Viva la examination

When deciding whether to award a research degree or not, the examiners have two things at their disposal:  the thesis and the viva.


You may feel anxious about the latter because you have never experienced an examination of this type before, and you are uncertain about exactly what you expect.  You may also feel that the viva requires skills that you don’t use regularly – but in this you would be wrong.

In terms of knowing what to expect, you can read the first-hand account of a viva on this blog, listen to the Viva Survivors podcasts, or (and I probably should have put this first) read the University’s Code of Practice on Assessment of Research Degree Theses, which sets out clearly what is expected and how the exam is conducted.

The skills that you require in your viva are ones that you are using all the time.  Essentially, your viva is a critical conversation with experts in your field.  There are lots of things you are already doing, either as part of or alongside your research, which will help you develop the relevant skills and confidence you need to perform well in a viva.  These include:

  • Discussing your research with your supervisor regularly, and engaging in critical and analytical discussion as part of those meetings.
  • Delivering an oral presentation on your research at a departmental seminar or national/international conference, and answering questions from the audience afterwards.  This includes questions and discussion with delegates who approach you during the refreshment break after your talk.
  • Presenting a poster of your research.  Arguably, this provides better opportunity for engaging in 1:1 discussion than an oral presentation.  Not done this yet?  Apply to present at the UoB Research Poster Conference 2019.
  • Networking with other researchers in your field, either online or in person, where you engage in critical discussion of your (or others’) research.
  • Teaching undergraduates, and needing to respond quickly and confidently to their questions.  You will need to take the Introduction to Learning and Teaching (ILT) from HEFi before you can teach at UoB.
  • Telling family, friends, and acquaintances what your research is about and why you’re doing it.  Participating in 3MT.  These are particularly great practice for the beginning of your viva, where you are quite likely to be asked introductory questions about the overall themes/contribution of your research, and/or why you find it interesting.

The viva can seem intimidating before the fact.  But remember that you are the expert in the room as far as your research goes, that what’s required is for you to engage in critical discussions similar to many that you have had before, and that the examiners are genuinely interested in your work.  You may enjoy it more than you expect!

Additional resources to help you prepare for your viva:

How have you developed your skills in critical discussion and rhetoric?

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