Is it a PhD…or not a PhD? Unpacking the viva.

[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?

Nightmare Questions

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.

About ddubdrahcir

A Higher Educationalist...
This entry was posted in PhDs/Doctorates. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Is it a PhD…or not a PhD? Unpacking the viva.

  1. Pingback: How to survive a PhD viva: 17 top tips | Your high education waits for you!

  2. Reblogged this on Newcastle Researchers' Blog and commented:
    If your viva is looming this article will help you to prepare for the day. Well worth the read

  3. klinkehoffen says:

    Great post: thanks!
    And just a small suggestion – if you can add an image to your posts, then I could pin them to Pinterest… something to think about?

  4. Eurasio says:

    Many thanks for posting this very helpful list of questions to anticipate and reflect upon.
    My Viva is in May and one of the things I will certainly be doing in preparation for it is to ensure that I am able to answer these questions with some degree of confidence.



  5. Pingback: How to prepare for your PhD viva: 10 top tips | labcoatlucy

  6. Amyra says:

    Thank you SO much. My viva is next month and I am a ball of nerves already. Your article has given me something to do other than read my thesis and then fret over what I have written.

  7. Pingback: Is it a PhD…or not a PhD? Unpacking the viva. | sociologychicks

  8. Ali Elrowayati says:

    Thank you Dr.Abdulmagid for posting this article. It presents many ideas and questions that made me realize how to complete thesis.

  9. Pingback: Happy Blogoversary! Looking back at the first year of Stuff At Unis | Stuff About Unis

  10. Pingback: How not to fail your viva: a few tips on sidestepping a resubmission. | Stuff About Unis

  11. Pingback: The PhD viva | Finding Knowledge

  12. Very well-structured article for graduate student espescially PhD student. Viva is scary as always. 🙂

  13. Meg Learner says:

    Thank you. My viva is in 2 weeks’ time. I have put your questions into a workbook for myself and am working through them!

  14. phambichha says:

    Reblogged this on Phambichha's Blog and commented:
    preparing questions for viva …

  15. Kota says:

    Thank you so much! I have my preliminary exam coming up and this will assist me in the oral component. I appreciate it!

  16. NQ says:

    My preliminary exam is TOMORROW! Being from Europe (and living in USA), I feel like the US methods and procedures are a black box! Thanks for your helpful post. 😀

  17. Pingback: Fall 2016 updates | Kate Mattocks

  18. samahayes says:

    Reblogged this on Martial Musings and commented:
    I’m currently preparing for the viva, and this post has really helped me think through some of the broader questions that might get asked. It’s aimed at a social science audience, but many of the prompts apply for humanities students too.

  19. waggumbulizi ivan says:

    Brilliant observation. God bless you.

  20. Pingback: 13 steps I took to prepare for my PhD viva | Salma Patel

  21. John the Bubble says:

    I did my PhD in Engineering and I found your post very helpful while I was preparing for my examination (which I nailed by the way). Preparing using this list gave me the confidence that I needed. Thank you for your help.


  22. Pingback: Vive-ing La Viva: How to answer viva questions | theofficedog

  23. Pingback: مصادر مفيدة للتحضير للمناقشة | مدونة سمر الموسى

  24. Pingback: How to survive a PhD viva: 17 top tips – Ana's Zone

  25. Pingback: How to prepare for your viva (PhD / DBA / DProf) | Anytown Council

  26. Pingback: Planning for the viva – Research Pointers

  27. Pingback: Top 5 Viva Preparation Tips – Kirsten J Lees

  28. Mayur Mohan Desai says:

    Thank you very much. this PhD viva question will help me in my PhD viva.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s