Capable of striking fear into the heart of even the most confident PhD student, the Viva looms large over the entire PhD journey. No matter whether the PhD is going well or causing problems, there’s always the viva to worry about.
Long story short, everyone is scared of the viva.
One thing that can help is knowing what to expect during the viva itself. That’s why we got in touch with Professor Peter Smith, who recently published The PhD Viva: How to Prepare for Your Oral Examination with Palgrave, and who has successfully supervised 60+ PhD and professional doctorate students and examined a further 50+ PhD students all over the world. We asked him what the most common questions are that students face during their vivas. Read his answer below.
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1. An Opening Question
The examiners will quite often start a viva with an opening question; perhaps something like this: “Spend five or ten minutes telling us about your work, what you have done, and what the contribution is” or “Summarise your work for us, in a single sentence.” A question like this gives you an opportunity to explain your work up front, breaks the ice, settles you in and gets you talking. Making a contribution is the most important element of the PhD thesis. It is very likely that you will be questioned about this.
2. The aims, objectives, research questions, and hypotheses
In your thesis you will have set out the purpose of your work. Depending on the discipline that you working in, you may have called this an aim (with accompanying objectives), a question (or a series of questions) or an hypothesis (or a series of hypotheses). It doesn’t matter what you have called this in your thesis; you need to be prepared to explain and justify it to the examiners. Typical questions might be “explain your research question and how you derived it.”
3. Coverage of the literature
The examiners will want to be sure that you understand the literature which underpins your work. An important criterion for the award of PhD in that the candidate demonstrates knowledge of the relevant work of other researchers in your field. So it is likely that they will ask some questions which test your knowledge of the academic literature within your subject. You may, for example be asked: “Which are the three most important papers which relate to your thesis?”, “Whose work has most influenced yours, and why?”, or “Whose work is the closest to yours?” and “How is your work different to theirs?”
Your PhD Thesis.
On one page.
4. Methodological questions
The methodology, and the approach you have taken, is another area that the examiners are likely to want to discuss. This could come in the form of a question asking you to justify your approach: “Why did you choose to use a qualitative approach?” and “What alternative approaches might you have chosen?” or more detailed questions about the methods used: “Why did you use focus groups rather than interviews?” or “How did you select the group of people to interview?”
Most PhD’s have some ethical issues which they need to be considered. This may take the form of a specific question such as: “Explain the ethical protocols and approval procedures which you followed” or “Did you obtain informed consent?”, or a more general question, such as: “What are the ethical implications of your work?”.
6. Decisions you made
Along the way, you will have had to take several decisions as to the next step to take. The examiners may ask you to discuss and justify these. This could take the form of a very general question: “What was the most important decision that you had to make during the course of your PhD?”; “Which decisions would you change if you were to do the work again?” or something much more specific: “Why did you choose to test your system on this group of people?”
It is always important to show that you have evaluated the work that you have done. Typical questions could be: “How did you set about evaluating the work you did?”, “How does your work compare to that of others?”, “What is the strongest point of your work?”, “Which part of your thesis are you most proud of, and why?”, and “Which is the weakest part of your work?”.
8. Future Work
Examiners will almost always ask about possible areas for future work. Questions could be: “If you had another year, what would you do?” or “How would you continue with the work? What are the next steps?”
With the right preparation and mindset, the viva is nothing to be scared of. Work through model answers to the questions above, have a good read of your thesis, and have faith that you know your research better than anyone else. Then, on the day, try to have fun.
If you want to be as prepared as possible for your viva, book yourself onto a one-on-one mock viva with Professor Smith. Boost your confidence with a full practice run before the big day. Click here to find out more.
Prepare for your viva. One question at a time.
Prepare answers to the most common PhD viva questions with this interactive template. It’s free to download and it’s yours to keep forever.
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