After you have written and submitted your PhD thesis, the next stage in the process is to pass your PhD viva examination, which your PhD supervisor at UWS London will fully prepare you for. Your viva will happen within three months of submitting your thesis; after completing your viva, you will know if you have passed with flying colours and can call yourself a doctor in your respective field. Though the prospect may sound daunting, see it as the chance to prove that your creative knowledge makes you a peer to the academic panel that will be present for your viva; it is the perfect opportunity to establish yourself as an intellectual authority in your field.
This article will cover what a viva is, how it works, what the potential outcomes are, who will be present on the panel and provide some helpful tips that are relevant for all fields of study.
What is a PhD Viva?
A PhD viva also referred to as a Viva Voce, Latin for ‘living voice’, is an oral examination which follows the submission of your doctoral thesis, where you will showcase your knowledge and defend your research in front of a panel comprised of academic experts. This examination is compulsory for the vast majority of doctoral students.
What Questions Will Be Asked?
All the questions asked during your viva will assess:
- Your knowledge depth in your specific area of research.
- How deep your knowledge is concerning the broader research field relevant to your PhD.
- If you can place your work in a broader context.
- If you can demonstrate how your research contributes to your field.
- If you know of any potential limitations and oversights in your work – where applicable.
If the panel has any suspicions that your work may not be your own, they may also question the authenticity of your work.
How Long Does a PhD Viva Take?
One of the most frequently asked questions about the PhD Viva is how long it takes. The average length is around three hours, but several factors can extend or shorten your oral examination. If there are issues in your PhD thesis or if it is poorly presented or formatted, this could lead to confusion on the panel, which will necessitate more clarification for you to set the record straight and prove that you understand your field of study. Similarly, how well-prepared you are and how concisely you respond to questions will also have a bearing on the duration of the viva.
However, lengthy PhD defences don’t always need to be a sign that it is going poorly! Your examiners may enjoy the discussion enough that they will want to talk about it long after they have concluded that you have passed the examination. Even though, in some rare instances, a viva can take up to eight hours there may be university or country-specific rules on maximum duration – feel free to discuss this with your PhD supervisor beforehand.
Who Will Be on Your Viva Panel?
Your PhD examination will be carried out by one examiner from your university and an examiner from an outside university. Your PhD supervisor may also be on the panel, although this is not always the case. If you do find your supervisor on your viva panel, in the UK, it is common that they are prohibited from speaking. If they are present, they will solely act as observers.
Together, the examiners will highlight what they found when reading your PhD thesis thoroughly, focusing on the theories and key concepts you put forward in your research. To ensure that the examiners are being fair and appropriate in the viva process, there is also usually a chairperson on the panel who takes notes documenting any notable suggestions or comments. The chairperson will either be internal or external from the university.
What Are the Outcomes of a Viva Exam?
In the UK, there are six potential outcomes after completing your viva. We have listed them below from the best outcome to the worst. However, it is worth bearing in mind that even if you need to make minor or major corrections after your viva, you will be given equal credit as someone who was awarded their PhD degree without corrections.
1. Awarded PhD Degree with No Corrections
It is rare for students to pass their PhD degree without any corrections. So, if this is your outcome following your viva, celebrations are in order! It means you have seriously impressed your examiners with your research and examination.
2. Minor Corrections Required to Pass
Recent viva experience research has highlighted that 84% of PhD candidates must make minor corrections to pass. Typically, the minor corrections will be small issues with the thesis, such as grammatical errors, typos, typograph issues, or presentational faux pas, which can be quickly edited. Don’t be disparaged if you are presented with this outcome following your viva; it still means that you have done remarkably well with your thesis and viva.
3. Major Corrections Required to Pass
This outcome is the second most common following a viva; it means you have met the required standard to be awarded your doctorate, but some revisions or corrections need to be made. Typically, this will involve you improving the structure or clarity of your thesis by rewriting chapters or adding additional analysis. Once again, needing to make major corrections shouldn’t be seen as a failure; although it may be disparaging, it doesn’t invalidate your research or contribution to your field.
4. Revise and Represent to Pass
You will be asked to revise and represent your work if the panel can see the potential within your work and that it can meet requirements if you undertake additional research or analysis. You will be presented with this outcome if your work doesn’t quite reach the PhD degree standard; unlike with the minor and major corrections outcomes, if you are asked to revise and represent, you will need to present your revised work to the panel again.
5. Awarded an MPhil Degree
If the academic panel decide that major corrections or additional research still won’t allow your work to meet the PhD standard, you may be awarded a lower-standard MPhil degree instead. For example, philosophy PhD candidates will be awarded a Master of Psychology degree instead of a Doctor of Philosophy degree. Typically, MPhil degrees are awarded in place of PhDs if your work lacks originality or the knowledge creation that a PhD requires. An MPhil degree ranks above MA and MSc degrees as the most advanced Masters degrees. An MPhil degree still demonstrates that you have the same skill set as someone who successfully obtained a PhD, and they are still valuable to employers.
6. Immediate Fail
An immediate fail is rare; a 2022 survey found that only 3.3% of PhD candidates fail their viva outright – it certainly isn’t something you should obsess over. If when you are preparing for your viva, you find some faults in your thesis, don’t be afraid to broach them yourself in your exam; this will show that you can present a passable thesis. `
PhD Viva Tips:
Don’t Work with Irrelevant Guidance or Tips
While brushing up on generalised tips online can help you to feel prepared for your viva, remember that there will always be variability in the process, the focus of the exam, and the questions asked. The variable factors include your field of study and the university you are obtaining your doctorate. With this in mind, always chat with your supervisor to ensure you are preparing with the right and relevant knowledge.
Treat the Examiners as Equals
Your PhD defence may technically be an exam, and naturally, many PhD candidates are stressed, daunted, or overwhelmed by the process for weeks. However, you will do much better if you go into the exam with the mindset that you are equal with the academic panel and treat the examination as a discussion rather than an inquisition. Remember, your viva is your chance to be seen as a doctor, not a student.
After spending years on your thesis, you will know your subject inside and out; it is your area of expertise; don’t go into the viva with a defensive and confrontational mindset; remain confident in your knowledge creation and how it benefits your field of study. Imposter syndrome can come in hard here, so limit your negative self-talk and silence your inner critic.
Ask for a Mock Viva with Your Supervisor
Never be shy about asking your PhD supervisor for the support you need as you prepare for your viva. They will be best placed to answer all of your questions as they will know the procedure for your university and your field of research. Your PhD supervisor will likely have already been present in viva exams; they will know the score, and more importantly, after working with you for years, they will want you to pass your viva – never be shy about asking them to arrange a mock viva to help you prepare.