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Understanding the question

In the viva examiners need to make sure that the candidate can answer questions under pressure and this requires practice. If candidates are unsure about the question, then ask the examiner to repeat it. If candidates are still unsure, a good strategy is relate back to the examiners what is thought to have been understood from the question and the examiners will be able to clarify whether the candidate is correct. A good strategy for this is to re-phrase the question, which helps to clarify what is required.

Structuring Your Answers

There are various ways of structuring an answer to a question. Candidates will inevitably get more skilled at answering questions with practice, but it is a good idea to think about structure. There are various methods of structuring an answer (see Murray, 2008):

  • Classification groupings
  • Analysis - breaking the subject into parts
  • Pros and cons
  • Problem-solution
  • General-specific
  • Narrative (of work done)
  • Other directions/structures
  • The structure of your thesis argument

Verbal Strategies

It is useful to employ several verbal strategies ahead of the viva and these can be practiced when answering questions during supervision, at a conference or in a panel review. The oral communication skills used when presenting an academic paper will stand a candidate in good stead for formulating a verbal response to a question. Candidates need to make sure that they include just the right amount of information in their answer. Answers that are brief and underdeveloped will not be considered adequate during a PhD viva. The examiners are expecting candidates to demonstrate their ability to think under pressure. Candidates are, of course, allowed to ask the examiners whether they can take a few minutes to formulate a response. Note down any things which come to mind on paper and use these notes to help structure a response.

Employing Academic Vocabulary

Doctoral candidates who reach the viva will, by now, be well versed in academic vocabulary. Be prepared to practice using this vocabulary when answering questions about the research - aims, objectives, analysis, theoretical frameworks, methodologies. When candidates use definitions they are tasked to clarify what their understanding of these definitions is, and why. Define any terms which are used in the thesis (indeed, the examiners may ask for clarification to check meaning) and illustrate these with well-chosen examples from the doctoral work. Remember to be specific and be prepared to talk about things that have been completed (and also things that were omitted) from the thesis. Remember that candidates may be invited to talk about future research plans. This is an opportunity to discuss post-doctoral research plans and publications.


Also come to the viva prepared to talk about the thesis in very frank terms. This means being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your research (and research question) and the thesis itself as well as being able to talk about them confidently and with assertion. Also be prepared to talk about the authorities in the research area and demonstrate any technical expertise and knowledge that has been gained. This will give the candidate credibility as a researcher.

Typical Viva Questions

Below is a list of typical viva questions (extracted from various sources). Feel free to think of your own questions. It is also a good idea to talk to your supervisor(s) about questions which you might anticipate.

  • Please summarise your thesis
  • Summarise your key findings
  • What is original about your thesis?
  • What are the strongest / weakest parts of your work?
  • What are the main issues / debates in your subject area?
  • What were the crucial research decisions that you made?
  • How did you tackle the ethical implications of your work?
  • How did you access resources for your research?
  • How have you evaluated your work?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Why have you tackled the problem in this way?
  • What is the agreed methodology in your discipline?
  • What do your results mean?
  • Do you anticipate publishing the material? And, if so, what aspects?
  • How could you improve your thesis?
  • How has your view of the research altered or developed?
  • Does your work have value to practitioners?
  • What researchers would be interested in your work?
  • What had not been done on this topic before?
  • Who will use your material?
  • How did you manage the information you collected?
  • What models did you use?
  • Are the techniques you have used appropriate for this topic?
  • What are the theoretical underpinnings to your work?
  • How did you use a conceptual framework to design your research and analyse your findings?
  • How did your understanding of the conceptual aspects of your work help you to put a research framework together?
  • Is your writing style appropriate for this topic?
  • Tell me how your work differs from that of x?
  • Who would be most likely to agree with your findings?
  • Who would be most likely to disagree with your findings?
  • How long do you expect your work to remain innovative?
  • What sets your work apart from others?
  • How did you resolve any issues which arose in the course of your research?
  • How did you use the x you used in your methodology?
  • What do you mean when you use the term x?
  • You seem unsure about x why is that?
  • Why should we accept your interpretation of x?
  • What have you learned from the process of doing a PhD?
  • How has the research training you have received helped you?
  • How did you deal with the fieldwork aspect of your study?
  • Do you think that your recommendations are feasible?
  • Is there scope for further study on this topic?
  • Do your contributions have a limited timescale?
  • How did you ensure that your study remained objective?
  • What have you done that merits a PhD?

Practicing How to 'Field' Questions

Briefly jot down how you would respond to the following questions:

  1. Please summarise your thesis
  2. Summarise your key findings
  3. What is original about your thesis?
  4. What are the strongest / weakest parts of your work?
  5. What are the main issues / debates in your subject area?