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update: I passed my viva this week, thank you so much for your kind support!

Thank you so much for your encouraging comments in my previous post regarding PhD thesis submission (What should I do the day before submitting my PhD thesis?). Now 1.5 months have passed by and my viva will take place in two weeks. I took a short break after submission and have recently started looking at my thesis again. I am wondering if you have any tips for PhD viva? P.S. I am a PhD student in social science in the UK and my viva will take place via zoom. Thanks so much!

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  • So, @JoseeLuis, did you pass? :D
    – astronat
    May 22 at 16:21
  • @astronat yes!! Thanks for asking! I will update in the original post :)
    – Josee Luis
    May 23 at 18:51
  • Congratulations Dr!
    – astronat
    May 23 at 21:30
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Here are some of my tips, coming from someone who had a Zoom viva in February (in the UK). My field is physics rather than social sciences, but I think all of these tips apply nonetheless.

  1. Make a list of potential questions that you could be asked in the viva. I did some of this as I was writing my thesis, as inevitably you have to summarise or cut parts that are too long, so these are ripe topics for questions. I also made use of lists of viva questions that other people have prepared; a particularly extensive and useful example is at the end of this blog post: http://salmapatel.co.uk/academia/phd-viva-preparation-steps/.

  2. Practice answering these questions out loud. Get someone to quiz you if you can. Especially practice the length of your answers -- don't just say yes or no, but don't waffle for five minutes either. Focus on answers to "soft" questions such as "tell us about your thesis", as they'll likely start the viva with something along those lines and it will relax you if you can answer that confidently and smoothly.

  3. Summarise your thesis. I made notes on the key points/arguments of each chapter, as well as noting any key figures or tables that I might need to refer to. Since your viva is on Zoom, you can even add bookmarks and annotations to your pdf document, and have that open on your computer while the viva is ongoing (I did this, but in the end didn't refer to a single one).

  4. Re-read key papers. I identified about fifteen key papers in the literature that my research was based on, or whose methodologies I had followed, or had key results that mine agreed/disagreed with. I made sure I knew the main points of all these papers and how they related to my work. I think this was the most valuable piece of preparation I did, as it made me very confident that I knew the literature, and I answered some questions in the viva very well by explicitly referring to these key works.

  5. Have a mock viva. You can ask your supervisor to arrange this. It doesn't have to be as long as the real thing (mine was about an hour). It's a chance for you to get familiar with the set up (although we're probably all old hands at Zoom by now), and practice answering some of the more general questions. This really helped relax me and demystify the process. Make sure to arrange it about a week before the real thing, so you have time to act on any suggestions they might have.

  6. Don't over-prepare! You know your own work better than you think. I was so worried that I needed to revise all of undergraduate physics and the background to every topic in cosmology, but in reality the examiners asked me very few questions that didn't directly relate to my research. It was also fine when I said "I don't know" (which happened quite a lot!); they guided me through an answer and seemed happy to hear my reasoning.

Other observations: the external examiner asked me the more "nit picky" questions, while the internal asked basically the same questions for each chapter: "tell me about this chapter", "what was your contribution?" for chapters based on multi-author papers and "choose a result or figure from this chapter and explain it to me". You will probably have an independent chair in the meeting too, though they will stay silent throughout unless there is a problem. The Zoom viva will probably be shorter than if it was in real life -- mine was barely over two hours and I left almost disappointed that it wasn't longer!

A great answer about what to expect in a viva and how to answer those "soft questions" is here: https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/59811/49043.

Good luck!

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  • 2
    Great answer, one small addition, it can be helpful to have a quick look at recent publications of the opponent to get a feel for what they are interested in.
    – Noiralef
    May 3 at 22:40
  • 2
    What not to do: get defensive (or worse, combative). When I was a grad student, I watched a PhD student who had a simple (and obvious) error on one of his slides try to argue his way out of it. All of us grad students watching wanted to run up, and whisper into his ear "change the sign on the second term in the equation" (or whatever it was), but we couldn't. It was a horrible thing to watch. When you are asked a question, think about it, don't think "oh, this guy is trying to 'gotcha' me", listen to what is being asked
    – Flydog57
    May 3 at 22:57
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    I too had a viva in the UK and this is a great answer. One question that I hadn't expected was: The chair asked me about a mathematical condition I had in the appendix, a monster of a condition that I'm very much ashamed of in retrospect: He asked me if I could give an intuitive interpretation. He probably wanted to test my reaction and/or crack a joke. I was lucky that I'd struggled enough with that condition to be able to mumble some sort of answer. Point is: if you try to bury stuff in the appendix, some of the committee are sharp enough to "gotcha"! But don't overthink it.
    – PatrickT
    May 4 at 9:07
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    Thank you so much! This answer and people's replies are super helpful. I will come back and share my experiences once it's over.
    – Josee Luis
    May 4 at 18:19

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