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The Viva

No examiner can be an expert in a student's particular niche of work. By the time you finalise your thesis, you and you alone are the world's expert on what it contains. Your task is to convince others of its value by marshalling evidence and arguing with it. The features that make your work significant and original and worthy of a PhD... need to be argued cogently; each step needs to be spelled out, the outcomes must be stated unambiguously, and all their implications identified and discussed in depth'

P. Cryer The Research Student's Guide to Success (OUP, 2000)

The purpose of the viva

Recent research (see P. Tinkler and C. Jackson 'The Viva' in The Postgraduate's Companion SAGE, 2008) suggests that the viva examination represents a range of purposes and, just as policies vary from institution to institution, expectations of the viva vary between individuals and disciplines. It is therefore advisable that candidates discuss their expectations with their supervisor(s) in advance of the examination for any details which might help them to prepare more thoroughly. As a general guide, the viva process is intended to examine some, or all, of the following:

  • To check that the candidate has followed institutional criteria
  • Authentication - is the candidate the author of the work?
  • To establish understanding of the broader research context - ie to discuss with the candidate the wider implications of their research, perhaps things which have been omitted from, or did not receive much discussion, in the final thesis
  • To check the candidate's understanding - of keywords, concepts, your research etc
  • Defence of the thesis - although a viva is often also called a 'thesis defence', many PhD vivas are non-confrontational. Defending the thesis means that the candidate may have to respond to criticism and defend any decisions made regarding the research
  • The final decision - in some cases, the viva helps examiners to make a final decision as to the outcome.

For an insight into the doctoral examination process at the University of Manchester, please consult the 'Examination of Doctoral Degrees Policy'.

Viva components

The various purposes of the viva are reflected in its components. This is where research training and development over the last 3+ years will stand candidates in very good stead. Those skills which are required to successfully defend the thesis during the viva can be honed in various ways and it is always a good idea to think about these as early as possible. There are three major components to typical viva examinations (Tinkler & Jackson):

  • Skills, knowledge & expertise
  • Content
  • Conduct

Component Audit

  1. Take a few moments to think about all the skills required for the successful defence of a thesis (adapted from Tinkler & Jackson, 'The Viva', 374) such as:
    • Thinking on your feet
    • Performing and communicating clearly under pressure
    • Explaining, justifying and defending your PhD work with different audiences
    • Knowing the 'broader context' of your thesis
    • Coping with different styles of academic exchange
    • Dealing with complex interpersonal dynamics.
    Please also think of personal examples.
  2. Now think of any scenarios where you have had the opportunity to practice and/or develop these skills - what are your strengths and weaknesses?
  3. After that, assess your current level of skill in each of these areas (on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being very weak and 10 being extremely strong)
  4. Note down your findings in the boxes below
  5. Discuss your findings with your supervisor and/or PhD colleague/mentor
  6. Opportunities for further practice - what opportunities have you got in the future for further practice to develop skills, knowledge and expertise?