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The PhD viva in the UK: what to expect.

May 22, 2014

I had a friend ask for advice about the PhD viva voce examination here in the UK, as her friend has his coming up. I decided to write an email detailing what I thought were the basic points, along with a few specific anecdotes from my own experience. Re-reading it, I thought it deserved a wider airing.  I’m happy for people to add to it if they have their on advice or examples. Here’s the unvarnished response:

PhD vivas, in the UK at least, are very closed and mysterious affairs, but they have common structures. Here’s a brief overview of what I have seen/heard in all vivas:

Above all else, the viva seeks to ask three questions: 1) did the candidate write it? 2) is there an original contribution to knowledge? 3) is there a sufficient volume and quality of work to justify a PhD? As I’ll explain later, the PhD viva is the only examination in which “I don’t know” is the right answer to some of the questions you’ll get asked.

First, a good examiner will try to settle the nerves by asking either a simple general question, which is usually “could you tell me, generally, about your thesis? In other words, explain what you did, why you did it, and what you found.” The aim here is also to make sure the candidate has some knowledge of what was done – if not, then maybe their supervisor wrote it for them! It is important to get the response to this obvious question right. Too short, and it looks like you don’t care; too long, and you’ll sound full of yourself (or full of shit). Aim for a response lasting about 10 minutes.

There are other general questions that might precede or follow this, such as “What is science?” “What is the gold-standard form of clinical trial?” or “What is knowledge?”. These can be surprisingly hard if you’ve been focusing on the minutiae of the thesis. I remember somebody telling me that a guy who had spent 3 years studying calcium transients in skeletal muscle was simply asked “how does a muscle contract?” and he was stumped!

From there on, the examiners will get into the detail. The important thing to bear in mind is that this is a defence – examiners rarely spend time telling the candidate what they liked about the thesis. The aim here is to probe the uncertainties and loose ends, and test the data presented to see if it is robust. This can be quite a depressing process because you’ll end up thinking that they hate your work when, in fact, most of the time they are just honestly asking about things they are unsure of. It is also important to remember that a good examiner is looking for honesty from the candidate. In my viva, for example, I was asked a question about the effect of muscle temperature on oxygen uptake at the mitochondrial level. After 15 minutes of considering all the possibilities, I said “…but I really don’t know.” My examiner said “Good! It’s fine to say you don’t know if you really don’t know!”

I have seen several approaches to the thesis bit. Most of the time it’s page-by-page. Sometimes it’s thematic (with long sections on specific topics), and sometimes it seems to be scattergun. Mine was the last of these, and that made it very hard as I never knew what was coming next. In here, there may also be general questions about research approaches and detailed questions about the statistics used (if relevant). In other words, know your normal distributions, p-values, confidence intervals, t-tests etc.

After the thesis bit, comes the obvious “what’s next?” question(s). The examiners are examining somebody who has been through three years of research training, so they will want to be clear that the training has been worth it and that the candidate has new queries to chase up.

Finally, and this can sometimes happen, the examiner will say “Is there anything you want to ask me?” This is great, because you’ve got a big name in to examine you (possibly even your academic hero) and you can ask him/her anything you like. Best to ask something about his/her take on the field and where it’s going now, rather than wasting it with a “Would you rather have elbows or knees?” type question.

And at that point, they will send the candidate out of the room while they make a decision. Then it’s tea and medals.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg Carey permalink
    May 22, 2014 3:04 pm

    ~1 year until I’ll have to have my viva and my stomach turns every time I think about it. But this made me feel a bit better about it, thanks!

  2. Lawrence permalink
    May 22, 2014 6:05 pm

    Thanks Mark. Deana asked on my behalf and the insight was much appreciated!

  3. May 22, 2014 10:03 pm

    I’m so thankful that I have a great supervisory team. My main supervisor is very approachable and I am confident that he is preparing me for my viva and giving me experience of skills I may require in any future postdoctoral roles. My viva is 1 year and 5/6 months away and I am starting to get a little nervous. Reading this has made me feel better. Thank you.

  4. James Steele permalink
    May 30, 2014 5:22 pm

    Hi Mark,

    It was good to read this post and realise that my experience was pretty normal.

    For everyone else reading, I went through my viva yesterday. Similar questions to those noted above were asked (my external actually requested an initial presentation as an overview of the thesis fopr the first 20-25 mins including backgound, rationale, aims, methods, results, conclusions) and I was able to answer and defend much of my thesis well. I was passed with major ammendments – though the ammendments are mainly to do with presentation and writing style and I hope I can get them done in the time required for minor ammendments with the summer relatively free.

    Yesterday however felt exhausting – physically and emotionally. As Mark said, I came out thinking they hated the thesis as it felt like 3.5 hours of being told how awful the work was. I was asked some good questions but it did feel a lot like just being given a list of critical feedback at the time. It felt like I just sat there and took most of it, got a bit defensive at some points, then thought I better pipe down and not look like a *insert expletive*.It was truly surreal to then go back in after their deliberation to be congratulated and told that the research was actually very rigorous and worthy of the award of PhD. I was shocked. I nearly asked them if they were joking.

    But that was yesterday, reeling from the emotional turmoil of the process. Looking back today, having calmed down, I can be a bit more objective. It is entirely necessary for the examiners to be this critical. As Mark said, it’s a defense and it’s the examiners responsibility to ensure that they uphold a certain level of quality of research when it comes to examining PhD level work. It feels a lot worse at the time than it really was when you think about it in hindsight, or at least that’s how I feel about it today. The examiners main concerns were with my literature review. Not that it was lacking necessarily, though there were some elements they wanted adding in (fortunately they were all things that were in earlier drafts and so I can add them back in easily and was able to discuss them when questioned in the viva). The main issue was that they felt my writing style came across as too biased and arrogant towards the particular area examined. When they probed me with questions they noted that my writing hadn’t appropriately presented my appraisal of the topic area which was much more balanced when I responded in the viva. Initially this was quite nice to hear as I felt I was maybe to close to the thesis to pick up on instances of this where I was aware that my actual appraisal wasn’t so arrogant. External eyes on the project provided a fresh view of things. However, after 2 hours of going through the literature review highlighting instances of this I felt like they pretty much hated the whole thing. After the viva II completely ignored the fact that they had almost zero issues with my research methods (spending about 10 minutes asking for a few points of clarification as to why I had used certain stastical analyses), the results of the individual studies performed (again another 10-20 minutes clarifying some results and whether I felt they truly supported my conclusions), and the overarching conclusions of the thesis (basically commenting that they felt they were well justified) – all arguably the more important aspects of determining whether someone has matured as a researcher through their PhD. On reflection today I think the viva went very well. The main issue with the research was not the research itself, but how I had presented certain things.

    Yesterday I felt like a bit of a fraud when people were refering to me as ‘Dr’. I had just spent 3.5 hours feeling like I was being told my work was rubbish and I was too arrogant and biased. Calling myself ‘Dr’ felt arguably even more arrogrant afterward.

    Today I feel a bit more comfortable with that. It does feel like the research I conducted was worthy of it. I had worked bloody hard and conducted a series of well performed studies to test my research questions. My viva confirmed that. It also taught me where I am still lacking as a researcher and need to continue to develop. With the PhD done the training wheels are off – now I can ride the bike that the other researchers ride, but I’ll still probably fall of a few times before I master it.

    Anyway, I hope detailing that experience is of use to someone. It would be interesting to hear of others experiences also.


    James (‘Dr’ Steele – apparently!)

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