubtless misinterpreted this at some point.

DON’T underestimate the viva as a mere formality. Submission of the thesis is in partial fulfilment of the criteria for the award of PhD; the viva voce oral assessment of the candidate who wrote the thing is what makes up the rest of the examination.

DON’T worry too much. The viva needs to be taken seriously, and there are ways to fail – by sticking to one-word answers; by displaying flippancy, a lack of interest, intransigence, etc. – but by and large it is a process that most PhD students survive. When you leave the room after those exhausting, interesting and head-spinning hours, and your examiners discuss the agreed outcome before you are invited back in, remember that come straight pass, minor or even major mods, your long and testing PhD journey has led to this moment, and will be (almost) over. Give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done.

Ben Wilkinson is a poetry critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, a prize-winning writer, sometime barman and an amateur distance runner. He recently completed his doctoral studies at Sheffield Hallam University, passing his viva for his thesis on the poetry of the contemporary British author, Don Paterson.