How To Excel In Your Doctoral Viva (Dissertation Defense)
Completing a PhD, in whatever subject it may be, is a great achievement. However, the reality for many PhD candidates is that the huge milestone of submitting a completed thesis is overshadowed by the idea of having to prepare for the upcoming viva (or dissertation defense) exam. The PhD viva, or viva voce, if we are to use the correct term, is an oral exam at the culmination of a PhD project. The final hurdle. Along with my colleague Dr Isabelle Butcher, I’ve been involved in a couple of different projects designed to ease the pressure, help with preparation and get you over that hurdle with confidence!
Feeling anxious is normal
It's very common for students approaching the viva to feel anxious about it. Although I will be the first to say that feeling anxious is normal, and in many ways advantageous (think adrenaline, improved performance etc), the sense of anxiety caused by the viva being such an unknown entity can be avoided. It is for this reason that Isabelle and I started The PhD Workshops and created our soon to be launched book, How to Excel in Your Doctoral Viva.
Our Zoom-based workshops take place on weekends and involve around six hours of very interesting discussions about the ground-breaking research that is being carried out by doctoral researchers all over the UK. Sometimes attendees even join us from across the globe. Our workshop content has evolved a little since their conception around a year ago, in response to feedback from those who have attended. At this point we have hosted around 1000 PhD students from a wide range of disciplines and institutions, it’s always fascinating to learn something new! Through the workshop, we cover topics including what the viva is, why you are doing one, what the possible outcomes are, tips for combatting anxiety and in time management for preparation. There is a strong emphasis on conversation throughout the day, as we believe the best preparation for the viva is to talk about one’s research, with anyone who will listen. The section that often receives the most positive feedback is the final session of the day, where we give attendees the chance to have a go at answering some common generic viva questions. This really gets students thinking about how to articulate their work and what it means to non-experts, and also serves as a confidence boost.
Real-life viva experiences
Our book was born out of the success and fantastic feedback from our workshops. We wanted to address a gap in the market and give PhD students one place to access guidance on preparing for the viva exam. One of the most valuable aspects of the book, and something quite unique, is a chapter dedicated to the lived experiences of over twenty five academics, clinicians and professionals who have been through the viva experience themselves. These accounts offer never before seen insights into what is usually a very private event in an academic career. Some accounts are very positive, whilst some had more negative experiences. It was important for us to include negative experiences, and not paint an unrealistic image, which in today’s society is often the impression given through channels like social media.
Our top viva tips
1. Be aware of myths
The 10-hour viva
Some people’s viva will be longer than others. The average is around 3 hours. Your examiner needs to get home too!
The impossible question
The viva is not a quiz. You are not expected to have memorised your thesis or know complex concepts and analyses in excessive detail. You can check your thesis at any point.
The viva is a conversation. This means you don’t have to agree with every opinion your examiner has. If you disagree, it’s fine, as long as you can justify yourself and hold an intelligent conversation, taking different perspectives on board.
The trick question
Your examiners are not there to trip you up or trick you. They are likely there because they have a genuine interest in your research.
2. Preparation is key
- Plan your time well in advance if you can.
- 3 months before: Research your examiners and their interests.
- 2 months before: Highlight aspects of thesis to focus preparation on. Share and talk about your research. Consider possible questions examiners will ask.
- 1 month before: Utilise supervisor’s expertise in possible subjects to arise in the viva. Discuss and explain your research to others.
- 1 week before: Be able to summarise your thesis. Address any areas you are unsure about explaining.
- 1 day before: Rest. Take time away from your thesis.
3. Deal with concerns
Feeling anxious about the viva is normal. There are many ways to look after yourself whilst preparing for your viva:
- Remember all that you have achieved to date.
- Reflect on the PhD experience.
- Refresh: take time to step away from the thesis.
- Rest: rest looks different for everyone.
- Remember feeling nervous is not bad. Such feelings can propel us to a high level of cognitive performance.
Enjoy your viva
For many, once the unknown element of the viva experience is lifted, preparing for and completing the viva itself can become much more enjoyable. This is the ultimate aim of both our workshops and book – a PhD is a fantastic achievement, and the viva is really a unique opportunity to discuss that great achievement with other experts. We hope our efforts enable students to remove some of the worry surrounding the event and enjoy the process.
About the author
Dr Stacey Bedwell is a teaching fellow in Psychology at King's College London, and also works at the University of Cambridge as a tutor in cognitive neuroscience. Her book, How to Excel in Your Doctoral Viva, was co-written by Dr Isabelle Butcher and is published by Palgrave Macmillan. It is scheduled for release in September 2022 and is currently available to pre-order from Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers.
For more information about Stacey and Isabelle’s PhD workshops: www.phdworkshops.com
More viva advice from Hello Bio
For more advice on the PhD viva (or dissertation defense) experience from both sides of the desk, take a look at these previous blog posts:
- Surviving Your Viva / Dissertation Defense - guest blog by Dr James Quinn
- Unprecedented: The Story of a Lockdown Viva - guest blog by Dr Harry Potter
- The Life Scientists’ Guide To Examining Your First Dissertation Defense - useful advice for those about to sit on a viva panel for the first time
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