14 top tips to help you prepare for the PhD viva8 November 2023
The viva examination can be an exciting but nerve-wracking experience – the culmination of years of hard work and research. Prior planning for the event will help ease the nerves and boost your confidence.
The following ideas are taken from publications, my own experience and discussions with other PhD students and should help you prepare for a more enjoyable viva. You don’t need to do all of these. Remember, if you’re at the stage where you’re preparing for your viva, you’ve already done 99% of the work!
1) Annotate your thesis
I used highlighters and different pens as well as post-its indicating emphasis, important literature, the contribution of the study, typos, useful extracts, and sections.
2) Find out about the viva process
Who will be there? What are their roles? Would you like your supervisors to attend? Take part in the Cardiff University Doctoral Academy viva course to understand what to expect.
3) Do some (more) research
Look at the examination procedures, university guidance, and criteria. To what extent does your thesis meet the criteria?
4) Get reading
I read the book How to Survive Your Viva: Defending a Thesis in an Oral Examination by Rowena Murray; it is filled with helpful information about viva preparation.
5) Think ahead
Plan certain topics in advance that you can refer to during the viva, such as:
- the key authors/main studies in the field
- the gap in research and your original contribution
- a short summary of the thesis
- a more extended summary of the thesis
- summaries of each chapter
- questions for the examiner
- the highlights of your thesis
6) Practise and rehearse
What are the most commonly asked questions in your field? Plan and practise your answers in advance. Elaborate; plan how you can extend the answers. Think about how to say what you did and why you did it. I found listening back to recordings of myself answering some trickier questions really effective.
7) Buy yourself time
Plan what you will say if you do not know the answer to a question. The examiners may ask you things that you have not thought about. You are allowed to ask for clarification, or you can come back to the question later.
8) Present at a conference
This will help you to practise articulating your work to others, get used to answering questions about your research and gain confidence. You know your research better than anyone; be ready to defend it.
9) Mock it up
Arrange a mock viva with your supervisors or ask a colleague to ask you questions. Practise giving concise and confident answers in an examination situation.
10) Look at the examiners’ work
You are probably already familiar with what they have done; they may ask about things they are interested in and have published about.
11) Listen to podcasts
The PhD Life Raft podcast has excellent episodes, such as Preparing for Your Viva, and What Does a PhD Examiner Look for in a Thesis?. Some Viva Survivor podcast episodes could also be beneficial.
12) Visualise and mentally prepare
Imagine yourself in the viva situation, successfully discussing your research. Think about all the achievements, the efforts you have put in, successes, and positive feedback throughout your PhD. Everyone gets nervous. Can you rest, exercise, or do something enjoyable in the days leading up to the viva?
13) Prep your ‘on the day’ details
What will you wear? Pack paper and pens for note taking and the annotated thesis. What else are you going to take with you? The viva can last up to a few hours; will you need water, food, or your laptop?
14) Finally, try to enjoy the big day!
The viva is a unique opportunity to discuss your work with experts in the field. They have spent time reading your thesis; now is your opportunity to demonstrate your contribution, your knowledge of the field, the work you have put in, your learning, and your research skills.
You can also hear more about her PhD journey on the PhD Life Raft Podcast.
Want more tips?
The Doctoral Academy is running the following online sessions on the Viva:
- Examination and the Viva (Humanities and Social Sciences) – 29 November
- The Viva – 11 December
Book your place now via the Learner Portal.
Have you signed up to Dr App yet?
On this resource you’ll find lots of great videos including one on preparing for the viva. To sign up, complete our Dr.App registration form.