Saturday, 10 March 2012


Well, now I realise that the thesis is only part of getting a doctorate, you need to be able to talk about and defend your work orally as well as in written form.

My viva date is the 22nd March. Being 6 months into a post-doc at King's College London, I do not have the time for preparation that I might like, and am having to be efficient with time.

Having watched some excellent videos on viva preparation and the examination, I've realised that I fall into the 'it will be alright on the day, I know the stuff anyway' camp of PhD viva-ee, and need to pick up my game a bit. Reading the thesis through is not enough. Even though I've been editing chapters for paper publications, this is not going to be enough to prepare me for the viva.

What is good is that I've given two talks on the thesis (or bits of it) recently, to various types of audiences. I'm giving another talk at Warwick university on Monday. This is giving me (a) a broad perspective on what I'm doing, and (b) lots of practice at dealing with a diverse range of questions, some of which were unexpected. I'm also collecting questions on my thesis from all sorts of different people, from my supervisors and collaborators to people who have never come across my work before. This is really useful - I need to practice answering these. I'm also practising summarising my thesis, e.g. during runs or gym sessions(!) and am going to have a practice discussion with my supervisor. Lots of practice going on here!

From the videos I've just watched, I've compiled some pointers, and am including those here so I can refer to them again (and so that perhaps they might be useful to others).  Finally, wish me luck!

1. Overall points and general questions
? Does your overall argument make any sense? and does it address your research questions?
? Why is your thesis important?
? What is the general area surrounding your thesis and how does your thesis fit in?
? What is the scope of your thesis? (and what does it not cover?)
? What are the strengths of your thesis? [don't be afraid to push the bits that are good]
? What are the weaknesses and limitations of your thesis? [recognise, acknowledge and overcome- good to show that you have ideas how to deal with them - but don't invite extra corrections!]
For both these Qs:
? Be aware of the strengths and weaknesses
? Be precise
? Be ready and willing to talk about them
? Expect challenging and interesting questions
? What's missing from your thesis? 
? Are there counter-arguments to your arguments? How would you address these?
? Why did you make the research decisions you did? What alternatives did you consider, and why did you dismiss these?
? What interested you in this research area, and drew you to this area of work?

2. For the day itself
Read thesis, mark up a copy (with page tags so you can find things!) and bring it in to the exam. Also make a ~2-page summary of the key themes as a reminder.
Be prepared to summarise your thesis arguments and findings at the start, in a concise way. Practice this! Should be natural and relatively informal (e.g. not reading from a prepared script but describing it in a conversation to somebody interested)
Some bits of the thesis may not make sense, or the examiners won't read as you expect them to (haven't got the same reading background, etc) - I may need to clarify. 
The examiners want to make sure I wrote the thesis and did the work - of course as I know I did, I need to make sure I demonstrate this in a satisfactory way.
In facing questions, don't get defensive - but be brave! (and diplomatic)
Answer questions succinctly and in an informed, knowledgeable manner. I can take my time if necessary, ask for questions to be clarified, and even start an answer again if I've completely mucked it up! 


  1. Hi! This post couldn't be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me
    of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this.
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  2. Thanks for the comment! Hope the post is helpful for your friend and good luck to him if he's got a viva coming up

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Hi Rebecca, does your university provide any resources to help you prepare? That's where my videos came from, my old university. I also went on one of their training course to prepare for it.
    But I hope you don't worry too much about it. No matter what happens, it's the chance for you to talk non stop about the area that has taken over your life for the last few years. It's an area that you will be the absolute expert in (especially once you've been immersed in the final writeup and have finished it all off, and have some time to look at the bigger picture - and let your brain take a break!)

  5. I just looked at a site that Rebecca Doyle mentioned in a comment on this blog. What a shame to see something like this site exist. It offers to write your thesis for you, so you can"outsource" the "difficult " parts of your degree to save time. The whole point of a PhD is be able to construct useful research *and write it up*. The write up process was where I learned the most and could really get the point of what I was doing. If you need to (or choose to) rely on sites like that to write up your research for you, then you have to question whether a PhD is right for you. You certainly wouldn't deserve your PhD if you hadn't written your thesis!
    Rebecca I don't know if you've spammed my blog on behalf of this cheaters website, or if you're genuine but misguided. Either way I'm not having a link to that site on my blog and will remove your post asap.