A PhD viva is a unique opportunity to discuss your research with two experts. They will have read every word of your thesis and all their attention will be on you and your work. Though any examination is nerve-racking, you should try to enjoy the viva; this detailed, thoughtful consideration of your work does not happen very often.
In contrast to most other European countries, UK vivas are rarely public events. There is no audience and very few people are in the room, often just the candidate and the two examiners one internal to your university and one from outside. In some universities another academic, who is not involved in examining the thesis, chairs the viva; in others the supervisor may be present with the candidate’s consent. Find out exactly what your university’s regulations for the conduct of viva voce examinations are. The details varies quite widely, so make sure that you have the right information for your institution.
When preparing for a viva, remember that you are the expert. Nobody else knows as much about your thesis as you do; the examiners will genuinely be interested in discussing your research and its wider implications. Be prepared to explain how you came to this particular topic and why it merits dedicating three years of your life to it. Step back from the detail of the thesis to think of its general importance. How does it contribute to the historiography? Why should historians outside the immediate field be interested in it?
A few days before the viva, think about how you will explain your thesis to the examiners. You should practise summarizing it; prepare both a five-minute explanation of the thesis and a two-minute one. Identify what you think is most important and original about it and explain how the thesis relates to the published literature on the topic.
It’s also worth thinking carefully about method. Why have you approached the topic in this particular way? Think about how to justify and explain your approach. Be prepared to answer a critique. Remember that, if you’re pushed on a particular point, you can bring the question back to the thesis by, for example, accepting that you didn’t do ‘x’ but pointing out that you did do ‘y’.
Don’t leave preparing for the viva to the last minute. You must read through your thesis carefully beforehand but do this at least 48 hours (and preferably a week) before the examination date so as to give yourself some distance from the thesis. This will help you to convey the overall shape and purpose to the examiners rather than simply the research detail.
During the viva itself, listen carefully to the examiners. Be polite and don’t worry if you have to ask for a question to be clarified or if you appear nervous. The examiners will be expecting this and suggestions and advice given by your examiners will be invaluable and should try to put you at your ease. Think before replying to the questions and give considered responses. Look to develop a dialogue with the examiners, a probing but rewarding discussion on your work to date. And remember that any piece of work benefits from this kind of review. If you are hoping to publish the thesis then the suggestions and advice offered by your examiners will be invaluable.
Return to main Presenting Work page