Viva questions: Examples from my personal experience

My name is Eljee Javier and I enjoyed my viva. Yes, you read that right. It is actually possible. Think less “this is fun” and more “actually, this isn’t so bad” which I wrote about in a previous blog post (please visit Part of developing this mindset was demystifying the whole viva process and, in particular, getting to grips with viva questions.

IMG_0447PhD candidates dread the thought of facing viva questions in fear of a) not knowing the answer b) being asked an unfair question, c) blanking out and answering the question badly or d) all of the above. We all know (of) someone (who knows someone) whose viva was an inquisition from the fourth level of hell. Certainly there are bad viva experiences out there, but that doesn’t mean that you should expect yours to go badly.

One piece of advice that I was given was to consider the viva as a discussion about finding ways to make your work better. I felt my thesis was a solid piece of research, but it was far from perfect and certainly had room to improve. With this in mind, I found that my attitude shifted from being defensive to being prepared to defend my study. This new mindset helped me view the viva as potentially more positive experience.

In terms of the actual questions they asked during my viva, here are a a few examples taken from the notes my supervisors took during the event (a humanities-based viva). There are quite a number of viva preparation questions out there on the internet that are quite generic but nonetheless useful starting points. However, the following questions were tailored to my thesis and, as such, might come across as odd to some readers.

Opener / “Warm up” Questions

  • How are you?
  • How are you feeling about your thesis?

Questions about Chapter One (introduction)

  • Did you feel there was a hierarchy among the research questions?
  • Did the research questions change along the way?

Questions about Chapters Two and Threes (my literature review)

  • What alternative theoretical frameworks have you considered?
  • Have you considered intersectional theory? Discursive construction?
  • How do you conceptualise the term “TESOL community”?
  • Why did you avoid using “Literature Review” in naming your chapter?

Questions regarding my methodological approach (Chapter Four)

  • How did you approach the ethical issues of this thesis?
  • How did you decide when you had enough participants?
  • Your positioning within the research…Did you think you wrote enough about yourself? There was something unique about you doing this. Can you clarify your rationale?

Questions regarding data analysis (Chapter Five)

  • Was there anything unexpected that popped up in the data?
  • How did you come to the grouping of black Americans as distinctive?

Questions about the findings and implications of the data as well as my conclusion (Chapters Six, Seven and Eight)

  • Can you discuss further the implications your study might have on classroom teachers / teacher training / language policy / school management etc.?
  • Do you think your thesis has scope to make a bigger case for issues regarding globalisation?

Final questions

  • How have you changed by doing this study?
  • What plans do you have for publishing?

There were quite a few follow up questions that I’ve omitted because they were about very specific aspects of my thesis, but the ones presented here might give some readers a rough idea of the types of questions that might come up during a viva. While some of the questions were challenging to answer, at no time did I feel I was “caught out”. Overall, the discussion that emerged from these questions highlighted areas of my thesis that needed improvement to which I was grateful for the feedback from both my external examiners.

If you had your viva, what types of questions were you asked? Feel free to share them in the comment section. 

My interview on Viva Survivors

Last week I was interviewed by Nathan Ryder of Viva Survivors and talked briefly about my viva experiences. Please have quick listen by clicking on this link:

If you’re interested in sharing your viva experiences (the good, the bad and everything in-between) do get in touch with Nathan Ryder via Twitter (@DrRyder) or @VivaSurvivors

Image via Colleen AF Venable (CC BY SA 2.0)

I had my PhD viva, and I enjoyed it. There, I said it.

It’s true, call me weird but it is true. I honestly didn’t think I could admit this, but here I am – hand on heart – stating for the record that I enjoyed my viva. I wouldn’t say I knew I was my viva experience was going to be that positive. After the experiencing the mock viva I started considering the possibility that yes, I could actually enjoy my viva. “Could” being the key word.

Initially my idea of a viva was more along the lines of experiencing a quiet kind of death for about two hours. There is a certain sort of mystique about what a PhD viva is like and I suppose it’s mostly being afraid of the unknown that really plays mind games. Despite feeling somewhat reassured after my mock viva there remained a lingering thought that things could go pear shaped (again, “could” being the key word).

Fortunately, this wasn’t the case because I had an examination panel that was thorough, fair and clear. I could not have asked for a better experience. In this blog post I’d like to share a bit of what happened during my viva.

Volha’s drawing of the viva set up. I’m “E” and my examiners are “J” and “T”. “Andy” is the internal chair and the observers are “R”, “J” and “Volha”

Setting: At UK universities, a viva consists of one external examiner and one internal examiner, but since I’m a staff member I needed to have two external examiners and an independent chair. The internal chair is present to ensure university regulations are followed but the viva was between myself and the two external examiners.

I didn’t think much about the physical setting of the viva but in my case the way the room was arranged helped. Instead of a meeting room my viva took place in the (spacious) office of the internal chair. Both my external examiners and I sat around a coffee table, facing each other, with my internal chair off to the one side and the three observers sat behind me, out of my eyesight. I found sitting around a coffee table helped the viva feel more like a discussion, or at the very least helped put me at ease.

Observers: At my university the viva is considered “invite only” events where the decision to have observers (supervisors, PhD colleagues, friends, family etc.) is entirely up to the student.It’s not really the done thing to ask to watch someone’s viva since that just puts someone on the spot. Also while it’s common practice in my school for supervisor(s) to observe the viva of their students, it is still up to the student to decide if they want them present.

For myself, I invited both of my supervisors because I wanted their view of the viva experience. I also invited a PhD friend whose research is in a similar area. During the first year of my PhD I was invited to observe a viva and I felt it was only right that I should invite someone to observe mine.

To be honest, during the viva I forgot they were there! I didn’t think of them at all during the whole 90 minutes of q and a because I was so focussed on the discussion that took place. It certainly helped that they were out of my view!

Order of questions: I’ll write a different blog post on the actual viva questions because there is a lot to be said about what questions I prepared for versus what was actually asked. Overall, my examiners chose to ask questions that followed the way my thesis was laid out. For example, after the initial opening question they started with my introduction, moved on to my research questions, then to my literature review, etc. I found it easier to answer questions because I understood where we were in the thesis, so to speak. There was very little jumping around and it made for a very natural discussion.

Clarifying questions: I didn’t actually need to write down any questions because my examiners asked questions quite clearly. In fact, most of the time they asked the question, explained why they were asking it by referencing a specific section/topic in the thesis, then restated the question. For the most part I understood what was being asked and was able to provide a clear answer.

Most of the time.

There were some questions that I didn’t understand properly and found myself reverting to the throw-several-answers-and-hope-one-catches approach. Sometimes I had to stop half-way through an answer, and clarify the question. More often, the examiner asked more probing questions to indicate what they wanted me to clarify. For example, there was a question about the implications my research might have. I began answering this on a more conceptual level, thinking they wanted me to clarify my theoretical contribution. The examiner listened to my answer, and then asked several follow up questions such as “What implications might there be for teacher education?” as a way of discussing the more practice-orientated applications of my research. This was a very generous move on the examiners’ part and, once I realised this was what he wanted me to clarify then it made for a very engaging discussion, but only after I actually understood the question!

Waiting for the verdict: At the end of the viva we (myself, and all the observers) were asked to leave the room while the examiners discussed the verdict. I came out of the viva feeling like it was a bit short, like I was just getting into the discussion and suddenly, it was over! I felt it went well, and remember my supervisors reassuring me that it did (i.e. it wasn’t just me). We agreed that there will probably be corrections but unsure of the amount of work involved.It was a weird sort of moment, the waiting period. A mixture of anticipation and anxiety. The wait was only 15 minutes or so.

Denouement – minor corrections (4 weeks): The examiners called us all back to deliver the outcome of the viva which was an Aii, a thesis that passed but with minor corrections needed (click HERE for a description of the different categories of PhDs according to The University of Manchester exam guidelines). They first congratulated me on passing the viva (yay) and then proceeded to present the “corrections”. I suppose “corrections” implies that there was something incorrect in the first place, but they took the time to clarify that the points they were about to present were intended to strengthen my work. In that moment, I remember thinking how much I appreciated their words. It’s one thing to understand this sentiment but having them say that these “corrections” were intended to improve my study helped me realise the magnitude of what I accomplished. My thesis wasn’t “perfect” but it was enough to be considered doctoral level.

Post-viva celebrations with academic mates!


(Images my own)