How to shine at your viva

For doctoral students there is no greater challenge than a viva voce. Preparation is essential, says Tristan Farrow

PhD vivas are a traumatic rite of passage that most graduates try hard to forget. Only last week, I attended an Institute of Physics conference and overheard over lunch one PhD viva-survivor proclaiming that she would never want to sit through a viva again. The passion of her conviction dawned on me when I realised that her ordeal was more than three years old, and that her external examiner was by her own admission a very gentle man, a fact I can attest to because I happen to know him.

The viva, or viva voce, is an oral examination aimed at establishing that the content of a PhD thesis is the student's own work and that it meets a minimum standard. Faced with a strong thesis, examiners will tend to approach the viva with a view to extending that work and publishing the results. For a weaker thesis the emphasis will be on filling gaps, says Dr Daud Ali, a senior graduate research tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Having worked on a PhD degree for three years, students find it stressful to have their work examined in the space of two or three hours, explains professor Peter Tasker, head of the chemistry graduate school at Edinburgh University. And most students are scared to come face to face with two independent examiners behind closed doors. Of the two examiners, one will belong to the student's faculty, while the other - the external examiner - will come from another university.

Preparation is vital, and students should approach vivas as legitimate examinations, advises, Dr Rowena Murray an academic with 20 years' experience in running viva workshops for students and examiners at Strathclyde University's centre for academic practice. Last year saw the publication of her book How to Survive Your Viva, aimed at dispelling much of the mythology surrounding the subject, with snappy chapters brimming with advice on verbal strategies and proper scholarly debate. The pages are packed with examples of real questions such as "how would you spend £250,000 on future research".

The art of dealing with interrogations about weaknesses in a thesis depends on re-phrasing your answers with an emphasis on the word "focus" rather than "weakness", says Murray. Also, the book offers coping-strategies for a range of scenarios, from stress-management to responding to hostile examiners. For the nervous student, the book's brevity and to-the-point style makes it a welcome companion.

However, rhetorical skills alone do not make or break a viva, and a good thesis will not be penalised even if the oral defence isn't up to scratch, says Ali. He advises students to re-read their theses in good time before the viva, but says they should try not to get bogged down in detail. The emphasis should be on keeping the wider picture in mind. "When I was reading through my thesis I spotted some errors that I pored over," recalls Kieran Flanagan, who gained his PhD from Manchester University last August. "Come viva time, the examiners picked up on different mistakes I hadn't seen, so I worried a lot over nothing".

The key point to remember about vivas is that failure occurs rarely. Assuming that the thesis was properly supervised, passing a viva is a foregone conclusion, says Professor John Worrell, director of the doctoral programme in philosophy of science at the London School of Economics. Between the two very unlikely outcomes of failure and an outright pass, a swathe of grey exists where preparation can make the difference between having to correct a few thesis paragraphs, to seeing your PhD extended by an extra year.

Keeping that perspective in mind can turn what is normally seen as an ordeal into a positive learning experience and an opportunity to showcase the fruits of your labour. The most effective way of achieving that is to be positive and confident, says Dr Paola Atkinson a recent physics viva survivor at Cambridge University. That view is so frequently repeated that it must be worth heeding.

'How to Survive Your Viva' by Rowena Murray is available from Open University Press to readers of 'The Independent' at £2 off the marked price of £16.99. Call 01628 502 700 and quote the reference 'Independent'

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