Doctoral Discussions: Viva Event Recap

The Viva. The final challenge following years of arduous research, teaching, and learning. Everything builds up to this moment. All for the opportunity to walk out of the room with an honorary title and the realisation all those years finally paid off. This challenge is no simple walk, yet preparation and strategy can be a key difference in how the examiners view your Viva. Fortunately, we at the Sussex Research Hive pulled together four people who recently completed their Viva’s to provide valuable insight and suggestions to make your Viva experience easier. 

In our last Doctoral Discussions event for the 2015 Spring Semester, we were fortunate enough to have Sam Appleton, Laila Kadiwal, Chris Jones, and Trine Berry, offer their recent experience with the Viva process. Each speaker provided their own unique challenges they experienced and suggested a number of techniques to make your Viva seem less dreadful. Fortunately for you, we have compiled a their challenges and suggestions to let help you prepare for the last, yet biggest challenge of your PhD! If you’d like to listen to the whole event, follow the link provided here.
There are a couple notable points about Viva’s everyone should be aware before discussing the process and how to best prepare. First off, the Viva doesn’t have to be a dreadful experience. Everything cultivates to this point. The passion behind the research and the expert knowledge acquired comes to light. Secondly, universities handle their Viva’s differently. Sussex examines whether your thesis contributes original work. Focus the viva on demonstrating how your work differs from the current literature and emphasise its impact.
The Viva Process
The viva experience is fairly straightforward. You select an internal and external examiner. On the day of the Viva, you are brought in and asked questions on the supervision, questions directly about the thesis (this is the longest and most intensive part), and finally discussions with the examiner about your work. They may ask questions about the background literature, the techniques used, any clarifications your research enhances, or your level of involvement with each step of your thesis (e.g. if a collaborator helped and to what extent).
Afterward, the examiners convene to accept or deny with major or minor revisions. It’s important to remember when the Viva is ending and your examiners ask for any questions, ask for suggestions directly and straight away. The time scale can vary with each student, as Chris Jones mentioned his Viva took 4.5 hours to complete!
How to best prepare
So how do you prepare for hours worth of questions on your thesis? Let’s start with the examiners. Before your viva date is set, you’ll have to pick the internal and external examiners. Try not to aim for absolute experts, yet no one too junior in the field. Experts can expect more of the methods or knowledge of methods that may not be your own expertise. Try to select referees who you’ve used in your references. You’ll know their work and a bit about what they specialise. It also helps networking with them after the Viva for collaboration or work.
Once the examiners have been selected and a date set, start preparing a couple months before the viva. It’s best to be prepared. With a critical eye, look at the strengths and weaknesses of the thesis. What kind of questions can you predict and how would you handle the response? Use a friend to role play and practice the questions and answers you might expect. Your supervisors are a great resource for this. They know the ins and outs of your research. Politely ask your supervisors to have a mock Viva. To keep all the details in your head, create a summary sheet detailing the most important points of your research over the last few years and study it.

On the day of the viva, remember confidence is key. It’s important how you enter the room. Establish yourself with good eye contact and a friendly smile. You’re in that room to prove yourself as an equal to your peers. Demonstrate that with your work, your knowledge, and your demeanour. This trifecta will empower you to be your best on the last stage of your PhD.
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