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13 steps I took to prepare for my PhD viva

PhD viva exam preparation

I submitted my thesis in Dec 2016. It took much longer than I had anticipated for the examiners and the chair to be approved due to administrative delays. Two months later (in late Feb) I received confirmation that my exam would be at the end of April.

In terms of the arrangements of the day of the viva, I must say the graduate office in my department were great and said they would organise the day, and I should only worry about preparing for the exam. I booked advance tickets so I could get to the University early and not have to pay a peak time train fare. I have a written about my viva experience here.

From Jan-March I was working with the public health team at Hackney City Council. I also had Open University marking to do in March. So I started preparing for my thesis approximately a month before my viva, and this is how:

Step 1: The first thing I did was read this really useful three part blogpost by Fiona Noble. I decided I was going to tackle the preparation in a similar fashion.

Step 2: I knew I had to read the thesis cover to cover, but I was dreading it. I was overcome by fear that I may open the first page and spot mistakes. Or I may start reading it and realise it is a complete rubbish. So I procrastinated for two days, looking for any excuse not to open the thesis, which is so unlike me. On the third day, I was forced to work in a cafe and lo and behold, I managed to read almost half the thesis. Whilst reading the thesis, I placed post it notes where I thought I may be asked a question, where I thought something may not be clear and also the references that were not fresh in my head. Because it had been three months since I had last read the thesis, it really felt like a fresh read, and when I completed reading it, thankfully I said to myself ‘it isn’t bad at all’ (which means it is good!).

Step 3: I then sat at my desk with my computer, and started to go through all the post it notes. Where it was in relation to a reference, I re-read the abstract of the paper, just to refresh my memory, and placed a short summary of the paper or the paper title on a larger post it note and stuck it inside the thesis, next to where it was mentioned. I also went through all the other post it notes, answered the questions, and left small post it notes inside the thesis, in case I would be questioned in my viva and I’d forget the answer.

Step 4: I prepared questions that could come up in the thesis in a Q&A document. I looked online, and found many questions, and I had also bought PhD viva cards a year or so ago. I also went through the archive of the PhD Viva website which I had set up in 2012 (but very sadly hacked and and deleted). So I sat with about 5 different long lists of questions and the cards in an attempt to amalgamate them, so that I would end up with a very thorough list of questions. I did that, and towards the the end I realised that the list of questions from this list published online was actually very comprehensive, and pretty much covered everything that was on other lists (I have copied the list of questions from that resource at the end of this post in case the online resource goes haywire). I sat and typed up the answers to these questions in note form in a Word document. I realised quickly that the answer to most of these questions was narrated in my thesis, so there was much copy pasting too. Rowen Murray’s book ‘How to Survive Your Viva’ is a book I dipped into regularly, during this stage and other stages too. It isn’t an essential read, but it is really detailed, and if you are not feeling confident about answering the questions, it suggests really good ways to approach the answers.

(NB: After I completed this step I found this resource: list of 40 viva questions, which is shorter but looks almost as good too (and in hindsight post-viva, I think it is a better set of questions).

Step 5: I then received an email from my main supervisor asking me to prepare a 10 min presentation for the mock viva, an answer to the question ‘Tell me about your research’, as this is always the first question. She suggested that I should structure it as follows:

  1. about you – what disciplinary perspective are you approaching this from? Your motivation for doing the research topic.
  2. research problem, aims, research questions
  3. methodology
  4. findings
  5. conclusions and contributions

I was a bit taken aback to be honest at this point as I wasn’t expecting this type of open-ended question, and I hadn’t really come across it in the notes or books I had read, but once I had a think about it, it made sense that the first question is likely to be quite open-ended, and as she advised, it made sense to prepare for the first question thoroughly, as it gives you a good strong start. So I created a Powerpoint using a similar structure to the above (motivations for research, originality of the research, research question, findings, key contributions to knowledge, and key contributions to practice). I had already prepared this in note format in Step 4 so it didn’t take long to put this presentation together. However, I did spend some time vocalizing the presentation and practicing it in front of my husband. At this stage I was not sure whether I would use the Powerpoint in the viva, or just use the slides as a way to guide the answer to this question. My supervisor suggested I should go with whichever I prefer, and I left that decision for closer to the time.

Step 6: I placed bookmarks using post it notes in my thesis, across the top went Chapter numbers and across the side were key areas of my thesis, that I was pretty certain I may need to look at during my thesis (pages that had limitations of study for example, or why I had chosen one mode of survey over another for example).

Step 7: I had been compiling a list of new papers published since I had submitted that I thought I may be asked to comment about. I printed off the abstracts and read through them. I also went back to the document prepared in Step 4, and read through it again critically and added more notes to it, and made some of the notes briefer. I also added a few notes to the thesis itself.

Step 8: I re-read the entire thesis for the second time before the mock viva (I suspect this probably wouldn’t be required if you do not have such a huge gap between submission and viva). I also practiced the presentation and took all my notes along to the mock viva

Step 9: The mock viva ended up being more of a chat than a mock viva. I received some good feedback on the presentation for the viva, and we discussed a few questions that may come up. One of the questions I hadn’t thought of was: Would your findings have implications on any other fields outside of healthcare? My supervisor also advised me that if both examiners asked me to make a change, or argued a point strongly, I should accept their advice and say “I’d be happy to make that change” rather than arguing with them.

Step 10: I updated the PPT based on feedback from my supervisor, and I went through the Q&A document, and highlighted the key questions that I needed to take as notes in the interview. I copied those questions and placed them on to 2 pages. I also placed some of the question and answers inside the thesis, and referenced it with page numbers on this 1 page (double page) notes document that I decided I would take into the thesis (parts of this double page notes document can be seen in the image at the top of this post).

Step 11: I re-read the entire thesis (for the third time) two weeks before the viva and typed up any typos/errors I found. I also updated the Double page notes document during this time.

Step 12: In the final week, I practiced the presentation, practiced answering viva questions using the viva cards by myself and got my husband to ask me the questions too. I also read the thesis again (but this time missing some chapters). I printed off the PPT two days before and got all the things ready for the viva using my last-minute checklist (see below). The day before I went through the Thesis Defence Checklist and ensured it was all ticked off.

Step 13: On the day of the viva I got myself to the venue, had the viva and I passed with very few small minor corrections (8 to be precise). I have written about my viva experience in detail here.

Reflection post-viva:

In hindsight, I probably over prepared slightly, and the majority of the questions I had prepared for never came up. But the preparation gave me a huge amount of confidence, and it meant that I knew my thesis inside out, so during the viva I easily navigated to certain pages. If I had to go back I would probably use the 40 questions listed below to prep rather than the longer list of questions. I would definitely not skip the two mock vivas, and the PPT presentation I prepared, because presenting the PPT at very start of the viva meant that I started off very strong and was very well prepared for their initial few questions. (BTW I used printouts of the PPT to talk over the slides (I gave the examiners a copy too), rather than formally presenting the PPT visually using a digital screen).

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Possible viva questions, a long list compiled by ddubdrahcir

Overview

  1. Summarise your thesis in a sentence.
  2. Does the title represent the content?
  3. Describe your thesis in brief.
  4. How did you decide to order your thesis?
  5. What is your overall argument?
  6. Summarise the context.
  7. Why did you choose this topic?
  8. Why is this topic important, and to whom is it relevant?
  9. What are the key findings?
  10. What is original here; what are your contributions to knowledge?
  11. What justifies this thesis as a doctorate?

Literature

  1. Where did you draw the line on what you included in your literature review?
  2. Where did you draw the line on what you included in the theoretical literature?
  3. How did the literature inform your choice of topic and the thesis overall?
  4. What three publications would you say have been most influential in your work?
  5. Where does your work fit into the literature?
  6. Who are the key names in this area?
  7. Who are the project’s key influences?
  8. How does your work differ from theirs?
  9. Do the findings confirm, extend, or challenge any of the literature?
  10. How does your work connect to that of your reviewers?

Research Design and Methodology

  1. Summarise your research design.
  2. Did you think about applying a different design?
  3. What are the limitations of this kind of study?
  4. Is there anything novel in your method?
  5. What problems did you have?
  6. How did you develop your research questions?
  7. Did the research questions change over the course of the project?
  8. How did you translate the research questions into a data collection method?
  9. What are the philosophical assumptions in your work?
  10. Where are YOU in this study?
  11. Describe your sample.
  12. How did you recruit your sample?
  13. What boundaries did you set on your sample?
  14. What are the weaknesses of your sample?
  15. What boundaries did you set on your data collection?
  16. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your data?
  17. What other data would you like (or have liked) to collect?
  18. What is the theoretical framework in this study?
  19. Why did you choose this conceptual framework?
  20. Did you think about using any other theories, and if so, why did you reject them?
  21. What ethical procedures did you follow?
  22. What ethical issues arose in the course of your study and how did you address them?

Analysis

  1. Describe your frame of analysis.
  2. How did you construct this framework?
  3. What didn’t you include in the framework?
  4. What problems did you have in the analysis?
  5. Did you combine induction and deduction in your analysis? Can you share some examples?
  6. Describe the findings in more detail.
  7. Briefly summarise the findings as they relate to each of the research questions.
  8. How do you think the theoretical framing was helpful? Can you share some examples?
  9. What other data could you have included, and what might it have contributed?
  10. Could the findings have been interpreted differently?

Review

  1. What are the strengths and weakness of your study?
  2. What sense do you have of research being a somewhat untidy, or iterative and constantly shifting process?
  3. How confident are you in your findings and conclusions?
  4. What the implications of your findings?
  5. How has the context changed since you conducted your research?
  6. Where do your findings sit in the field in general?
  7. How do you see this area developing over the next 5-10 years?
  8. Where does your work fit within this?
  9. To whom is your work relevant?
  10. What haven’t you looked at, and why not?
  11. What, if any, of your findings are generalisable?
  12. How would you like to follow this project up with further research?
  13. What would you publish from this research, and in which journals?

Reflection

  1. How did the project change as you went through?
  2. How has your view of the area changed as you have progressed through your research?
  3. How did your thinking change over the course of the project?
  4. How have you changed as a result of undertaking this project?
  5. What did you enjoy about your project?
  6. What are you proudest of in the thesis?
  7. What were the most difficult areas?
  8. What surprised you the most?
  9. If you started this study again, what would you do differently?

40 viva questions (a shorter list), compiled by Rebecca at OU Blog

1. Can you start by summarising your thesis?
2. Now, can you summarise it in one sentence?
3. What is the idea that binds your thesis together?
4. What motivated and inspired you to carry out this research?
5. What are the main issues and debates in this subject area?
6. Which of these does your research address?
7. Why is the problem you have tackled worth tackling?
8. Who has had the strongest influence in the development of your subject area in theory and practice?
9. Which are the three most important papers that relate to your thesis?
10. What published work is closest to yours? How is your work different?
11. What do you know about the history of [insert something relevant]?
12. How does your work relate to [insert something relevant]?
13. What are the most recent major developments in your area?
14. How did your research questions emerge?
15. What were the crucial research decisions you made?
16. Why did you use this research methodology? What did you gain from it?
17. What were the alternatives to this methodology?
18. What would you have gained by using another approach?
19. How did you deal with the ethical implications of your work?
20. How has your view of your research topic changed?
21. How have you evaluated your work?
22. How do you know that your findings are correct?
23. What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?
24. What would have improved your work?
25. To what extent do your contributions generalise?
26. Who will be most interested in your work?
27. What is the relevance of your work to other researchers?
28. What is the relevance of your work to practitioners?
29. Which aspects of your work do you intend to publish – and where?
30. Summarise your key findings.
31. Which of these findings are the most interesting to you? Why?
32. How do your findings relate to literature in your field?
33. What are the contributions to knowledge of your thesis?
34. How long-term are these contributions?
35. What are the main achievements of your research?
36. What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD?
37. What advice would you give to a research student entering this area?
38. You propose future research. How would you start this?
39. What would be the difficulties?
40. And, finally… What have you done that merits a PhD?

Last minute checklist for the viva day:

Place on table:

  • Thesis
  • Blank paper and working Pen
  • Presentation slides printed
  • List of corrections
  • Double sided notes
  • Detailed Question notes (just incase?)
  • Water?

Keep in bag:

  • List of recent papers published
  • All my published papers
  • Spare pen and notebook
  • Tissue pack
  • Chewing gum
  • Tickets
  • Phone/charger?
  • Cash: £20

Last minute generic advice:

  • Useful phrases for the viva:
    • Can you rephrase the question?/Is that what you are asking?
    • I am aware …. However …
    • That’s an interesting point, but the way I was thinking about it was …
    • Is that answering your question?
    • I am happy to correct that.