Saul Greenberg

back to The Thesis Oral

Preparing for the Viva Voce (oral examination) of your thesis (Extract)
by City University of London

This page was reformatted from the text originally available at


The Viva Voce or oral examination provides the opportunity for you to meet with the examiners, to explain and defend your thesis, and to spend an hour or two discussing the topic on which you are probably a world expert.

The examination is normally held in private, with an internal examiner normally from your School and an external examiner who will be an expert in your subject area. Your supervisor may be present if you both agree. A chairman will also be present.

The role of the examiners is to establish that by your thesis and your performance in the examination, you have demonstrated that you are a competent researcher and that you have made an original contribution to your subject area.


You should prepare for the oral examination. Preparation can de divided into two areas - Technical and Personal.

Technical Preparation

There are many technical preparations that need to be completed before you have your viva. This list is not exhaustive but the main tips are:

  • if possible practice presenting and discussing your work at conferences, and dealing with questions
  • find colleagues/staff who are willing to read parts of the thesis and then ask you questions
  • summarise each chapter and write down possible questions for that chapter
  • talk to colleagues who have had a viva and seek their advice
  • make sure that you have read through your thesis approximately a week before the viva
  • make sure you thoroughly familiar with the whole argument, the main findings and the major contribution of your work
  • read any new relevant material that has been published
  • know the literature that you have cited
  • think about the aims of your research. Did you actually achieve these aims?
  • think about what you would like to talk about in your viva, so that you can bring the conversation back to your strengths if necessary
  • don't despair - the PhD thesis is not supposed to be perfect and it will have flaws in it.

Personal Preparation

Personal preparation is usually the area that candidates give least attention to, but is often the area that can help you through the most difficult points in a viva. The main tips are:

  • at least two months before your viva start practising relaxation techniques - deep breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques can be invaluable. Anxiety and nervousness is good but too much anxiety on the day will affect your performance. Use relaxation techniques before you go to your viva to help calm and centre yourself.
  • write down your concerns about the viva and think through whether those concerns are realistic. Talk to your supervisor or colleagues about your concerns.
  • don't read your thesis the day before the viva, take the time to do something you enjoy and relax.
  • try and get a good nights sleep the night before!
  • remember you wrote the thesis have confidence in what you have written.

Possible PhD Viva questions

  • In one sentence, what is your thesis?
  • How did your research emerge?
  • What have you done that merits a PhD?
  • What was the motivation for your research?
  • Summarise your key findings.
  • What is the area of your research in which you wished to be examined?
  • What is your original contribution to research in your subject area?
  • Why is the problem you have tackled worth researching?
  • What would you do differently if you could do your thesis again?
  • What have you learnt from your research experience?
  • What are the strongest/weakest points of your thesis?
  • Why have you tackled problem X that way?
  • What are the alternatives to your approach?
  • What would you have gained by using approach X?
  • What did you gain by that approach?
  • How have you evaluated your work?
  • How do you know that your findings are correct?
  • How could you improve your work?
  • Has your view of your research topic changed during the course of the research?
  • What are the most recent major developments in your area?
  • Which are the three most important papers which relate to your thesis?
  • How long term is your contribution, given the anticipated future developments in X?
  • Who are the main players in your research area?
  • How would you describe your methodology and why did you decide to use this?
  • What do you know about the history/development of your subject area?
  • How do your findings relate to the literature on the subject?
  • Where there any ethical implications relating to your research/How did you deal with them?
  • Have you thought about publications - which journals are appropriate?

During the Viva

During the viva the examiners are expecting a coherent robust defence of your thesis. You are defending your thesis but try not to be arrogant or defensive. Don't worry if the examiner seems unsympathetic. It could well be that they think your work is excellent and want to have a really good discussion with you. Remain confident that what you have researched is worthwhile.

You are permitted to take a copy of your thesis and written notes with you to the viva. Don't be afraid to use them.

Generally the examiners will have read the thesis thoroughly and will want to question you on the aspects that they are most interested in. The examiners are not there to fail you, in fact it is a lot more complicated to fail you than it is to pass you! The examiners will usually have a genuine interest in your work.

When the examiners are are questioning you use phrases such as That's a good question as if flatters the examiners and gives you time to think. It implies that you have understood the question and assessed it already and that you have probably thought of that question already. If necessary it can followed with more stalling by using phrases like Now the answer to that question is not obvious that again give you more time to think.

The examiners are bound to ask you something that you aren't expecting - expect the unexpected - don't let that through you. Take a few seconds and pause to reflect on the question before answering. A few seconds pause to reflect before answering seems eminently sensible to the examiners - remember take your time, but also remember to let them take their time. Always let the examiners finish asking the question before answering.

Taking notes on the questions is permitted, likewise if you have an idea but think that you may forget it write it down. Feel free to take your own copy of your thesis into the exam with you. Refer to it during the examination to support your defence and if the examiners refer to a certain page look at the page they are referring to to refresh your mind.

Try and enjoy your viva, keep calm and remember you are probably the world specialist in your thesis subject.

Good Luck.