The final hurdle: getting through the PhD viva

The PhD viva (oral defence of the thesis) is the final rite of passage for PhD students in Britain and elsewhere (although I get the impression that it doesn’t happen in the US at the very end, but there are other stages of the PhD process – the defence of the thesis proposal – that involve something very similar?). But there has in the past been very little to help them prepare for it, making it an even more nerve-wracking prospect. It’s long been a rather mysterious ritual, held as it is (in Britain) behind closed doors. (Our department has very recently introduced mock vivas to help counter this; I suspect it’s part of a wider trend in which increasing emphasis is being placed on good preparation and support to help students survive.)

It should not be that scary. It should be a positive and rewarding experience, an opportunity to rabbit about your pet obsession of the last three years to a captive audience. And it should not be a confrontation, but an exploration of the stuff in your head that underlies the words on the page (apart from anything else it is, of course, testing that you did the hard work of research and wrote those words yourself). There may well be some questions, say, about why you did X rather than Y (part of your viva preparation should be thinking about the weak spots and how you might respond to questions about them), but unless there’s something very wrong with your thesis, you should not be and should not feel under attack. It’s much more about establishing that you’ve understood your material and its significance to a wider field of study. A PhD thesis is a kind of apprentice piece. It’s meant to show that you’ve learned the essential skills of the discipline; and at the same time, have contributed something worthwhile and new (in some small way) to that discipline.

Nearly everyone who gets this far ‘passes’. It is not a rubber-stamping exercise, however; far from it. Nearly everyone will also have to make corrections of some kind; in some cases, more substantial than others. Things can go horribly wrong (more likely than failure is to have to rewrite substantially and resubmit, or, possibly worse, be awarded only an MPhil with no option to resubmit), but this is unusual. It can also go a little awry if the choice of external examiner is misjudged, by the way; it’s important to find someone with the right expertise and who will be broadly sympathetic to the subject and the approach taken. (You don’t want to spend two hours being grilled over a perfectly valid methodology which that examiner happens to dislike or even miscomprehend; that’s not what it should be about.)

Anyway, in the run up to my own viva in 2003, I found a certain amount of online material that helped me to understand better what was likely to take place, to focus on what I needed to do, and which made the process of preparation a good deal easier. There seems to be considerably more available now, so this list is really just a selection (google “phd viva guidance” for more). None of this relates specifically to history PhDs, but this experience is one that is much the same across disciplines.

The final hurdle: preparation for the PhD viva examination
Preparing for the research viva
Preparing for a viva
In the dark? Preparing for the PhD viva
Survive your viva


9 thoughts on “The final hurdle: getting through the PhD viva”

  1. Thanks Sharon. I shall read these after I submit as I don’t want to start getting nervous now!!! I read the things go horribly wrong Guardian article. I wish I hadn’t!!! Argh!!!! Good thing I’m watching a scary movie in the minute. That’ll put it out of mind. It’s interesting that other students in other universities have sensed things that students I know have also sensed. We’re deciding on the examiners at the moment. Eek.

  2. The choice of external examiner is really important (I suspect that quite a lot of bad experiences come from getting it wrong). I’m glad that it sounds as though you have some say in the matter. Think of people whose work you’ve read and thought, yes, this is someone I could have an interesting conversation with. If you write a good thesis (I don’t think that you have a problem there from what you’ve written about it) and prepare yourself well, it’ll be surprisingly easy.

  3. We do an oral defense at the end. We often have them at other points as well, but at least in my field it is typical to have a 2-hour time scheduled. Depending on the U it may be open to the public. The student gives a presentation first (for the benefit of the audience; the advisors should have read it already) and then has to answer questions. Eventually everyone but the committee gets sent out and they deliberate the student’s fate. The dissertation chair should not let a student who won’t pass get to the defense stage, but it does happen sometimes. Typically there are revisions, which the advisor or whoever is concerned about them will eventually aprove and sign off on. That’s it!

  4. Some general advice follows, derived from hardly any experience: mainly talking to my mates. I’ve also done 2 vivas; mine, and one that I was internal for. I was far more nervous about the latter. Luckily the thesis (spookily enough, on crime and policing in Denbighshire – in the C19th) was excellent so the viva went well.

    The bottom line is: never, ever submit without your supervisor’s approval, unless relations have completly broken down: if they have, work your way up the chain of command until you find someone who is prepared to read it and sign it off. Or not. Also remember that just because your supervisor hates you and is a lazy bastard, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily wrong about your thesis needing more work on it before it will pass.

    Universities are actually increasingly scared of getting sued (trust me on this), so if your supervisor goes AWOL at a crucial point, you are very likely to be listened to if you kick up a stink. The Proper Channels for doing this are normally in your course handbook – if in doubt, contact the National Postgraduate Committee. If all else fails, try getting hold of this man, who might help you out on condition that you agree to be a case study:

    The next most important thing is the choice of external. On methodology, I agree with Sharon. Also, if you fancy a career in the game, avoid someone emminent but likely to die soon. Someone who is famous for being approachable, writing references promptly, and generally being respected is probably better than someone who is academically brilliant but deeply unreliable. You are going to be needing them later.

    Finally – some people think of a referral as a failure. Others think of it as a extension…

    PS [Off topic] How cool is Eric Hobsbawm?

  5. Very, but I’ve long been a true worshipper of EP Thompson and Gwyn Alf Williams.

    I totally agree with Chris in everything he says about a) supervisors and b) externals. Get it right, and your external will be an important part of your early career, someone who you can turn to for references and advice (but don’t overdo it). Come to that, I’m wondering whether to ask mine if he could read over (parts of) my revised manuscript for me. Do you think that’d be okay?

    profgrrl: thanks for that information; I wasn’t at all clear on what happened at the end of an American PhD. Some similarities but also clear differences: a British viva is *never* open to the public (which cuts out the presentation bit at the beginning!), and it sounds as though the American oral might be more of a collective decision.

  6. Approaching your external with some draft chapters sounds like a good idea to me, and quite polite as well: after all, this way they get to find it all out before anyone else does. You might try your supervisor, too.

  7. My supervisor (now my ‘mentor’ in fact) has always been wonderfully generous about reading things. (Remembering to actually discuss those things afterwards instead of the conversation drifting off to a thousand other subjects – now, that’s sometimes been a problem. ;)) I was just less sure about how much it’s reasonable to ask of the external.

  8. Sharon, not every university (or department) has open defenses, but the ones I’ve been affiliated with do. I like that! I attended about 5 of them before my own and felt more comfortable and well-prepared (except I had a huge audience — about 30 people).

    We do closed orals with our committee when defending the proposal, and sometimes as part of the qualifying exam process. That varies a lot from school to school. I had a 2-hour closed room oral for the final part of my quals, and a 2-hour closed proposal defense.

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