‘Augmenting’ the doctoral thesis in preparation for a viva

The viva voce exam is the final hurdle for PhD students, but for most it is also a new and fear-inducing experience. Edward Mills offers one framework to help those preparing to discuss their completed thesis at length

Edward Mills 's avatar
5 Jun 2024
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A research student undergoing her viva exam

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University of Exeter

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In many ways, my own PhD viva voce examination was shaped by when and where it took place. Because I was examined at a UK institution, mine was not a public event; it was held virtually, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic; and, perhaps most depressingly, I didn’t get to wield a sword at the subsequent graduation ceremony (although my fiancée did make me a small wooden one).

Many parts of the viva, though, will be familiar to PhD candidates the world over from almost any discipline. After working independently for four years to produce an 80,000-word thesis, I was suddenly expected to discuss my work in depth, with two examiners (one from my institution, and one from elsewhere) and an independent chair present. During that time, the examiners would be checking whether my thesis was indeed my own work, and whether it met the criteria for the award of a PhD.

Understanding the ‘whole thesis’

Like many PhD students, I’d spoken about my research over the previous three years at conferences, but these presentations had largely been confined to individual chapters. Now, though, I had to become familiar not just with (say) my arguments on medieval calendars, but also on how they fitted into my broader narrative about language use in medieval England.

The approach that I took – which formed part of a suite of resources for postgraduate researchers produced by the University of Exeter’s Doctoral College – was based around what I called “augmenting” my thesis. Intimidating as this may sound, it was based around a fundamentally simple concept: turning my thesis from a lengthy PDF file into something physical and tangible and which would be of use to me during the viva.

There is, of course, no single “right way” to do this, but for the sake of clarity, and at the risk of sounding like a 1980s Blue Peter presenter, I’ll outline my own process in a series of numbered steps for the benefit of readers who may be approaching the viva themselves.

An ‘augmented’ thesis in four steps

Print out and bind your thesis. This would form the basis of the “object” that I would eventually take into my viva, but it also has the advantage of getting you away from a screen, making you less likely to skip over certain passages as you reread it.

As you reread, place sticky markers along the top of the thesis to coincide with chapter headings and subheadings. At each point, write a one-sentence summary of that section. These big-picture notes give a bite-sized summary of your argument in each section, and when strung together, they provide you with a sort of “thesis-on-a-page”.

When you’ve reminded yourself of how all of your arguments fit together, start to look for points of detail. This is where highlighting can be at its most useful, if done selectively: I used yellow for material that I thought was central to my argument (and that I wanted to be able to quote back to my examiners) and red for material that I felt, on reflection, would benefit from further explanation. Any sticky notes can be placed along the outer margins of the thesis, which will distinguish them from the summaries along the top.

Record typos separately. However hard you try, typographical errors will find a way into the thesis that you submit. Highlighting each individual one, however, is likely to take more time than it’s worth: instead, I’d advise making a list of typos, keyed to page numbers and suggested changes, separately: this could later form the basis of a table of corrections to be submitted to the examiners.

There are, of course, plenty of other ways in which a thesis might be augmented: one of the main themes that emerged from collaborating on Researcher Development was that doctoral research is shaped by the researcher and their own experience just as much by field and topic. A PhD thesis may have a completely different structure to the one alluded to above; it may require more or less context for an oral examination; it may (whisper it) have fewer typos than mine did. Nevertheless, finding some form of structure in the isolating and stressful months and weeks prior to the viva is an absolute necessity for doctoral researchers, and producing an augmented thesis might just be the way to achieve it.

Edward Mills is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter. 

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