This post is by Sam Relton. Sam is currently a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the School of Mathematics
I’ve finally finished! After years of reading papers, designing algorithms, hacking at code, and writing papers, my PhD is complete.
One of the most daunting thoughts I had as a PhD student was the idea of the viva: two experts sit in a room and pick apart the fine details of your work. They ask deep and technical questions, not limited merely to your thesis content, for a few hours (I’ve heard horror stories of 8 hours!) before sending you out of the room to discuss your fate. Fifteen minutes of palpitations later you get your result and (whatever the outcome) head to the pub, either to celebrate or drown your sorrows as appropriate.
In reality, because I was well prepared, my viva was actually just a chat with some knowledgeable people who were very interested in my work. There were a few curve-ball questions, nothing too serious, and the whole thing was done in an hour.
Here are some of my top tips for viva preparation.
1. Know your work
This is probably the most obvious advice in the world but it is genuinely hard to remember all the details of that piece of work you wrote up during your first year and squeezed into your thesis.
More important than what you did is why you did it. Why did you choose to proceed in that fashion? Why didn’t you follow the approach of Prof. X in this section? Why is this work of interest to the community (i.e. what are its applications)?
You need to be able to justify all the choices you made whilst undertaking your research. If some of your thesis was joint work then perhaps someone else made that crucial decision and you should aim to understand their reasoning too.
2. Know your area
Another major theme of questions ask about the broader area surrounding your work. For instance, do you know the major names that contributed to the foundations of your research? What did they do specifically and in what decade?
Apart from these historical questions it’s also important to recognise the impact your research will have on the field today. Does your research help develop any new applications of the field, or is it applicable in other areas? Are there any problems that could be solved using similar techniques to those that you used in your thesis?
You should also know what the other research groups in your area are working on (especially the group where your external examiner works!).
3. Identify weaknesses
When reading through your thesis it is important to think like an examiner. Highlight sections that aren’t fully explained or which might cause confusion. Later come back and make sure you understand exactly what you did and why you did it, make a note in the margin of the page to remind you. In my viva I had already identified all but one of the areas that my examiners mentioned as possible weak spots and had prepared a more detailed explanation for them.
A good way to think like an examiner is to totally forget your thesis. I put mine away for over three weeks between the initial submission and the viva so that I could read it again with no preconceptions.
4. Look out for open problems
One important part of becoming an independent researcher is the ability to identify research problems to work on. Make a list of everything that isn’t completely solved by your thesis and mention them in the conclusions. Also spend some time thinking about extending your work, applying it to new areas, modifying your techniques to work on different problems, and anything else you can think of.
Make sure you are prepared to discuss your ideas for future work.
5. Go through some sample questions
There are LOADS of sample questions on the internet. Here are some that I used.
You should write down on paper the things you want to talk about for each question. Writing things down helps you memorise them later on.
6. Be confident
You should be proud of your work and ready to send it off into the world; after all you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into it for the last 3+ years! Don’t forget that you are probably the worlds number one expert in your particular area and everyone else is playing catch-up.
Dress the part and emanate an aura of confidence and respect. In some ways you are “joining the club” of professional researchers and you are no longer a student.
7. Have fun with it!
The PhD viva is really quite a unique experience. It isn’t often that somebody will patiently read through your entire collection of work, fully digest it, and have a thorough discussion of it with you.
Take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the finer details with experts in your field and engage them in discussion on possible extensions to your results, new applications, or different ways of doing things that might lead to some new ideas.
If you prepare well then the viva should be a breeze. Good luck!