Dr Jill’s top ten viva tips (pass your PhD oral exam)

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Ten tips for your viva doce exam (PhD exam):

1. I went through my whole thesis and put colored marker flags out the side, marking out each chapter and important parts that I thought might get raised. In fact, I didn’t open my thesis one single time during the exam, but I felt more confident going in, and I think it also looked ‘responsible’ to have markers stuck out of the book.

2. In reading through my thesis the final time, I made a record of all typ-os. Then when any typ-o came up during the viva, or at the end when they mentioned revisions, I pulled it out and said, “I have made a note of all typ-os I found when reading it through and to be fixed before submitting the hardcopy of the thesis.”

3. Defend, without being defensive. You need to justify your approach, without going so far as to raise questions. You can’t account for all biases so you defend your response, without being overly defensive. Your examiner will be sympathetic that you have to make methodological decisions, so give them an intelligent, prepared reason to accept yours.

4. Defend and define. If you get a question, “Why didn’t you do XYZ?” start your answer by acknowledging what you could have done (defend), but then say what you did do instead (define). Taking a random example, “Why didn’t you use a rational actor model in the WTO case?” You acknowledge the potential approach “I could have used a rational actor model approach, and I know that other researchers have done this… but I chose to do a BCD approach… and (BCD) approach was useful because…” You are acknowledging other legitimate approaches to the research but then presenting your approach, and moving on to a positive response to justify your method.

5. Have someone you are comfortable with give you a mock viva. I know the standard advice is to do a mock viva with someone like your supervisor, but my addition here: consider doing one with someone who is not a specialist in your subject. My friend Karen (who was also a PhD student but a different topic) did mine. Given that we don’t work on the same subject, I made up a list of questions for her to give me beforehand. The content of the questions, whether or not I had written them myself, and how she responded to them didn’t matter—I just needed to be face to face with someone speaking about my thesis.

6. Apparently it is standard for the examiners to pitch you a soft ball for your first question. So just be ready for it. It’s usually something like, “How did you become interested in this subject?”… something they expect you will have pre-prepared or can easily answer and that genuinely is an ‘ice-breaker’ to make you feel more comfortable.

7. If you know your examiners, do not expect them to be friendly when you walk in. It is the culture that they are ‘initiating’ you, and it is their obligation to take it very seriously and give you a bit of a hard time. Also, the viva is supposed to be the first time that you are truly being spoken to as a peer—as an academic and not a PhD student—so being quite serious is part of that.

8. From Patrick Dunleavy’s book on ‘Authoring a PhD’: You pose the question, and you provide the answer. Examiners can’t expect you to know things out of your subject area–beyond your research question. Examiners have their own research interests and may ask you something outside of the scope of your PhD: it’s great to respond but also subtly remind them of your question and what this does (and does not) entail.

9. It’s not a finished product and that’s okay. Before my viva, my friend said to me, “Your thesis isn’t finished. It’s not final. You will make some changes before you submit the hardcopy, and you’ll change it a bunch again if you make it into a book.” She was worried that would offend me but I felt it was actually very comforting… The project is still living—it needs to be good enough now to pass the requirements of a PhD, but that doesn’t mean that it’s permanent.

10. Finally, I’ve heard a lot of people who felt it didn’t go so well, and in that excruciating time waiting outside the office while the examiners discussed, worked themselves up into a real state. And all of them were given minor revisions. You will be challenged, it may not go so well. But remember the joke, “What do you call the worst student at a PhD graduation ceremony?” Answer: “Doctor”. I.e., it doesn’t have to be a stellar performance, you just have to show you’ve fulfilled the requirements of a PhD… So don’t panic.

–Dr Jill

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Dr Jill Stuart is an academic based at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is an expert in the politics, ethics and law of outer space exploration and exploitation. She is a frequent presence in the global media (print, radio, television, documentary) and regularly gives lectures around the world. From 2013-2017 she was Editor in Chief of the Elsevier journal Space Policy where she remains on the Editorial Board. She is also on the Board of Advisors of METI International, conducting scientific research into messaging potential extraterrestrial intelligence. She is one of an elite number of people to be endorsed by the UK Home Office as an Exceptional Talent Migrant/ World Leader in her Field. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Margaret Mead Award Lecture by the British Science Association in recognition of her cutting edge research. She is trained in both domestic and international mediation and has done consultancy work for the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. She has a sub-specialism in women, peace and security and gender based violence. She is a Trustee of Luton All Women’s Centre.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Hello Dr. Jill,

    Thank you so much for presenting the whole picture so nicely. I was very tensed and now feeling very relaxed, specially after reading the Joke at the end. I am sure this will assist hundreds of future PhD Viva candidates.

    Wish you good luck.

    A Prospective Candidate

  2. Dear soon-to-be-Doctor,

    Sorry it took me a while to respond–I don’t check my website messages often enough. But I’m so glad my post helped you and reading your response gave me chills. Best of luck, and you’re going to do great! The fact that you are researching how to pass indicates to me that you are level-headed and conscientious, which should place you in good standing with your viva and also your thesis…

    All best,
    Dr Jill

  3. This is such helpful advice. Thank you. Particularly like the idea of going in armed with a list of typos, and idea that marking out the thesis is more a way of feeling (and looking prepared) than necessarily something that you will actually use in viva. Thanks!

  4. Thank you so much for this. I have my viva very soon and its a stressful time, as you know. Reading this really has helped me get in the right mind space. Well written and heart warming!! X

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