How to sail through your postgrad viva

It seems like only five minutes ago that you were a trembling new student, going along to your first supervisory meeting with your knees knocking. But somehow, through a flurry of ethics reviews, recruitment and analysis, plus some blood, sweat and sobs… here you are. Your thesis is submitted, you’ve selected your examiners and the final hurdle is in sight.

The postgrad viva voce is truly a rite of passage. For those who don’t know, this is the final exam for a postgrad project. It takes different forms in different countries. For example, in the US doctoral defense, the supervisory committee also grill the student. In the European system, students have to defend their work in front of a public audience. Here in the UK, the viva involves sitting in a room with two examiners (one from the candidate’s university and one from another institution) for two, three, four or more hours, answering questions about your thesis.


It’s normal to feel nervous before your viva
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Most students feel nervous about their vivas. However, if handled correctly, they can be a fulfilling, rather than frightening, experience.

1. Take a break from the thesis

This is an important first step. Once you’ve had that thesis bound and put the obligatory smiling selfies on Instagram, put it down and don’t look at it for a few weeks. For a start, you deserve a break. But just as importantly, giving yourself space from your masterpiece will allow you to look at it with fresh eyes, so that you can spot areas to be discussed more easily. I’d also suggest using this downtime to buy yourself a lovely notebook that you can use for your prep. After all, stationery that makes your heart sing is never a bad thing.

2. Start by thinking about your strengths

…And why not? After all, you’ve written an entire thesis. This is amazing! If you start this process by remembering what you love about your research, that will set you up for a happier viva. What are the strongest findings of your thesis? Which aspects make you feel proud? Can you summarise the thesis in 300 words or so? Write all these points down in your notebook and get ready to shout them to the rooftops.


You wrote a thesis? That’s worth celebrating
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3. And then think about the challenges

The next step is to use those newly objective eyes to look for any weaknesses in the thesis. There almost certainly will be some, and that’s just fine. The point of a viva is not to prove that you’ve conducted a perfect series of studies; if such a thing were possible, we wouldn’t need peer-review. You’ll be better off demonstrating that you’re aware of things you might do differently next time, or which you might be able to address in your amendments. Write your ideas down in your notebook, along with some thoughts about challenges you overcame during the research. Additionally, if there are any theoretical areas you’re shaky on, re-read the literature and try explaining those concepts to other people.

4. Think about your examiners

You should already know your examiners and their work by this point. It’s important to remember that, while those examiners will (hopefully!) be as fair as they can be, vivas are run by humans and are therefore a subjective experience. Try to get inside the heads of your examiners by reading their publications. How does their work interact with yours? Can you think of what these particular people might want to ask you about your research?


Your examiners will have their own take on your thesis. Can you try to predict what that might be?
Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

5. Think about questions you might be asked

In addition to the list of questions the examiners might ask, re-read your thesis and think about the questions anyone would ask. Make lists of those questions. Write down your answers. If there’s anything you’re unsure about, make another list (who doesn’t love a good list?) and book in a time to talk those areas through with your supervisor, who is there to support you. If you’ve had any papers published from your thesis, think about the points your reviewers made. Might those points come up again?  

6. Keep reading

Yep, there’s a lot of reading involved in viva prep. Once you’ve finished re-reading the thesis, you might also want to re-read the papers you cite most often. Plus, when did you write your lit review? It might have been a couple of years ago now. Have a look on Google Scholar and see if there are any papers which have come out since then that you need to know about for the big day.


As a postgrad, the reading never stops
Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

7. Practice, practice, practice

One of the things many postgrad students feel most nervous about – especially here in the socially awkward UK – is having to say their ideas out loud, rather than being able to hide behind the safety of a keyboard. The best way to beat those nerves is to practice. You might feel a bit silly, but ask your supervisor, friends, mum, partner, even your pet parrot to quiz you. Try explaining your ideas to people who don’t know anything about your subject. If they understand you, anyone will. The more you do this, the more confident you will feel, and the higher the chance that you might actually enjoy the viva. Trust me, unbelievable as that might feel from this side of the event, many people report genuinely enjoying this experience. After all, you’re getting to talk about your passion, the thing you know more about than anyone else in the world, to two experts you’ve hand-picked. This could be the stuff dreams are made of! 


What do Dr Beaky and her colleagues think about your epistemology?
Photo by Sid Balachandran on Unsplash

8. Book a Skype session with PGPR

We offer hour-long video chat sessions which are perfect for students who are about to take their viva. While we obviously can’t read your entire thesis and quiz you on it, we will spend an hour looking at your notes and ideas beforehand. We can then talk through any concerns and worries you have, ask you some practice questions, and give you some friendly support. Get in touch via the form below to book your session.

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