The dreaded PhD viva. But how prepared can you really be?
The nature of the exam at the end of your PhD journey that determines whether you are awarded your doctorate or not can be a daunting and overwhelming thought. So, naturally the need for any PhD student is to be as prepared as possible.
But – spoiler alert! – you will never be 100% prepared. It all depends on how well you wrote your thesis, your examiners’ backgrounds and interests, how they like to conduct vivas too and whether they like to go through every page or skip through to key bits, and so many other factors. All of this and more will influence the questions you get asked and the discussions you will have.
But having said all that – there is no such thing as being over prepared for your viva because at the end of the day it is all about confidence. If you feel prepared enough then any question they throw at you, you will take in your stride. But more from me about viva prep and a step by step guide to help you keep your cool is coming very soon.
So, I have said that you never know what is going to come up in a viva. And most of the time that is true but there are 7 ‘types’ of question that you can prepare in advance because I can guarantee that at least one of these will come up in your viva and the vivas of everyone around you too.
So, here are more than 7 questions you can prepare for in advance of your PhD viva:
1. Summarise your thesis/research in 3 minutes.
The classic starter question to summarise your research. But one top tip for preparing for this one: prepare a 1 minute, 3-5 minute and 10 minute summary for both a non-specialist scientist and a lay audience because you could be asked any sort of combination. As this is usually a favourite opening question with the aim of getting you to relax with something familiar.
But this sort of question also applies for each chapter in your thesis. Before venturing into each chapter, your examiners might ask you to summarise what a particular chapter was about before getting into the detail. So, it is always good to practice a short paragraph so that you don’t get flustered by that sort of question.
2. What is the point?
Another favourite of many examiners to get you thinking more philosophically, because after all you are trying to become a Doctor of Philosophy. An example that was given to me during my preparations was:
‘So there are millions of people in the world starving and you have had thousands of pounds for you to try and answer this really niche research question. Surely that money is more well spent trying to help these more global problems?’
Now don’t panic. It sounds like a difficult question. And I can imagine you all having a face like I did when I heard this for the first time. But there is no right or wrong answer, and I don’t even think that the examiners would be that bothered by your answer. Their goal with this question is to test your thinking and being able to defend why you invested your time into this. But for this type of question, have something prepared that can answer the big ‘why’ questions to start the flow of your answer. Tell your examiners why your work is important.
3. What does this figure tell us?
Figures are great, especially schematics and summary ones. Because we all know that a picture paints a thousand words. But examiners also love them in a viva and instead of trawling through the actual words you have written in your thesis, they might just look at the picture to understand what you are talking about. But they will also stop at these focal points in your viva and get you to explain them. It is also a sneaky check to see that you also didn’t just copy a figure from another location, even if you have referenced it, and didn’t understand it. So prepare your descriptions for each figure – primarily the ones in your introductions and discussions as describing your results I imagine comes much easier to you as you are the expert.
4. How do you get from A to B?
Your examiners won’t be asking you for directions in your viva – I don’t think at least. So, what do I mean by this type of question. Well, the examiners want to understand your thought processes, rationale and knowledge. So, this type of question could be:
‘How do you get from cells to performing a PCR reaction?’
Why did you choose to do that experiment after this result?
You more than likely know all this like the back of your hand with the amount of times you would have repeated experiments, but sometimes it is difficult to vocalise. So I highly recommend having a practice and answering those questions out loud not not get flustered in your exam again and just remind yourself of all the steps.
5. What about your thesis is original and contributes to knowledge?
Another type of viva question that you will probably all too familiar with but another one that is good to practice vocalising beforehand so you can get your words out clearly in the exam and portray confidence even if you are a ball of nerves on the inside. But just remind yourself of what was known before and what you have added as part of being awarded your PhD is to contribute novel knowledge.
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And now back to the main event and those last two questions to prepare in advance…
6. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your research?
The examiners are not there to tear your thesis apart even if they are really going through it with a fine tooth comb. This type of viva question is to test your ability to reflect, evaluate and adjust. Take some time to think what bits of your thesis are really great and which bits of experiments or analysis could have been improved. Just show your examiners that you haven’t just taken the data that has been spat out at you at face value but you have considered how truly reflective it is and if you could do it again how you would change anything. But always make sure you have some answers to both strengths and weaknesses no matter how great or awful you think your thesis is. There will always be pros and cons.
7. What are the real world applications of your research?
The big picture question. You would have spend the last 3+ years of your life trying to figure out the smallest of details to a very niche question, so before you walk into your viva, it is good to take a step back and think about how this new knowledge you are contributing fits into the wider world. How could it be relevant? This question will be easier to answer for some than others depending on your research, and is probably something you have thought about before – especially if you have done outreach or public engagement activities. But it is one of those questions that you are more than likely going to get asked in your viva so it is good to be prepared.
So, there are 7 generic types of questions you can prepare in advance for your PhD viva. But I just want to remind you that you cannot prepare for every eventuality.
In fact, from my PhD viva experience, I got tested for most of these ‘types’ but not as they appear here or even in a logical order – so just remember what the examiners are looking for from the question to help you form your answer.
Be as prepared as you can be, but preparing for every possible question is not going to do you much good mentally and emotionally as you prepare. These are just some suggestions of questions that can help you do that in advance and hopefully help you relax into it a little easier.
I hope this post was helpful for you. I would love to know your feedback. Also, if you want any tips on how to prepare for these sorts of questions then, get in touch via the comments below or any of the links in the menu on the right. But there are more viva blogs on coming soon – a list of example questions and also a step by step guide on how to prepare for your viva.
But please let me know if there is anything else about PhD vivas that I can answer for you too 🙂
What questions did you prepare in advance of your PhD viva? Is there anything you look back on and wish you were more prepared for?
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