By Maria Tsapali, Amy Webster and Po (Sally) Tsai, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
This blog presents our top tips when it comes to successfully preparing for, passing and completing the requirements of your PhD viva. All three of us have recently been through the process and we want to share our reflections and tips to help you conclude your PhD chapter successfully.
Before the Viva
- Good preparation can make the viva seem less daunting and give you greater confidence that pays off during the viva. When preparing, think about your key claims, the implications of your findings, reasons behind choices you made in your research, any recent (post submission) developments in the field and the background of your PhD examiners in terms of the lens through which they will approach your thesis. It is also useful to prepare a list of typos (you will find some no matter how thoroughly you read your thesis before submission!) to show the examiners you have already addressed this correction.
- Read your thesis critically, identify weaknesses. Think about how you can defend your work in the case that these weaknesses will come up during the viva.
- Collect and prepare some viva questions in advance, e.g., can you summarise your PhD in 3 minutes? Considering the questions in advance will add to your confidence as you will be less likely to be taken by surprise.
- When you don’t know how to answer the potential questions, having a chat with your supervisor or colleagues/friends will help you find some ideas and gather your thoughts.
- Establish a certain level of familiarity with your assessors:
- Identify your assessors’ work and read a few of their papers, try to think of questions that might stem from their work, remember that they will be looking at your work through their own lenses.
- It helps with managing stress levels if you have seen your external before, potentially in a conference setting.
- Use sticky notes to easily find your chapters during the viva, but also have pages with key claims, data and theory to hand.
- Prepare any extra material that you might want to bring into the viva, which is allowed. It could be extra analysis, or transcriptions, or your notes and papers.
- Some mock vivas with friends can also help you prepare and get you into the right mindset. If not doable, then you can present your work at conferences, to your research group, or other groups at the faculty – there are plenty of opportunities to get feedback. Also, talking to people who have passed their viva (for example during workshops such as recently hosted by FERSA) will help you prepare. Also, mock vivas with friends inside and outside your discipline could be helpful. Friends from various backgrounds can give you different points of view about your work.
- Prepare yourself mentally – convince yourself that you are the expert in your PhD (because you are!)
- On the day before the viva, finish everything early, spend a relaxing evening doing things that you love and do get some sleep.
- On the day, it can help if you have your supervisor or colleagues/friends having a chat with you before going into the room.
During the Viva
- Approach the viva as an amazing and unique opportunity to have a discussion about your work with two interested and knowledgeable people in your field. The chances are that your examiners will be genuinely interested in your work and will want to learn more and get clarifications. Don’t let the unknown terrify you, it’s a chance to shine!
- Be open, honest and transparent and explain all your decisions. Your assessors understand the complexities of fieldwork and that it is not a straightforward process. Do not try to withhold information.
- Try to adopt a productive tone and approach in the viva. Find a midpoint between defending your thesis to the death and being overly deferential in agreeing to everything the examiners suggest. Furthermore, when defending your thesis and the choices that you made in your research, avoid being defensive. If you are able to have a mock viva then ask for feedback on your tone and approach to questions as well as about the content of your answers.
- You might be a bit nervous in the beginning, but you will soon feel relaxed and engaged in the conversation, the time usually passes without you realising it.
- Try to enjoy the process and the academic debate!
After the Viva
- Congratulations, you are officially a Doctor 😊
- Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate! If you are a Cambridge student, we recommend the EAGLE, since it’s a historic place in Cambridge. Although you might not necessarily have discovered the DNA helix, you have achieved something significant and deserve to celebrate it.
- Second day, try to take some notes about the viva, especially about the directions that your examiners gave you and how they would like you to address it.
- Take some time off, have a short trip if possible.
- We encourage you to start working on your corrections as soon as you get the letter from the Higher degrees office of your faculty unofficially confirming your Viva outcome and including your examination report and not wait for the official one, as it might take a few months for it to be approved from the Board of the Graduate studies. You have everything recent in your memory and you will be much more efficient and productive when working on them.
- The more detailed you are with your corrections, the more chances you have that they will be approved in the first round. You can follow a comment by comment approach and paste the revised text in the list of corrections document. In this way, you can speed up the process by not having the assessor go back to the thesis, but rather look only at the corrections. A table showing the most important changes you have made in the document with the old and new pages is also required and helpful.
- Keep in touch with your examiners, discuss potential cooperations in the future. They can also be a great source for references for post PhD jobs.
Maria Tsapali is an Affiliated Lecturer in Education and Psychology at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She has recently completed her PhD studies at the same institution. Her PhD work looks at the effects of different learning environments on primary school students’ decision-making skills. Her research interests include learning sciences, cognitive psychology and science education and she is part of the INSTRUCT lab. You can contact her on twitter https://twitter.com/mariatsapali?lang=en or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Amy Webster recently completed her PhD at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She has just started a position as Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at Bishop Grosseteste University. Her doctoral work focuses on the historical recovery and statistical analysis of series of children’s classics. She is interested in data focused approaches to studying children’s literature, the re-publication of children’s texts, national identity in children’s literature and reading curricula. You can contact her by email at email@example.com.
Po Tsai has recently completed her PhD at Faculty of Education at University of Cambridge. She has extensive experience in teaching and has participated in a number of research projects. Her research interests are related to educational effectiveness research, teacher effectiveness research, teacher professional development and mental health. You can contact her by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).