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How to (and how not to) prepare for your PhD viva

By Rohan Sachdev - Posted on 30 June 2021

Anyone doing a PhD will feel nerves kick in as they approach the date of the PhD viva. Here, Rohan Sachdev explains how he coped and gives some tips on how to get yourself ready for that all important event.

After having spent years writing my doctoral thesis, the moment of submission for examination was quite confusing for me. I felt a sense of relief but also a wave of panic for the PhD viva. I had written all I could and it was approved by my supervisors. But now I had to prepare to defend it in person in front of a panel that would decide the fate of my hard work. The only question that crippled me for the first couple of weeks was “Where do I start?”

The process of preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime experience can be intimidating. With so much information out there on the process, I wondered, “how much of it is relevant to me?” I spent countless nights reading about other researcher’s experiences and fixated on the bad experiences. Of course, I thought, this would happen to me.

Having gone through this emotional and intellectual roller coaster, I now know better; I now know where I went right and where I went wrong in my preparation. There is no one appropriate guide on how to prepare for a viva. There is no singular “right way” of preparing for it. It all depends on your thesis, your subject area, your university, and even the country you’re studying in.

In saying that, there are some pointers to consider. These are not hard lines that one must do, but things you may want to keep in mind while preparing.

Do: Read through all the guidance issued to you by your academic team

Remember, your supervisors and faculty in your department do this all the time, they may have been external examiners, internal examiners, chairs, and they have even gone through the same process you are going through. Ask them for advice. Check with them if a mock viva can be arranged for you about a week before the big day.

Don’t: Read through horror stories of badly gone vivas on the internet

The internet is a house of horrors when it comes to viva preparation. People are more likely to express and discuss their negative experiences. They may not even be relevant to you; their systems may be completely different where they studied. It may be good to know the potential outcomes, but not at the cost of scaring yourself.

Do: Systematically review your entire thesis end to end

After you’ve submitted, take some time off, go to that restaurant you’ve been eyeing, have some fun. Then print your thesis, sit down, and read it thoroughly without a pen in your hand. Know what is in your thesis without any additional notes. It is key to prepare well for your viva, but overpreparation may be counterproductive.

Don’t: Make extensive notes of your thesis

Making long notes will only stress you out. Once you’ve read your thesis thoroughly without a pen, take another week-long break and read it again - this time, with a pen. If you come across any typos, mark them. On the top of each page, write down one sentence about what’s on that page. Make a list of potential questions and consider how you could answer them. Avoid memorising pre-written answers. These steps will make it easier for your final revision the week before your viva.

Do: Ask for advice from your peers who have been through it before

Just as with your supervisors, fellow students from your department who have recently finished their PhD will have a good idea of the experience. Get an insight into what they went through. Ask for any tips and generic questions they were asked at the start of their viva. These will all be more relevant to you than anything you read online.

Don’t: Take advice from your non-academic friends and family

Sometimes, the advice you get from people around you who don’t completely understand the process of a PhD and/or what you’re doing can stress you out. Try and stick to talking about your in-depth preparation strategy to peers and friends who have a good idea of what the processes are.

Do: Lightly read blogs on viva preparation (NOT outcomes)

A lot of blogs and discussion threads out there are dedicated to viva preparation. Find these threads so you can interact with people and get hints from them. Try not to think about the outcome, you will only stress yourself out more. One of the keys is to relax and enjoy the experience.

Don’t: Google “how to fail your PhD in 1 minute”

If you’re as obsessive about the viva as I was, you may be tempted to gauge exactly what the examiners are thinking and end up googling things you shouldn’t. Coming across such posts, blogs and videos is the ultimate ‘don’t’ when it comes to preparation. Try to stay off these negative thoughts and focus on the other more important steps.

Do: Check out what your examiners have worked on

Having a good idea of the point of view your examiners come from is good to prepare for the types of questions you could get asked. Find their published papers and go over them. See what similarities you have to their style of writing and things they focus on for a hint on what to expect.

Don’t: Try to appease your examiners and change things to appeal to them

Having read their work, it is now too late to change your thesis to appease your examiners. Moreover, the point of doing your research is to express your point of view. Politely defend yourself in the viva, but don’t change things when you’re explaining them to make them happy. You are now on your path to becoming an independent researcher, after all!

In the end, the "dos and don’ts" are just for guidance, and represent the things that worked well for me. If there is anything different that works better for you, do that. This is your journey.

The three keys to eventual success are: Prepare, relax, and don’t obsess. You’ve done your best in writing the thesis, now it's time to show the examiners how well you can explain it. Remember, you’re inching towards the finish line. You’ve got this!

For more information on PhDs at Strathclyde, please click here and for more information on research degrees at Strathclyde Business School, click here

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