Overeducated, or tips about the PhD viva

I am rarely overdressed. But having passed my viva, I might now be slightly overeducated. Here is a post about the viva, how it was for me and what I learned from it.

“You can never be overdressed or overeducated”. Oscar Wilde

What it is. The “viva voce”, or more commonly named “viva” is the oral examination taking place at the end of the PhD. It allows examiners to ask you questions about your work and ensure you deserve the title of doctor. Unlike most other European countries where both private and public defences are held, in the UK, you only have a private one. It is composed of an internal examiner, an external examiner, a chair and possibly your supervisor. That’s it.

How it was organised. Having submitted my thesis at the end of May, my supervisors were really efficient in organising the viva for the end of June. I knew who my examiners were and was happy with that choice, which was a good start. I knew I could not speak with them before the viva and that I did not have to prepare a power point (more differences with other countries). All I had to do was to know my thesis inside out. After 4 years of working on it day and night, I was pretty set on that point.

How I prepared. Ultimately, I must have spend 4-5 days preparing. A couple of days reading it all again, and another couple of days preparing my answers to a list of questions, freshen up on some methodology aspects and read the latest publications in my field. I also attended a “viva preparation” workshop at my uni and had a mock viva with two friends, both tremendously helpful. I traveled to Glasgow a couple of days ahead, fairly relaxed. Once there, I did not prepare much more and tried not freaking out over what could go wrong. I did however panic during the hour leading up to it.

phd defense

How it happened. At 11am on June 26th, 2015, I got into the room, was greeted by my examiners and offered a drink. I sat down; it started. The viva lasted just over an hour. The examiners were really clear in their comments and questions, and fair. Half of the comments were suggestions to improve the work for publications; the other half things that needed clarification or modifications before the final submission. I ended up with 7 minor corrections to complete in a month. After an introductory statement about the overall quality of the work, they asked questions about each chapter, from the first to the last. It started with conceptual questions, then methodological ones, some about my findings and analysis, and finally questions about contribution and limitations. This linear approach was really good for me, as I allowed me anticipating what was ahead. I got stuck on some questions, mastered others, but overall the whole session felt really more like a friendly discussion.

Top tips. Here is my advice if you are close to submission or preparing your viva.

  • Know the work of your examiners. Cite them where applicable, if you know them before submitting
  • Update on the very latest publications in your field
  • Practice with an audience (whether they know your topic or not)
  • Rest. Don’t study until 4 am the day before
  • Don’t think your work is perfect. Accept what you don’t know and have not done.
  • Business as usual. On the days leading up to the viva, eat as usual, work as usual, relax as usual.

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Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Haitham Al-Sheeshanyreply
June 30, 2015 at 3:27 pm

Congrats Lau!

June 30, 2015 at 3:36 pm

Thanks Haitham! Are you back in Glasgow with all your data :)?

Haitham Al-Sheeshanyreply
June 30, 2015 at 4:07 pm
– In reply to: laurencedessart

Enjoy your moment.
I am back, toying with my data and hoping it speaks to me! 🙂

June 30, 2015 at 11:03 pm
– In reply to: Haitham Al-Sheeshany

Listen carefully 🙂

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