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Vivas

This is an introductory guide offering good study strategies for viva voce examinations for postgraduate research students. It includes:

For further study guidance relating specifically to the process here at the University of Reading see 'Surviving the Viva', one of the Graduate School's Guides for Students

The Reading Researcher Development Programme runs workshops on 'Surviving the Viva'. Check the RRDP website for the current timetable and booking details.


It is also advisable to consult the University's relevant Policies and procedures relating to vivas by following the links on the Graduate School website.  

What is a viva?

A viva voce is an oral examination (usually referred to as a viva). In some courses, students are given vivas as part of the undergraduate or Masters assessment process. However, it is more usually found as part of the final assessment process for PhD students.

Its main purpose is to assess your research and subject knowledge. The viva will generally be conducted by an external examiner and an internal examiner. Although the format may vary, it will involve a discussion of your research topics and conclusions. You will be asked questions that will give you the opportunity to show the examiners your research skills and the originality of your ideas.

In some academic cultures, this examination is known as a 'thesis defence'. However, in the UK, it is more commonly seen as an opportunity for you to explain and expand on your research to examiners who are experts in your field.

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Preparing for your viva

Format - Make sure you know what the format will be. It may be helpful to look at the University's Rules for Submission of Theses and Guide for Examiners of higher degrees by research, which can be found here: Higher degrees by research. The Graduate School's 'Surviving the Viva' guide also has more explanation of the specific procedures here at Reading, and can be found as part of the Graduate Schools: Guides for Students . In addition, talk to people who have recently gone through the viva process in your department. Your viva will not be exactly the same as theirs, but it will give you a better idea of what might happen.

Prepare - It is crucial that you prepare well for your viva. This will help calm your nerves and also ensure that you make a good impression on the examiners. Know your thesis well; reread it and annotate it - you will be expected to take a copy into the viva, and it will be helpful if you can find key areas quickly. Also keep reading the latest research in your field - this will keep you aware of current developments and stimulate your thinking.

Practice - Ask your supervisor if it is possible for you to have a practice viva. This will help you familiarise yourself with the whole process. For more suggestions about speaking in public, see our guide to delivering presentations.

Who is your examiner? - It will help you to feel more confident if you know a bit more about who will be examining you. Find your external examiner online and make sure you're familiar with their area of expertise and publications. You will not be expected to tailor your thesis to your examiner as it is your project and it should be able to be examined by anyone with sufficient expertise in the field. However, knowing your examiner's own research preferences may help you to see what areas of your thesis they will be most interested in discussing. Finding a photograph may also help to calm your nerves.

Make a list of possible questions - There may be obvious questions you're likely to be asked, and preparing the answers to these questions is always helpful. Some of the broad questions that most vivas will cover are:

  • "What have been the significant contributions of your research?
  • "What would you do differently if you were setting out to do it today?"
  • "Where do you see this kind of research moving in the future?"

You might also want to think about anything in your thesis that is controversial or new. What would you say if you were asked about these?

Often the examiners will want to put you at your ease as much as possible, so may start with a general question to help calm you and establish a good relationship, for example:

  • "Tell me about your research"
  • "What motivated you to do research in this area?"
  • "How did you develop an interest in this topic?"

These type of questions can be unnerving, even if they are not intended to be, as they seem very broad and simple. Think about how you might answer them clearly and concisely to get the viva off to a good start.

For more examples of potential viva questions, see the Graduate School guide 'Surviving the Viva' here: Guides for Students

Explain it to a friend - When you've been working on a complex project for a number of years, it can be hard to see the bigger picture. It can help to get your ideas straight in your head if you have to give a simple explanation to someone outside of your topic.

Don't rush your answers - Take your time. Listen carefully and allow yourself time to process what the examiner has said, or ask for clarification. Your examiners are not expecting (or wanting) you to jump in with an answer as soon as they have finished speaking. Have a drink of water, or use phrases such as 'That's a good question' to give yourself time to think.

Discuss and explain - Don't answer questions with 'yes' or 'no', but justify your comments with examples or evidence. Some questions may explore areas of your thesis that show weaknesses. This is normal; your examiners are not expecting perfection and they recognise that all research has limitations. They want to see that you have thought about any weaknesses, the reasons behind them, and how these limitations may be overcome in future. Therefore, it is important to consider and explain any weaknesses, as opposed to trying to dismiss or hide them.

Answer assertively but don't be defensive. The examiners are likely to challenge you in a constructive way and press you to justify your approach and findings, but they are not there with the intention of failing you - they want to hear what you have to say about your work.

Stay calm - Don't forget, this is the one exam where you are likely to know more about the subject than those giving the marks! The examiners want to get the best out of you. As long as you do the preparation, you'll be fine.

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Getting your results

In some cases you may be told the result of your viva straight away, but more often the examiners will ask you to leave the room and wait nearby while they take a little time to discuss before making a decision. The four possible outcomes are:

  • The degree will be awarded 
  • The degree will be awarded subject to minor corrections (to be completed within three months) 
  • The student is required to make major amendments (to be completed within 12 months)
  • The student will not be awarded the degree for which the thesis is submitted (in some cases the examiners might award an alternative degree).

It is very unusual to pass without any changes - almost everyone has to make some revisions. 

Dealing with corrections and revisions

The outcome of a viva is not usually a clear pass / fail result. Nearly all students will have to make changes, ranging from minor corrections to major amendments. Being asked to make revisions means having the chance to improve your work in light of the comments of experts in your field - it does not mean you have 'failed'. It will also strengthen your work for the future.

Understandably most postgraduate students see their viva as the end of their PhD journey, but for almost everybody there will be a few more steps to go. It may be difficult for you to get back into working mode when you thought you had finished. Below are some suggestions to help you manage your corrections and revisions, and get your changes done.

Allow yourself some time off

  • Give yourself a chance to recover and refocus on your goals
  • Remember your reasons for doing a PhD and use these aims to motivate yourself in the final stages

Get another perspective

Having been involved in intense study activity (and probably anxiety) in the run-up to your viva, it is not surprising if you find yourself feeling quite emotional and even confused afterwards. This can be the case whether you have passed without corrections, have minor amendments or major revisions to complete.

Many students have found that talking to someone who has not been involved can help to put the whole experience into perspective. This might be a Study Adviser, who can also help with your organisation and time management to get revisions completed, or someone from the Counselling Service.

Get the list of corrections

The examiners will produce a list of the changes they require you to make. This will usually be forwarded to you from the Examinations Office or via your department.

Make sure you get this as soon as possible, as you will need to demonstrate that you have made all these changes satisfactorily; it will form the basis of what you do next.

See your supervisor - soon

Talk through with your supervisor what you plan to do for each correction, and check that this is what is needed. Arrange a deadline for making the changes and confirm that your supervisor will be available to give feedback on your changes.

You and your supervisor may decide that a fresh perspective is needed, so your supervisor might suggest a colleague that could advise on the corrections.

Clarify what you need to do

Check with the examiners (if possible) or your supervisor (if not) what they want for each correction. For example does "Expand on method in Chapter 3" mean write a few more sentences explaining the method, or add a whole new section to Chapter 3 going through the methodology in fine detail?

Draw up a timetable

Normally, minor corrections have to be made within 3 months, and major amendments need to be made within 1 year of the viva.

Draw up a realistic timetable for making the changes – taking into account outside pressures like your funding ending, returning home, finding a job, family commitments. Just like when you were writing the thesis, break the corrections into tasks that need to be done, and set aside specific times when you will do them.

Don't leave it too long

Although you might not want to look at your thesis ever again, it is better to get going while it is fresh in your mind. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to get started again.

  • Start with the smaller tasks that are easier to complete, like correcting typos, to get back into the flow of working.
  • Recognise when you are procrastinating and overcome this by setting yourself small goals and rewards.

Stay focused

Don't agonise about getting changes "perfect" and reworking the whole thesis. At this stage you need to be clear what the examiners want and give it to them. Be thorough, but be efficient. It is well worth spending time getting the corrections right as they will strengthen your thesis, but also recognise when you may be going beyond the bounds of what is required, and try to be as business-like and objective about making the corrections as you can.

Check the changes with your supervisor

You don't want to have to make any further corrections after your resubmission, so check with your supervisor that you have covered everything the examiners require.

Your supervisor may be able to point out places that you can strengthen or reword to ensure you meet the examiners' criteria.

Resubmit

Once you and your supervisor are happy that you have made all the necessary corrections and completed them thoroughly – resubmit the thesis.

Ensure you are clear on the University procedures for resubmission – the examiners may have the option of asking for a second viva.

Remember: In years to come no one will ever ask you about your corrections. Many top academics had to make major changes to their theses and this has helped, not harmed, their careers.

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Appeals

Appeals are possible in the case of irregularities in the examination procedure, exceptional circumstances, or evidence of prejudice and bias. Appeals cannot be made against the academic judgement of examiners. Check the University procedures for appeals (which can be obtained from the Examinations Office) and contact your supervisor or department if you are considering appealing. You may also find it helpful to discuss your reasons for appealing with a RUSU Student Adviser who will be able to give you confidential advice on your appeal options.

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For more on this topic, see...

Theses

Working with supervisors

Managing your time

Vitae - your viva - includes a helpful checklist.

Postgraduate Online Research Training - tutorial on PhD examinations - includes sound file.

Advice on vivas from the THES - very useful article on preparation from an academic and thesis examiner.

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