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

Photo by Dr Stuart
Photo by Dr Stuart

I compiled these a couple of years ago, to send to friends as they went through the viva process. It occurred to me that the tips might appeal to a wider audience–thus posting them here! My PhD was in the humanities/ social sciences, but perhaps these would be useful for other disciplines as well.

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 all these markers stuck out of the book. I got this idea from my friend Mike Williams, whose examiner did talk about specific parts, which Mike could then flip straight to.

2. In reading through it the final time, I also made a record of all typ-os. It was like 3 pages long—just a document saying, “Page 11, para 2, use the instead of and” (and circled the typ-o in the thesis)…. 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.” Again—it helped me to feel more prepared and in control, I think it looked responsible, and also that way when I was reading through the last time and cringing at every typ-o I found, it was empowering to be able to write them down and be ready to fix them.

3. A great statement from my friend Stephanie, via her supervisor: Defend, without being defensive. I thought about this a lot beforehand and it helped.

4. Another good one: Define and defend. This came from a book on passing the viva. This is how it works: if you get a question, “Why didn’t      you do XYZ?” you start your answer by saying, “I did ABC…. “ and then move on to talking about XYZ. Let’s pick a random example: “Why didn’t you use a rational actor model in the WTO case?” You don’t say, “Because I didn’t think it would be useful      blah blah blah….” You define what you did do first: “I used constructivism for the WTO case and argued that Mexican politicians’ interests were pre-constituted in part by the social context. While I considered a rational actor model approach, I felt that…”  I don’t know if I actually used the technique in my viva, but having it in my mind kept me in a ‘proactive’ rather than ‘defensive’ mindset.

5. I would absolutely 100% have someone give you a mock viva.  My friend Karen 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. Frankly, 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. Come to think of it, if anything it might have been good that she was friendly and not really in a position to challenge me much since she doesn’t know my topic–the point of the exercise is to get yourself talking. I wouldn’t have had the same benefit from thinking questions through in my head or even speaking in the mirror. After Karen asked me the first question, I think I blushed, giggled, said “ummmm” several times, and then stumbled through an answer, repeatedly saying, “no wait…” or “I wouldn’t say that…” or “let me start over…” or plain old “sh**!” But after about 20 minutes I began talking through my answers. My words started to flow, and I started to get used to the sound of my own voice giving answers. If I hadn’t done that with Karen, I think maybe I would have done it in my viva. Which would not have been good!

6. Apparently it is standard for the examiners to pitch you a soft ball for your first question. Usually something like, “How did you become interested in this subject?”—just 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. Even if you know them well (as I did), don’t let it freak you out if they aren’t friendly. I knew mine very well and was so glad I had been told this before I went in or else I would have thought interpreted their somber looks as their not liking my thesis. But apparently 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. Also, a good line to remember from Patrick Dunleavy’s book on ‘Authoring a PhD’, relating to the thesis as a whole: You pose the question, and you provide the answer.  That is of course simplistic when it comes to something huge like a thesis, but it helped me to remember that the examiners couldn’t expect me to know things way out of my subject area. You are not going to get in there and have them ask you something totally left field—and if they do, you can subtly remind them of your question and what this does (and does not) entail. I never had to do this, but I felt better going in with it in mind.

9. From my friend Stephanie: when I met her before my viva, she said something to the effect of, “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 so sweet—she was worried that would offend me or freak me out, like, “ack, there’s still more to do!?”…but I felt it was actually very comforting… I guess I had been feeling like, “Oh my god, this is it. If anything is wrong, it’s wrong.” But this reminded me that 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 going to be tattooed word for word as it is into your forehead for all eternity. (Unless you get very drunk after passing and decide a tattoo is the best way to celebrate. I do not recommend…)

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.