What to Expect from Your Viva

5 minute read

The viva voce examination is the main assessment of your PhD. Typically, students don’t ask about it until they are ready to submit, and it can seem for some to be an intimidating event, lurking on the horizon. It doesn’t have to be a horrible, traumatic experience. In reality, it’s one of the few opportunities you’ll have to discuss so much of your work in detail with interested people, and it can be very enjoyable, even fun. This page has some advice (adapted from a University of Strathclyde training course: “Preparing Your Student for Viva”) that might help put the viva into context for you.

All this advice is based on the UK PhD viva process. It can be very different in other countries. In Finland people wear swords.

This is not official university advice. Please be sure to check the current regulations for your home institution.

Who will be in the room?

The number of people in the room varies, depending on the university and department/school. You can expect the following:

  • You
  • The internal examiner (maybe two): this is often the departmental moderator of your work, and you will likely have met them before
  • The external examiner (maybe two): their role is to assess your work
  • The convenor: their role is to take notes and ensure the viva is fair, ensuring that the process runs smoothly

You may also invite your supervisor(s) to be present. If they agree, their role is observational only, and they may not contribute to the examination.

What is the examiner going to ask?

No-one knows, except the examiner. There is no point attempting to predict questions or to lay traps to invite specific questions. You can be asked:

  • Anything in your thesis
  • Anything about work related to your thesis
  • Anything about the field in general
  • Anything about the papers you cite (or do not cite)
  • Technical questions to probe for evidence of understanding, independence and autonomy

This is not an examination you can easily revise for, but after four years’ work on your topic, you should certainly feel confident to answer those questions comfortably, and not be too intimidated by any questions.

What does the examiner want to know?

The job of the external examiner is to satisfy themselves about the standard of your work, but they may have in mind to get answers to the following:

  • Is this thesis and the reported research the student’s own work?
  • Is the work original?
    • What is the contribution to the community/field?
    • What is the novelty of the work?
    • Is the work of the same quality as that usually published in the field?
  • Is there capacity for growth and development?
    • Is there this capacity in the candidate?
    • Is there this capacity in the work?
  • What are the gaps in the student’s knowledge and understanding?
  • What are the limits of the student’s knowledge and understanding?
  • Is the student able to critically evaluate and reflect?
    • Can they do this for their own work?
    • Can they do this for the field in general?
  • Does the student display autonomy and independence?

These can’t be answered in only a few questions, which is why the viva takes so long.

Is there anything I can do to prepare?

Rather than focusing on specifics of your thesis - which you should already be very familiar with - you may find it more useful to spend some time thinking about general topics like:

  • What is in your thesis?
  • What are the key contributions you have made to the topic?
    • Where does your work fit in the broader context of the field?
  • Why did you make the choices you did, in your research approach?
    • What assumptions did you make?
    • What alternative approaches could you have taken?
    • What are the limitations and weaknesses of your work?
  • What future directions would you take the work in?
    • Which questions remain to be answered

This may help the viva take more of the form of a conversation than an adversarial question and answer session.

The best thing you can do is simulate the viva with a mock viva. Usually, your supervisor(s) will offer this without waiting for you to ask. It’s the only way to get experience of being face-to-face with someone asking questions about and discussing your thesis in depth, without doing the viva proper. If you don’t want to do this with your supervisor(s), you can still do it with a friend or colleague, and provide them with questions to ask. As Jill Stuart notes:

Frankly, the content of the questions, whether or not I had written them myself, and how she responded to them didn’t matter—I just needed to be face to face with someone speaking about my thesis. […] After Karen asked me the first question, I think I blushed, giggled, said “ummmm” several times, and then stumbled through an answer, repeatedly saying, “no wait…” or “I wouldn’t say that…” or “let me start over…” or plain old “sh**!” But after about 20 minutes I began talking through my answers. My words started to flow, and I started to get used to the sound of my own voice giving answers. If I hadn’t done that with Karen, I think maybe I would have done it in my viva. Which would not have been good!

What might the outcomes be?

The range of possible outcomes seems broad but, in practice, nearly everyone leaves having passed, with minor corrections. It’s worth bearing in mind that, once you have your PhD, no-one asks you about your corrections - they only care that you have a PhD.

  • Award of Degree (rare)
  • Award of Degree Subject to Corrections (very common)
    • Minor Corrections (very common)
      • Submit corrections to Internal Examiner only
      • Submit corrections to Internal and External Examiner
    • Major Corrections (less common, and not “bad” - this may be to allow more time for completion)
      • Written corrections only
        • Submit corrections to Internal Examiner only
        • Submit corrections to Internal and External Examiner
      • More work required
        • Submit corrections to Internal Examiner only
        • Submit corrections to Internal and External Examiner
        • Resubmission of Thesis
  • Award of a Lower Degree (rare)
  • Award of a Lower Degree After Corrections (rare)
    • Submit corrections to Internal Examiner only
    • Submit corrections to Internal and External Examiner
    • Resubmission of Thesis
  • Fail With No Right of Resubmission (rare)

Further Reading