My viva is coming up in a few days and I'm a bit worried. I'm in a UK institution.

I want to know how technical will the questions be? I won't be able to remember complicated proofs even though I wrote them, and even though I am going through my thesis. It's a painful process re-reading everything.

Surprisingly, there is no information online about math PhD vivas in the UK. So I have no idea what to expect.

  • 5
    There may be a fair amount of variation, depending on your institution and your examiners. I think the best information will come from your advisor and/or people who have recently finished your program. Not all the useful information in the world can be found online! Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 20:58
  • Is it common or allowed to attend someone else's thesis defence in the UK? It's likely too late now, but for future readers, it can certainly help to attend a few defences if possible / allowed. My parting thoughts from attending my first defence in the Netherlands were "well, that doesn't seem nearly daunting as I thought".
    – Moriarty
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 22:26
  • 2
    @Moriarty: In all UK institutions that I've done vivas with, the only people allowed at the defence are the examiners (typically 2), the candidate, and in rare cases an independent chair or the supervisor. In all cases where the supervisor is allowed to be present, it must be at the request of the candidate, and they are strictly forbidden from speaking.
    – Ian
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 22:47

1 Answer 1


You will not find such information as there is no standard process in the UK. The best people to talk to are your supervisor (who should have knowledge of both examiners, and can tell you what they're like) and the internal examiner (who should be making sure the exam follows your institutions' regulations, and guiding the process).

In UK vivas that I've been involved with, the process is to keep going until the candidate has proved they

  • did the work that the thesis in their name describes;
  • can say why it's important;
  • can say why it's original;
  • can convince the examiners it's correct.

Typically the external examiner will take the lead in asking questions; they can go into as much depth as they like. The more confident you can make them that you know what you're doing, the less likely they are to drill into tiny details (unless they are particularly interested, in which case it's more a chat than an exam).

Finally, it's now become standard in the cases I've been involved with that the candidate has a few minutes at the beginning to summarize what they did - typically 2-5 minutes. If you get this chance, make sure you take it and can immediately (and I mean, in the first or second sentence out of your mouth), cover the "important" and "original" points above. A confident (in appearance) statement of "This is the important, interesting stuff that I did, and we're now going to have an exciting 2 hour chat about it", gets everybody started on the right footing, builds confidence in all, and usually leads to a good result.

  • I've been half an hour to present my work (I chose slides). But I did not think to emphasise why the work is "important"; only what I did and how I did it.
    – C_Al
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 14:18

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