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Top 10 Ph.D. Viva Questions and How to Answer Them


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Every doctoral candidate will complete the Ph.D. viva to defend a thesis and seek that coveted doctorate degree. You've worked hard throughout your academic career, and now you face this intimidating meeting! Before your viva, you might feel nervous, picturing yourself tap dancing as fast as you can in front of a firing squad. But your viva should feel more like a confident performance of your crowning research for an audience of adoring fans. Take a breath—you've done good work, and soon the committee will see that, too.

What is a Ph.D. viva? In this case, viva is short for viva voce, Latin for "living voice." The term refers to contexts in which responses to something are given out loud for people to hear, for example a real-time vote (all in favor, say "aye"!). In the academic context, the Ph.D. viva is a discussion between you (the Ph.D. candidate) and a panel of academic experts, during which you present your Ph.D. thesis. The panel of experts can include an internal and/or external examiner, your Ph.D. supervisor, and other people you can request to be in attendance, like your family members.

The examiner's main purpose is to determine that you've written your own thesis and ask you some probing questions about the work you've done. It's intended to be an open, frank conversation about your research, not an interrogation. Don't be afraid to challenge points your examiner makes if they don't align with what you've found in your study. Your expertise and passion about your work will demonstrate that you know your stuff and care deeply about it.

Of course, in order to think clearly and objectively about the subject you've been immersed in for months, you will need a healthy dose of confidence. To help you gain that confidence to make your viva a positive experience, preparation is key. Here are some prompts and questions you might be asked and how you can prepare beforehand to answer them.

1. Tell us about your study

Usually the first question is an opener and is asked with the goal of breaking the ice and getting you talking about your thesis. The items the panel presents to you will start broad and get more specific and involved as your viva progresses. Since you're here to talk about your project, give a good overview of who you are, your history in the field, and the process you followed in your study. You will have a lot of potential detail to provide, but since you won't know how much your panel is looking for, prepare synopses of different lengths: 1-minute, 3-minute, and 5-minute summaries.

2. What are your main research questions and why did you select them?

You'll very likely be prompted to talk about your research questions in detail, so be prepared to list the questions you set out to answer and the motivation behind selecting each one. Also, be prepared to discuss your aims, objectives, and hypotheses, just in case they ask about those as well.

3. What original contribution has your thesis made to this field of study?

Before you began your study, you probably looked at the gaps in the existing literature and decided on a research direction to fill those gaps. Now that you've finished your research, tell your panel what the world knows now as a result of your work. When future researchers delve into your subject matter, what will they cite you on?

4. Whose work has most influenced yours?

Because you went through the process of determining what your field of study still needs in terms of research and the kind of analysis that will contribute to it, you possess a pretty clear understanding of what has already been done. A lot of that knowledge comes from your academic journey leading up to the awarding of your doctorate, during which you've read a lot of papers and delved into the work that has been done before yours. Talk about the most influential works you've encountered. This can be a work that inspired you or papers that you felt were done poorly and motivated you to get it right. Bonus: The chair of the viva will be someone who knows a lot about your field, so take some time to get familiar with his or her work. Don't be a stalker, but be prepared to mention that you know what he or she has done. Not only will that demonstrate that you've prepared yourself for your presentation, but it will also show an interest in his or her life's work, which can't hurt. Don't spend too long on this, though—you're here primarily to talk about your work, not theirs.

5. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your thesis?

You certainly want to brag about your thesis and offer reasons why you and your work are great, so don't hold back about what went right. Start with the strengths; outline your main findings and give reasons why your study enabled you to uncover them. Then, while it might feel counterintuitive to point out the ways that your thesis isn't the greatest ever, a report about the weaknesses of your research shows a sense of self-awareness and humility that benefits your study in that it paves the way for future researchers and shows that you aren't blind to your own potential for growth. If you prepare your response to this question before your viva, you can craft your response to show that you have already thought about the ways you can address the weaknesses of your thesis.

6. What ethical considerations did you apply?

Most Ph.D. candidates encounter ethical issues during the course of their research, and the committee might want to know whether you took measures to ensure an ethical project. Did you follow any ethical protocols in gathering data? Did you provide informed consent to participants in your study? What are the ethical implications of your work?

7. Did your study go as expected? If you had to start the thesis again, what would you do differently?

Every researcher has at least some idea of what he or she might find upon performing a study. Many form research questions and perform the study to provide support for that expected outcome, but sometimes the research leads to a different result. Consider what your own expectations were before you began and the path your research process took, either in alignment with that expectation or not. Knowing what you know now, would you change anything about your research? Would you approach the process differently? Maybe you would forego a step or two knowing that it wasn't as consequential or helpful as you originally thought.

8. Now that you've completed your study, what did you enjoy about the process?

Ph.D. thesis examiners are looking for a candidate who is passionate about the work. Remember that they know exactly how stressful the process is, so avoid delving into the hardships you encountered. Instead, give a summary of the high points and the reasons you were excited to keep going. While you should keep the tone professional and avoid gushing, feel free to talk about your personal motivation for pursuing this study.

9. If funding was no object, how would you follow up on this project?

Every researcher faces limits regarding the scope of a study that prevent them from gathering as much data as they'd like. Time limits, budget caps, and lack of interest or willingness among study participants can all put a damper on the dreams a researcher has for an analysis. Money can solve most obstacles within an examination, so dream big—what could you make happen with an infinite budget? This is another question that reveals your passion for the subject.

10.What are your plans for the future?

Questions might not be limited to your thesis, so give some thought to where you will go from here. Describe your plans for your future research or professional pursuits; this gives the panel a sense of your passion for the work and sets you apart from a doctoral candidate who is just trying to check the boxes and get a diploma in hand.

The questions your panel asks you on the day of your viva will probably not be exactly the ones listed in this article, but these topics will almost certainly be covered during the discussion with your examiner. If you prepare responses to these questions and make sure you know your thesis inside and out, you will be much more ready to answer whatever the experts ask you. Equally important, planning out your responses will also help calm your nerves before this very important event, so give yourself the gift of preparation as you anticipate your Ph.D. viva. Good luck—you'll do great!

Header image by lightpoet.

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