What is a viva? PhD viva, viva voce, viva process and more

If you are a PhD candidate and preparing to take the biggest step in your academic journey, you might be overwhelmed by the thought of your impending viva voce or the oral defense of your thesis.

Worry not, we are here to demystify the process and provide you with actionable tips to successfully navigate this crucial academic milestone.

Here, we will guide you through the viva process, shed light on the perspective of your examiners, and help you understand how to prepare for this pivotal examination. 

Whether you’re just beginning to wrap your head around what a viva entails or are already deep in the trenches of preparation, this blog is designed to offer you comprehensive, step-by-step guidance.

By understanding the process, expectations, and preparing effectively, you can walk into your viva with confidence, ready to defend your thesis and demonstrate your deep understanding of your research area.

What is a PhD viva or viva voce?

A PhD viva or viva voce is an oral examination where you defend your thesis in front of internal examiner(s) from your institution and/or external examiner(s) from another institution specializing in your subject area.

There may be up to 5 people on your viva panel. 

They are testing your knowledge and thought processed to be admitted into the degree.

Typically lasting for an hour and a half to two hours, the viva is a conversation between experts, giving you the chance to elaborate and clarify your research.

Preparation for the viva can involve ongoing conversations, with supervisors and focused development after thesis submission.

As the viva voce derives from the Latin for ‘living voice,’ let your passion for your research come alive in your defense.

As nerve-wracking as it might be, remember to relax and use this opportunity to share your contribution to your field. 

Supervisors will (or at least should) conduct mock vivas to help you prepare for questions and build confidence. Ask for a mock viva if one is not offered by your supervisor. 

During the viva, your supervisor may be present as a silent observer, ensuring examination conduct.

Outcomes of a viva range from:

  1. passing without corrections,
  2. passing with minor or major corrections,
  3. or not passing at all.

Examiners won’t necessarily spot all mistakes, but they read your work thoroughly, engage in a comprehensive discussion, and submit independent reports before the viva.

Understand what’s expected of you in your viva (Examiner point of view)

From an examiner’s point of view, in your viva, you are expected to confidently explain and defend your thesis.

You should be well-prepared, recognizing that examiners will carefully read your work and may identify minor mistakes.

Keep in mind that examiners may not know your thesis as well as you, so be prepared to clarify and elaborate on your research. 

They may ask some really simple and basic questions of you – particularly early on in your thesis defense.

It is essential to demonstrate your understanding of the topic and address any questions posed by the examiners.

You may have the option to include your supervisor or other supportive figures from your institution during the viva for moral support and to witness the examination’s conduct.

Understand that examiners typically work independently and exchange reports just before the viva, so be ready to engage in a comprehensive discussion about your work.

Focus on showcasing your:

  1. knowledge,
  2. research abilities, and
  3. significance of your thesis

during the viva.

How to prepare for your viva exam

To prepare for a PhD viva, follow these actionable steps:

1. Familiarize yourself with your examiner’s and supervisor’s work (4-5 days): Know their research interests, potential biases, and recent publications, and consider how they might relate to your thesis.

2. Understand your thesis deeply (5-6 days): Be able to explain your research question/hypothesis, aims, theoretical framework, methods, and key results concisely. Review all the papers you discussed or mentioned in your thesis, noting their relevance to your work. Address any weaknesses in your analysis, and justify your study’s merit to earn a PhD.

3. Practice summarizing your thesis: Prepare a 200-word summary of each chapter and a 2-minute explanation of your whole thesis. Be ready to clarify your work in one or two sentences.

4. Anticipate general questions: Examples include summarizing your thesis, stating your research question or hypothesis, and discussing your main results. Prepare answers for potential questions from both a general and discipline-specific context.

5. Conduct mock vivas with your supervisor: Simulate the viva experience to get comfortable with the format, build confidence, and receive feedback on your performance.

6. Review general questions and answers (last 1-2 days): Brush up on your prepared responses and make any necessary final adjustments.

Remember, most PhD students pass their viva, so focus on preparing and confidently discussing your research.

Things to keep in mind during your viva – top tips

Here are the top tips to keep in mind during your viva:

1. Ask for clarifications if a question is unclear. Be polite and ensure you understand the question before attempting to answer it.
2. Don’t interrupt the examiner while they are asking a question. Give them time to finish, as it shows respect and allows you to fully comprehend the inquiry.

3. Be honest if you don’t know the answer to a question. Prepare a polite response for unexpected questions you cannot answer.

4. Maintain confidence without arrogance. Display a level of nervousness that reflects your dedication to the process, but avoid overconfidence or disrespect.

5. Keep your answers concise and structured. Use a clear format when providing your response, such as breaking it down into key points.

6. Speak at a moderate pace. Avoid talking too fast or too slow, as it can be distracting for the listeners. Practice controlling your speech rate during your preparations.

7. Give yourself plenty of time before the defense to prepare and relax. You should be in the right state of mind for your viva.

8. Be familiar with the protocols, format, and panel of your viva. Attend other thesis defenses, read your institution’s guidelines, and research the background of the examiners on your panel.

By following these tips, you can enter your viva well-prepared and have a successful defense. Enjoy the experience and demonstrate the hard work you have put into your research.

Wrapping up – thesis viva

Concluding our comprehensive guide on the viva process for PhD students, the final thought we leave you with is this: your PhD viva, or viva voce, is an opportunity to defend your research, a unique chance to demonstrate your motivation, strengths, and even your limitations as a researcher.

It’s important to understand the viva definition in its entirety: a viva voce is an oral test undertaken in front of a panel of examiners.

This panel usually includes one internal examiner from your institution and one external examiner from another. It may also include other experts depending on policies and practices.

Preparation is key when you get to the viva stage.

To that end, arranging a mock viva with your supervisor could help you anticipate the types of questions you’ll be asked. This practice could enable you to put your best foot forward during the real deal.

Don’t be surprised if the viva examination lasts anywhere between one and four hours.

You may be asked to elaborate on your PhD thesis, defend your field of study’s claims, discuss its strengths and weaknesses, and suggest future research opportunities. Your response to the assessment task should be in-depth and thoughtful.

Under the current COVID-19 conditions, many students are having their viva over Zoom or Skype.

In these cases, it’s important to arrange your setting to minimise distractions. Feel free to ask for clarification if the audio cuts out or you miss a question.

In preparation for your viva, review the academic profiles of your panel members, anticipate questions they might ask, and keep a copy of your thesis at hand.

Also, remember that while it’s important to provide an in-depth response, a concise explanation is ideal to avoid going on a tangent. If you’re asked about any weaknesses or limitations in your work, be honest and thoughtful in your response, highlighting your problem-solving skills as a researcher.

You’ve worked hard to reach this stage; now it’s your chance to shine! Best of luck!

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.