How to not just survive, but to enjoy your PhD Viva

A few months ago I wrote a post about What it is like to do a PhD.   I was then nearing towards submitting my PhD thesis for examination and starting to think about the final examination, a PhD Viva.

“What does Viva actually mean?”, one of my friends asked last summer and to be honest, I had to Google the actual meaning myself, this after 3.5 years as a PhD student. Wikipedia told me that the translation for “Viva voce”, from which the word Viva comes from means “an oral exam, especially in a thesis defence in academia”. As a PhD student you learn pretty soon that at the end of your sometimes complicated PhD journey which can include ups, downs and indescribable grey areas in between, there awaits a grand exam. There are numerous advice sources on the Internet, as well as books, about how to prepare for your Viva, or more like how to survive your Viva, such seems to be the reputation of this event.

In UK universities, the Viva is not public, unlike in many European institutions, but instead the examination is conducted with two examiners, one internal examiner from your host institution and an external examiner who is usually an expert in your field of study. In my case, I was able to discuss my potential examiners in advance with my supervisors. I wanted a balance between experience and gender and to my delight was appointed Dr Florian Kern from SPRU  and Professor Eva Heiskanen from the National Consumer Research Centre, Finland ,  as examiners.

So how does one actually prepare for a Viva, an exam that is like no other, as every Viva is different with different thesis, examiners and structure of questions? In my experience, much of that, as well as the whole PhD journey, is down to a personal choice. At SPRU, PhD students have Research Committees each year until their thesis submission, which helps you get an idea of what it is liked to be questioned (or grilled if you prefer honesty) by two more senior researchers about your PhD. In addition to those I did a few things that helped me a great deal. First of all after submitting the PhD thesis, I left it to rest for a couple of months. It was good to take a step back and leave it to dwell somewhere in the sub consciousness. A few weeks before my Viva I had a “mock-Viva” with one of my supervisors, a kind of trial run of the type of questions that may come up on the day. I also went on holiday and planned to read my thesis five times while there. In the end I managed once. My supervisor Professor Adrian Smith  advised that it is good to learn to talk about your thesis, so I took that literally, googled “top 40 viva questions” and and spent quite a few hours talking about my thesis aloud to myself. I also deliberately did things that took me out of my comfort zone. For instance I went on a first date for the first time after my marriage had ended  and I also did horse riding for the first time in 25 years, both of which were scary but somehow helped along the lines of “if I can get through this, I can get through my Viva”. Just a few days before my Viva I had another mock Viva with my other supervisor Professor Gordon MacKerron, who asked me a series of pretty hard questions.

On the day of the Viva I was nervous, but to my surprise not as nervous as I thought I would be. I thought I had done everything I possibly could to prepare and after all this was my research we were going to be talking about. I was the one who had spent 3.5 years with it and would most likely know the most about it. I would just have to convince the examiners that they thought so too.  The Viva lasted for 2.5 hours (and yes, you are allowed to have a comfort break). There were hard questions and some not so hard ones. There were a couple of times when I thought it was going really badly and other times when I thought that yes I can do this. At the end, my examiners sent me out of the room while they decided on the outcome, which can be in the form of no corrections (apparently this is very rare), minor corrections or major corrections. I was told minor corrections and needless to say I was very happy with the result.

Now that months have passed since the Viva and I have had my graduation ceremony (where you get to wear those fancy gowns) I think back fondly to my time as a PhD student at SPRU, and also remember the Viva as an event that I thoroughly enjoyed despite its initial scariness. After all, it was the only time I had a chance to talk about my PhD in length with two people who had read my work, fully engaged with it, provided solid feedback and made my thesis better in the process.A photograph of Mari Martiskainen smiling

Mari joined the Sussex Energy Group at SPRU in 2006. Her research has included topics such as community energy, consumer behaviour and debates surrounding new and old energy technologies, such as nuclear power and microgeneration. Mari is currently working for the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand, concentrating on issues such as energy efficiency policy and innovation linked to building energy efficiency. Mari succesfully defended her PhD, “Delivering Community Energy Projects, experiences from Finland and the UK“, in August 2014. During her PhD Mari was supervised by Professor Gordon MacKerron and Dr. Adrian Smith.Mari is an affiliate PhD Researcher of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. You can also follow Mari on Twitter @martiskainen.


PhD study at SPRU

SPRU offers an inclusive and active academic community that embraces a broad range of research topics and methodological approaches. The multidisciplinary nature of SPRU’s research means that doctoral students have access, and contribute to a tremendous range of expertise.  Find out more

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13 comments on “How to not just survive, but to enjoy your PhD Viva
  1. Well done. I am sure your story will be helpful to others. Actually it is your supervisors who are really being examined in the viva: they should not let you submit until the thesis is good enough to Pass!

    • Nancy Carter says:

      Dear Andrew,
      Thank you for your comment. Indeed, good supervision is key to any PhD study and the supervisors are there to advice and ensure that the thesis is of good quality before it is submitted. Nevertheless, at the Viva it is the PhD student who is responsible for the thesis defence. I was extremely lucky to have two very good supervisors, which helped enormously through the whole PhD process!
      Best wishes,

  2. L.Gitu says:

    What a great encourage to graduate students pursuing PhDs. This is a must read for them all.
    Dr L. Gitu
    supervisor PhD stnts

  3. Kenneth says:

    I’ll be submitting my PhD thesis in a couple of months. I’ve been dreading my Viva since the very beginning of my PhD journey. There are moments when I feel quite proud of the work I’ve done. But then, there are moments (and these are increasing every day) when I just feel at a loss and insecure. This creates a lot of tension, especially with my loved ones. I know there are many books on the subject. Is it worth reading one of these? If yes, would you suggest any one in particular? I know I can do it, but what worries me is that I may get stuck and won’t be able to express myself clearly.

    • martiskainen says:

      Hi Kenneth, I know the feeling, what you are going through is completely normal. I did not read any books, the only book I read beforehand was my PhD. What really helped though was practising viva questions beforehand and doing a mock viva with my supervisor. In moments of panic just remember that you’re the expert of your PhD thesis and know it best. I also think that a little bit of adrenalin on the day is good, after all it is a massive achievement what you have done. Good luck for the submission and your forthcoming viva!
      Best wishes,

  4. Terry says:

    very insightful… with your permission, il send this link out to our PhD students here at the University of Nairobi

  5. Psych Nairo says:

    Oh the pressure is intense… thanks for the insight. Will definitely use some of the tips and circulate widely.

  6. This is a great article

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