Format for defending a doctoral thesis
Every institution will have specific regulations for the thesis defence. In some countries or institutions, the convention is for thesis defences to be public events where you will give a lecture explaining your research, followed by a discussion with a panel of examiners (opponents). Both your examiners and the audience are able to ask questions.
In other countries, including the UK, the oral examination is usually conducted behind closed doors by at least two examiners, usually with at least one being from another institution (external examiner) and an expert in your topic of research. In the UK the supervisor does not participate in the viva, but may be allowed to observe. Sometimes someone from your own institution is appointed as an independent chair. Although it is now becoming more common for the candidate to have an opportunity to give a public lecture in UK institutions, this does not form part of the examination and may or may not be attended by the examiners.
Take the preparation for your viva seriously and devote a substantial amount of time to it. The viva preparation checklist may be useful to help you prepare.
Your institution may offer courses on viva preparation and there may be opportunities to organise a practice viva. Take advantage of these opportunities: they can be extremely valuable experiences.
Things you may wish to take with you
- your thesis – mildly annotated if you wish
- a list of questions that you might be asked and your planned responses
- any questions that you want to ask your examiners
- additional notes which you have made during your revision
- list of minor corrections that you have come across during your revision.
During the viva
Your study will have strengths and weaknesses: it is essential that you are prepared to discuss both. You could think of any weaknesses as an opportunity to demonstrate your skill at critical appraisal. Examiners will seek to find and discuss weaknesses in all theses. Do not interpret criticism as indication of a possible negative outcome.
Examiners have different personalities, styles and levels of experience. Sometimes a candidate may feel that a challenge is made in a confrontational way. Experienced, effective examiners will not be inappropriately confrontational, but some will. Do not take offence. A relaxed, thoughtful, and non-confrontational response from you will help re-balance the discussion. Having an independent chair can help maintain a constructive environment.
Useful tips for during your viva:
- Ask for clarification of ambiguous questions or ask for the question to be repeated if necessary
- Take time to think before answering
- Be prepared to ask questions and enter into a dialogue with your examiners
- Be prepared to discuss your research in context of other work done in your field
- Be ready to admit if you don't know the answer to a question
- Be prepared to express opinions of your own
You are not expected to have perfect recall of your thesis and everything that you have read and done. If you get flustered, or need to refer to notes your examiners will understand. They have been in your situation themselves!
After your viva
There are several possible outcomes of a thesis defence. Most commonly, your examiners will recommend to your institution that you are awarded your degree subject to minor corrections, although in some instances they might ask for more substantial work.
- It is a test to prove that you have written your own thesis. So, if you have written it yourself, and your supervisor feels that both the thesis and you are ready for examination, then you really should have nothing to worry about.
- It is an ‘open book’ exam. The viva is not a test of memory; you can bring stuff into the exam, and really you can bring anything you want into the exam – within reason! Of course, bring a copy of your thesis! You can stick yellow ‘Post-it’ notes on it (eg, anticipated questions and answers), although personally I hated the idea of that, and I just used the Table of Contents; however, it works well for some people…do what makes you comfortable.
- Your examiners want to pass you. Don’t expect an easy ride, but don’t expect some kind of medieval hand-to-hand combat. You will be very nervous for the first couple of questions. This is normal, your examiners know that, and they should ask you some questions to relax you and settle you into your exam.
- Follow the normal rules of conversation. Don’t interrupt your examiners; let them finish their questions before starting to answer. However, do not worry about respectfully disagreeing with them, either. It should be an open, frank, honest and polite conversation. Keep referring your examiners to your written work. Don’t try to memorise everything, as mentioned above, they also want to make sure that you’ve written your own thesis. So just make sure that you know where all the key sections of your thesis are.
- It normally lasts two hours. However, it could range from 90 minutes to four hours – so, like every other exam you have ever sat at university, pace yourself and don’t rush into a poorly conceived or considered answer. When you are asked a question, write it down. This will give you a minute or so, and also don’t worry about bullet-pointing answers. You probably have a list of anticipated viva questions and your answers; you can bring them in and refer to them if you like.
- Tell a story or two. Give the examiners some flavour of what you did during the three years. It was not a cold, clinical process; it was full of and fraught with interpersonal relationships (disasters), and you came out the other side and have an 80,000-word (or larger) thesis to show for it. However, stick to the questions you have been asked – it’s easy to give away answers that may lead to other difficult questions. So practise being assertive and limit your answers to ONLY the questions you’ve been asked. It can become very easy to stumble across an unpleasant surprise if you start wandering.
- Try to settle in and enjoy it. Remember, it is your thesis and the examiners want to pass you. If you are feeling intimidated by the experience of your examiners, then remember that no one knows more about your thesis than you: in this respect, you are the expert in the room. At the same time, if you are stumped by a question and go completely blank, then just be honest and humble and say so. Your examiners are very likely to point out a few things that you haven’t considered, and it’s better to admit this than to try to bluster through a half-baked answer.
- Know what a pass is. It is really rather difficult to fail. There are normally six or seven results.
- The examiners are there to listen to you. It’s probably the last and often the only time that two senior academics, respected in the field, are going to concentrate solely on your work. This is a PhD exam, conducted by two people with nothing else to do but listen to you.
- It is a safe activity. In preparation for this academically sound exegesis of the viva, I have conducted extensive research – well, I did a Google search and looked at the first two pages of hits (does anyone really do any more these days?) – and found no evidence of anyone dying during their viva…so go for it!
Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Dubai and Malaysia. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on It’s Not you, It’s Your Data, a collaborative blog on the PhD journey.