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
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin visits her 1990s work ‘My Bed’ at Tate Britain in London, where it is back on display from today
artsBut how does the iconic work stand up, 16 years on?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Structural Engineer

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Structural Engineer ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Sales Executive

£18 - 24k OTE + Uncapped Commission: Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Executive ...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant - IT Channel - Graduate

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a Value-Added I...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor