Viving la viva: how to answer viva questions

Preparing for a PhD viva can be stressful, but you can take steps to ensure you answer the examiners’ questions about your thesis well. Jenny Scoles provides tips

Jenny Scoles's avatar
21 May 2024
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
A woman being interviewed in a panel
image credit: iStock/Wavebreakmedia.

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Edinburgh

You may also like

What I have learned on the journey towards commercialising my PhD
3 minute read
Commercialise PhDs

“Just enjoy the viva,” they say. Ha! “Enjoyment” was not what came to mind when thinking about my PhD viva. But I knew it was my only chance to speak to people who had read my thesis and, unlike my long-suffering family and friends, were genuinely curious about why I didn’t use NVivo and why I hadn’t referenced the original citation on page 243. So, when it came to prepping for mine a few years ago (I submitted it in September and my viva wasn’t until January, so I had a decent amount of time to prepare and find spelling mistakes), I made sure I was as ready as I could be.

I found a lot of online viva resources and blog posts that provided helpful lists of possible questions you may be asked to help you prepare your answers. However, what I found most helpful were the tips from my supervisors during my mock viva (tip one: have a mock viva with your supervisors). Specifically, they talked about how I should answer the examiners’ questions, not necessarily what to say. 

Signpost your answers

Examiners will undoubtedly ask you, in so many words: “What is your original contribution to knowledge?” As with all replies, keep your answer clear; don’t make things too complicated. Structure the points you want to make so you can signpost the examiner to your main thesis contributions, just as you would have in your written conclusion. For example, I said: “My thesis makes three original contributions to knowledge: firstly, a theoretical contribution, secondly, a methodological contribution, and thirdly, a pedagogical/practical contribution,” and kept to a few sentences for each of the three points.

It’s a game of stamina

At the beginning of the viva, its easy to want to just keep talking through nerves or worry that you want to show off everything at once. My viva was only an hour and a half, but I’ve heard of some lasting more than five hours – it just depends on the examiners, and what emerges on the day. Have faith that, when answering the first few questions, you don’t have to reel off your whole thesis there and then. Take your time; it’s an exhausting few hours. I hit the wall after an hour as I’d begun to relax into it and my adrenaline dropped (I did a few over-loud sighs without realising). So, pace yourself. If you are worried that you have not answered their question, you can politely ask if the examiners would like you to expand on what you’ve said further.

Although it’s a defence of your thesis, don’t come across as defensive

This is a hugely useful distinction that I was made aware of. The examiners are there to critically pick apart your thesis, probing why you did certain things and not others. Yet this thesis is your baby, and no one but you can say your baby isn’t perfect. So your hackles rise and, perhaps without realising it, the tone or manner in which you reply could come across as too defensive and it could make the examiners feel defensive, too. They’re only human, after all. You can still defend your reasons politely but firmly. “That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, but I found, for my study, it was more helpful to look at it this way” is a good response.

Don’t know the answer? Sometimes the examiners may ask you something that you have not even thought about, let alone prepared for. At this point, have a few stock phrases up your sleeve to give yourself time to mull things over. The following are effective:

  • Well, now that I think about it like that…
  • I’m only starting to see this now…
  • That’s a very good point, I’d like to look at this issue in more detail.

Practise speaking your answers aloud to get used to your voice; the best prep I did was with a colleague who had her viva at a similar time to me. We scheduled weekly Skype sessions in the weeks before and practised asking each other unseen questions. This helped me get used to hearing my own voice and let me play with how I could verbalise concepts and ideas that I had only, up until then, put into writing and had lived in my head.

Prepare questions of your own

As in an interview, it looks professional if you have a few questions prepared for the examiners for the “any questions?” part at the end. For example, you could ask their thoughts on where you could publish future journal articles from your PhD. Or how a particular concept you developed fits with their own work (brownie points for having read the examiners’ latest papers).

And, finally, two tips from me after having survived

Simplify the notes you take in with you: I was allowed to take in as many notes, thesis drafts, books and lucky mascots as I wanted. However, if you are relying too much on your answers coming from reading your notes, the flow of conversation will falter, and you may end up getting into a bit of a sweat. As part of the revision process, I made colourful mind maps that summarised the main points I wanted to make for each potential question. I took these into the viva and laid them out in front of me, which meant I could flick my eyes to them if I my mind went blank.

Enjoy it…or just get through it 

It’s easy to say: “Just enjoy your viva!” once you’re out the other side. So, if you enjoy it, that’s a bonus! If not, well done for having got to that point in the first place and, whatever happens, reward yourself handsomely at the end.

Jenny Scoles is an academic developer (learning and teaching enhancement) at the University of Edinburgh.

This post was originally published on theofficedog blog and the University of Edinburgh's Teaching Matters blog.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site