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How to do yourself justice in a PhD oral exam/viva

How students perform in the viva or oral examination can tip the balance of how the PhD thesis/dissertation is judged. This page offers suggestions, advice, tips and general help on how to do oneself justice through advance preparation and by conducting oneself appropriately when meeting examiners.

How to prepare yourself for your oral/viva

A common suggestion is that students should prepare for the oral/viva through a mock examination with supervisors* or others role-playing examiners. This may or may not be a positive thing as it may not be at all realistic. Only you and your supervisor can decide what is best for you.

Once you know who your examiners will be, it would be sensible to find out what you can about them, to familiarise yourself with their work and find links between it and your own. If at all possible, ask around to find out their examination style.

Since the date of the exam may be several months after completion of your work, you will have to reread your thesis some days before, so that it is at your fingertips.

An oral examination is often called a thesis defence, which may help you to prepare better. Reread your thesis, as if trying to find fault. If possible, solicit the aid of a friend. Then prepare suitable defences. Defending is not the same as being defensive. If criticisms seem valid, prepare responses to show that you recognise this by saying, for example, what you would have liked to be able to do about them if there had been more resources or if you had thought about it at the right time, or what you hope that other researchers may still do about them.

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on the oral examination/ viva

The form of the PhD/MPhil examinations

Submitting the thesis for the examination

The importance of the viva/oral examination/thesis defence

How orals/vivas are conducted

Preparing yourself for your oral/viva

Setting up tokens of appreciation, such as flowers or wine

Dressing for the oral/viva

Conducting yourself in the oral/viva

Preparing for the result

It may be helpful to annotate your thesis, using 'Post-It' style stickers, so that you can find key areas quickly.

Common early questions are likely to be 'What did you enjoy most about your work?' or 'What would you do differently if you were starting out all over again?' or 'How did your Personal Development Planning or skills training influence your work?'.

Such questions may appear to be simple pleasantries to put you at your ease, but they may mask skilful probing into how well you can appraise your own work and your personal development as a researcher and scholar. Unless you prepare for them, they may throw you and affect how you conduct yourself in the rest of the examination.

General information

Examiners may ask you to present parts of your work orally. They often do this to check that a thesis is a student's own work and to gauge his or her understanding of it. Come prepared to talk through – and possibly also sketch out – the major 'route maps' through your work. This may mean repeating what is already written.

You may also like to prepare some questions for the examiners, although whether or not you use them should be a matter of judgement at the time. You will certainly want to impress with the quality of your thinking, but it would be unwise to raise issues which could seem peripheral and to which examiners might not be able to respond readily. Suitable questions might concern links which examiners might have on recent related work elsewhere or advice on how to go about publishing your work.

You will want to be in good form for the examination. Don't think that drugs or alcohol or chewing gum will relax the tension. They will not. There is some evidence that they make performance worse, and they will probably lower the examiners' view of you. A clean handkerchief or box of tissues is good insurance, to wipe sweaty palms and even tears, although any tension usually disappears rapidly once discussion gets under way.

How to conduct yourself in the oral/viva

Although it is under­standable that you may be nervous at the prospect of the oral examination, most students find that they enjoy the experience of discussing their work with able and informed individuals. Remember, you are the world’s expert on your work, and your supervisor* and the resources of your department should have provided you with sound support throughout your period as a research student. If you are not considered ready to be examined, you should have been told – and if you are considered ready, everything should go smoothly.

There are, however, a few guidelines on conducting yourself:

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.