The Viva! (aka Oral Defence, Doctoral Defence, Doctoral Examination)

By Emma Kelly

In the week before your Viva you will get many pieces of sometimes contradictory advice.

‘Make your presentation absolutely watertight, you DO NOT WANT to make any changes to the thesis’

‘Be relaxed and open to critique – you do not want to seem defensive or inflexible about your work’

‘It’s just a great conversation with people who have actually read your work who are not your supervisors. Enjoy it!’

‘It’s terrifying’

In the event, mine really was a good discussion once I had relaxed enough to stop being terrified. These people were genuinely interested in pushing me to a serious discussion about what I’d spent so much time and energy on over a number of years.

So rewind a couple of months. I’ve submitted the thesis, I’m exhausted and trying not to think of that huge ‘pass or fail’ which hangs over me. I get an email from the University Postgraduate Centre inviting me to a Doctoral Examination Training Workshop. I went. So should you. Enormously useful.

My observation from working in two universities as an administrator, from being a student (simultaneously with my paid work) and now, tenuously working as a part time short term contract academic, is that there is quite a lot of cynicism and distrust between administrative and academic groups. This may lead supervisors and students to feel pessimistic about the value of workshops such as this. I agree that bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy needs to be stamped out like an invasive weed, but the University Postgraduate Centre are not paperwork junkies. (And they do not pay me to write this!)

Over the last few years I have observed that this rather clever group of humans have worked very hard to support postgraduate students from the centre and improve their experience of study. Writing retreats (Free! Good food! Great company!) Funding workshops (I admit I’ve facilitated some of these in a previous role), the excellent annual Postgraduate Showcase Week all offer free opportunities to talk to others and learn from a presenter who knows what she/he is talking about. I’ve studied at another university and I never received so much helpful and practical advice from the University Postgraduate Centre there.

But back to the Doctoral Examination workshop. Prior to this I had no idea I would have to present at the beginning of the Viva for 5-10 minutes on my work. I had imagined I’d receive the examiners’ reports the week before, read them and think about what questions they may ask, walk in and they’d start firing. Professor Marion Jones explained however that once you go to your pre-meeting with the convenor of your Viva and your supervisors, you take the reports away, review them, maybe have a ‘mock oral’ organised by your supervisor, then go into the defence ready to speak about your work.

The idea of talking to these people who had just read my thesis in detail and had the power to pass or fail me seemed very daunting. I asked for ideas from trusted colleagues and seniors. I shared my examiners’ reports with people I thought could provide ideas. People offered to help me practice by asking me possible questions, and I accepted their offers. This really helped me realise what I needed to say and how I should say it.

Your examiners’ reports may include observations of minor issues such as grammatical or punctuation errors. It was suggested to me that I fix these errors before the Viva – that way I could go in, thank the examiners for their thorough analysis and let them know I’d already paid close attention to their suggestions. Brownie Points right off the bat.

The 5-10 min introduction by you, the PhD candidate, is an opportunity to demonstrate your passion, to show the human side of the thesis, to provide context for your motivation. These people have been reading words on a page, now they get to read you. So breathe, arrange your limbs in an open fashion, look them in the eye and tell them why you’ve worked so hard for so long. Remember your supervisors and the University will not send you to your Viva unless they are quietly confident that you are ready. Take comfort in this. Trust the process, and even though it’s hard to believe, you may even enjoy yourself. Did I say breathe? Remember to breathe. Sip that glass of water when you need to gather your thoughts. Best wishes!


Emma Kelly will speak about her experience with the oral examination at the University Postgraduate Centre Writer’s Retreat this Thursday.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink. She has a research background in science and narrative. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. She has previously researched fictional representations of evolution and quantum mechanics. She has taught such diverse texts as Blade Runner and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and her most obscure skill is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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