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Five top tips to pass your PhD viva

Research assistant Kirsty Devaney, who recently successfully completed her doctorate, provides five invaluable pieces of advice on passing the PhD viva.

First thing's first...what is the PhD viva?

Officially called the viva voce, meaning ‘living voice’ in Latin, the viva is an oral examination that sees a PhD student defend their thesis and showcase their knowledge to a panel of academic experts.

The viva takes place after you have completed your thesis and sees these experts ask you various questions to ensure you understand your work and have become an expert in your field.

Now, over to Kirsty…

1). Make your own learning space

"It's important on the lead up to the viva voce to have a space that's designated for your preparations. This could be at your university, in a coffee shop or at home.

"For instance, I took over my dining room table for a good two months. I had all of my resources there - my books, my thesis and lots of post-it notes."

2). Take some time away from your thesis

"I had a three-month wait in between submitting my thesis and sitting my viva, but I knew I couldn’t spend that time prepping as it would be far too intense. I took a full month off from revising and returned with a clear idea of what I needed to do."

3). Make a plan of action

"A month before my viva, I made a list of things I wanted to achieve before the day.

"One was to read through my thesis in full three times. I also committed to tabbing all of the important chapters, diagrams and data in my thesis, so I could refer to them quickly if needed.

"I then compiled a series of questions which I thought might come up in the viva and put them all into a pot. Once I’d got enough questions, I’d ask my husband to pull out one of the pieces of paper at random and ask me the question. 

"Some days I would also catch up on any recent literature I may have missed that could be relevant.

"All of this proved incredibly useful for when my viva arrived."

4). Know your examiners

"When you’re close to completing your doctorate, you might have a conversation with your supervisors about the people in the field who might be external examiners.

"Once you know who they are going to be, it’s really important to get to know their research, what their research interests are and what methodologies they use."

5). Become the expert

"BCU does a mock viva, which I found incredibly helpful as it meant I could work on any difficulties I faced.

"One issue that arose from my mock was that I had to become a lot more confident and assertive about my research and my findings.

"When you walk into the room to do your viva, you are making the leap from being a student to having the certainty of an expert."

How scary was the PhD viva?

Kirsty, who also runs the successful Young Composers Project, says it’s important not to be too fearful of the examiners.

"They are there to challenge you, but they’re not trying to be mean for the sake of it,” she explains. “They want to make sure you know your stuff and haven’t just plagiarised the material.

"However, it’s important to breathe and take your time – they’re not expecting rapid-fire responses."

Kirsty credits the support of the School of Education and Social Work for getting her through her PhD.

"They really got it right,” she says. "They have been incredibly supportive. I never felt alone."