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'

Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

Foundation Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking EY...

NQT's needed

£100 - £120 per day + Paying from £100 to £120 per day: Randstad Education Lee...

Year 6 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Full time Year 6 class te...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform