[There’s a sister blog to this one – a few tips on how to avoid failing your viva.]
A doctorate is a peculiar thing: there’s an indistinct finishing line, it’s hideously complex, and far more difficult than you probably imagined when you started; mine certainly was. You spend years reading, thinking, planning, worrying, collecting data, analysing and writing up, rethinking, re-editing, re-editing, and then re-editing again. By the time you get to the end, one question remains:
Is it good enough?
This is the acid test. There is no grade, it’s a pass or fail: you’re either a doctor or you’re not (yet). Within the pass, though, you have different degrees of corrections that the examiners want you to undertake: none, minor, major, resubmission. It seems that most people get minor corrections, although major corrections and resubmission do happen. Either of the latter will involve months or maybe even years of work, so you don’t want that. Yikes. If you’ve taken your supervisors’ advice on board and can genuinely answer the questions below, you’ll hopefully avoid that heartbreak.
In short, there are a few fundamental questions that you have to be able to answer affirmatively. If you can, you’re probably, hopefully, a doctor. These are:
– Is it original?
– Can you justify the claims you have made?
– Does your argument make sense?
– Did you do the work?
– Have you shown that you can do independent research?
– Do you know where your work is situated within the broader field?
What it really boils down to is whether your examiners think that the answers to those questions is yes. There is always a strong sense of the unknown, in that the same thesis could be loved or loathed by different people. Horror stories of nightmare vivas abound, and while it isn’t supposed to be easy — I’d have been disappointed if it was a breeze — paying too much attention to others’ horror stories is like trying to diagnose an illness online: you’ll often end up (unnecessarily) at death’s door.
So what are the examiners going to ask? While searching around for guides on likely questions, I came across a few good sources, got more from my supervisors, and then some friends recommended a few odds and ends. Even though I more or less knew the answers to most of them off the top of my head, I still had to work through them and practice voicing them succinctly. Some were much more difficult and required some soul-searching and heavy-duty conceptual thinking/minor panic. I’ve compiled them all into a few generic areas that should be relevant to most social science doctorates. I wasn’t asked anywhere near all of them, but knowing them seemed to be sufficient preparation.
Summarise your thesis in a sentence.
Does the title represent the content?
Describe your thesis in brief.
How did you decide to order your thesis?
What is your overall argument?
Summarise the context.
Why did you choose this topic?
Why is this topic important, and to whom is it relevant?
What are the key findings?
What is original here; what are your contributions to knowledge?
What justifies this thesis as a doctorate?
Where did you draw the line on what you included in your literature review?
Where did you draw the line on what you included in the theoretical literature?
How did the literature inform your choice of topic and the thesis overall?
What three publications would you say have been most influential in your work?
Where does your work fit into the literature?
Who are the key names in this area?
Who are the project’s key influences?
How does your work differ from theirs?
Do the findings confirm, extend, or challenge any of the literature?
How does your work connect to that of your reviewers?
Research Design and Methodology
Summarise your research design.
Did you think about applying a different design?
What are the limitations of this kind of study?
Is there anything novel in your method?
What problems did you have?
How did you develop your research questions?
Did the research questions change over the course of the project?
How did you translate the research questions into a data collection method?
What are the philosophical assumptions in your work?
Where are YOU in this study?
Describe your sample.
How did you recruit your sample?
What boundaries did you set on your sample?
What are the weaknesses of your sample?
What boundaries did you set on your data collection?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of your data?
What other data would you like (or have liked) to collect?
What is the theoretical framework in this study?
Why did you choose this conceptual framework?
Did you think about using any other theories, and if so, why did you reject them?
What ethical procedures did you follow?
What ethical issues arose in the course of your study and how did you address them?
Describe your frame of analysis.
How did you construct this framework?
What didn’t you include in the framework?
What problems did you have in the analysis?
Did you combine induction and deduction in your analysis? Can you share some examples?
Describe the findings in more detail.
Briefly summarise the findings as they relate to each of the research questions.
How do you think the theoretical framing was helpful? Can you share some examples?
What other data could you have included, and what might it have contributed?
Could the findings have been interpreted differently?
What are the strengths and weakness of your study?
What sense do you have of research being a somewhat untidy, or iterative and constantly shifting process?
How confident are you in your findings and conclusions?
What the implications of your findings?
How has the context changed since you conducted your research?
Where do your findings sit in the field in general?
How do you see this area developing over the next 5-10 years?
Where does your work fit within this?
To whom is your work relevant?
What haven’t you looked at, and why not?
What, if any, of your findings are generalisable?
How would you like to follow this project up with further research?
What would you publish from this research, and in which journals?
How did the project change as you went through?
How has your view of the area changed as you have progressed through your research?
How did your thinking change over the course of the project?
How have you changed as a result of undertaking this project?
What did you enjoy about your project?
What are you proudest of in the thesis?
What were the most difficult areas?
What surprised you the most?
If you started this study again, what would you do differently?
A friend advised me to write down ten questions that I was absolutely dreading. In the event, none of them came up, and also by thinking them through and drafting answers, they lost a lot of their fear factor.
I’ve also written another blog providing a few tips on how not to fail the viva.