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The PhD Viva: Thrive or Survive


There are two ways to approach your PhD viva voce examination. One is to see your viva as something that has to be got through or, dare I suggest, simply survived. The other is to attack it in an upbeat and confident manner. Nothing is going to stop you convincing your examiners that you and your work are worthy of the degree. How you get on will depend partly on what sort of head-job you do on yourself before you go through that fateful door into the viva room. The remainder of your performance depends, of course, on how well you know your stuff, but more on that later. ?

You may be under the impression that a PhD is really some kind of long service award. Surely, if you've made it through to the end, then you're all but guaranteed to get the degree. EERGH-EERGH. [Please imagine the embarrassing sound that accompanies an incorrect answer in a daytime TV quiz show]. WRONG! I've seen two cases in the last 6 months where the candidate failed to get their PhD. No, I really do mean failed, not just candidates who were asked to resubmit, or asked to go back to the lab and produce more work, or even, perish the thought, offered a master?s degree.

Both of these total failures (the theses not the candidates, I mean) were axed by the same 'external'. I know him well, and he's not an unkind person. The most sobering insight was when he told me that one of these candidates would have to put up a truly outstanding performance in the viva to stand a chance of getting anything out of it. Needless to say, they didn't. Apparently, they 'viva'd' very poorly. Words like 'unconfident', 'confused', and 'apathetic' were used. Ouch! So much effort for no reward. I can't imagine how they felt. The message: Don't assume anything when approaching your viva. It's all still to play for.

If you take the 'viva survival' attitude your thesis defence is likely to be, well, less than rigid--and you'll probably have at least some doubt about the outcome. It is just too easy, when you're mentally worn out after 4 years of academic toil, to take the view 'I'll just have to leave it up to the examiners to decide if my thesis is good enough. After all, they're the experts'. But with this approach you are actually making it much harder for them to decide which box to tick on the examiners' report form, and given that, there is little chance the tick will be in your favour.

The name of the game is putting in a performance that bolsters any cracks in your written work and makes it hard for your examiners to tick the boxes lower down the list. I'm talking about the nightmarish boxes with long, dark names like: ?that no degree be awarded and permission be not granted to resubmit in revised form but that the candidate be offered the degree of master instead?. In the box below is my five-point plan to becoming a ?viva thriver? not just a ?viva survivor?. ?

The 'Viva Thriver' Plan

  • Be confident: You are more of an expert than they are.

  • Know your thesis inside out: Imagine you are preparing evidence for a legal defence in court.

  • Be scholarly: You are asking to be let into the inner circle of your scientific community.

  • Stick to what you do know: All other ground is quicksand.

  • Ask questions: Appear keen to fill in gaps in your knowledge.

  • The right attitude might be to aim to 'thrive in your viva', but how is this possible? After all, you are a plebeian amongst scientists and your external examiner is, by contrast, not. What's more, he or she knows your subject inside out and will spot every single error or omission that you have made in your thesis.

    OK, let's address some of the major misunderstandings here.

    Firstly, you are more of an expert than they are. You did the work and you wrote the thing. So consider yourself as holding all the cards. If you can argue your point well, they'll just have to accept what you say. Imagine that they are questioning your choice of experiment, and suggesting an alternative. Your response might be, 'I considered trying that approach but the necessary equipment wasn't available in the department, and I didn't have time to go elsewhere to do the experiment'. Since they weren't there at the time, what else can they come back at you with?

    Secondly, they most certainly will not spot all your howlers. You may be thinking 'how could I have missed that?' But realise that your PhD supervisor also missed it. And if you and your supervisor could miss a howler, anyone will. So expect a list of minor corrections from each of your examiners. I spotted what was, for me, a major howler in my thesis. Neither examiner noticed it, so I quietly corrected it before submitting my bound thesis to the library.

    The truth is, one of the main things your examiners are trying to pin down is whether you can argue your case in appropriate scientific parlance. If it appears that you know your thesis inside out (and, by now, you should) and you can give a good account of why you did what you did, you are already a long way to winning your examiners over. The other thing they want to check out is whether you can think on your feet to produce a well-reasoned response to an unexpected question. In other words, are you scholarly?

    Earlier I alluded to the idea that you might be able to bypass gaps in your knowledge during your viva. There are several ways you can try to do this. Firstly, you can bluff.


    If you make out that you know about something that you don?t too many times, you will eventually be caught. A legitimate alternative, as practised by all the best scientists and politicians, is to gloss over gaps in your knowledge by turning the discussion back to what you want to talk about so you can demonstrate how much you do know. Acknowledge the areas you know only a little about as they pop up (lots of nodding and eye contact) then keep going back onto safer ground. This assertive behaviour will go down well, as your examiners will see you doing what they do all the time: intellectual swordplay.

    If you feel you've impressed and clocked up enough points, you can even let yourself ask your examiners to explain something to you. This has a two-fold spin-off. Firstly, they'll naturally feel glad to talk about their own area of expertise. Secondly your openness in admitting you don?t know something will leave your examiners with the impression that the rest of the time you knew exactly what they were on about (even if you were not).

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