preparing for the PhD oral exam

As a supervisor it is part of my job to help doctoral researchers prepare for their viva. I’ve not done one myself, as Australian PhDs are typically examined by means of a long report from two or three examiners. However, I have conducted a lot of viva examinations since being in the UK – four so far this year, seven last year and six the year before, just to start on the count-back. And of course I’ve sat in vivas as a supervisor, frantically taking notes and trying not to let my facial expression give me away when I’ve found a line of questioning a bit troubling. So I ought to know what this viva stuff is about, right?

As supervisor, I actually find the formal viva prep a difficult process, as I’m sure the doctoral researcher does too. Now firmly in the position of candidate, she is nervous and often has no idea what to expect. I’ve generally asked her to read the thesis critically beforehand to see if she can pick its strengths and weaknesses and I’ve done the same. But when we’re face to face in my office, I never quite know what to do.

Should I conduct a mock viva where I make the doctoral researcher answer my questions as if I’m an examiner? Well I’ve tried this a few times and it just feels weird. The alternative, and the one I usually opt for, is to pose questions and get the doctoral researcher to talk about what they would say in answer. Feels less artificial and ‘talking through’ seems to work OK. But my role is still not clear. Am I being a mock examiner? Supervisor? Something else? It always feels like there’s a real pedagogical shift required in these conversations.

In viva prep sessions we DO always go over the general kinds of questions that are asked – Patrick Dunleavy has a helpful generic list – as well as focusing on whatever both of us think might be the tricky areas. Getting the right stance – not too defensive, clear about what could and couldn’t be done, explicit about where the research might go next – is important. (One of the ways to deal with the “What are the limitations of the research?” type of question is of course precisely this, to establish the boundaries of this bit of research and use it to argue the need for continued inquiry.)

I always get doctoral researchers to think about their response to a first question which is generally (but not always) designed to get them to give the headline argument of their thesis and the contribution. Having a clear idea about how to start, what to say and the order in which to make the points is important because there will be no doubt that the doctoral researcher will be nervous. Very nervous.

Just last week I had to do a viva prep. However, this time I thought I would have a play with viva cards. There are 44 cards in a box divided into four categories – (1) introductory context, (2) methods, design and analysis, (3) results and discussion and (4) implications and utilization. The viva cards are written for doctoral researchers wanting to practice the kinds of questions they might be asked. However I think they are actually also pretty useful for the supervisor in the viva prep process.

I found the viva card process lightened the mood considerably. It was helpfully game-like. I offered a selection of cards from one of the sections to the doctoral researcher and said “Pick one” and then “How would you answer that?” Because we were focused on the cards I became much more the coach and much less the substitute examiner, and this was a far more comfortable position for me. I could clearly support rather than critique. Of course the cards don’t cover all of the questions, and there are always those specific questions that you have to anticipate. I left these till later, after we’d dealt with quite a few of the more generic cards, and this actually helped this process too, as it was clear that I could stay in the coaching role.

The viva cards are a relatively new product, available online, and I had to buy these for myself. They aren’t that cheap and I understand that £25 is a lot for a single PhD researcher to pay. However, a postgraduate support service or a school/department could buy a few sets to loan out. Some busy supervisors like me might also want their own little box of tricks. The viva cards are pretty sturdy and well made and would last for quite a while. The only complaint I had about them was the colour scheme – I could have done with a bit more difference in shade between the four sections as it did take me a bit of time to do a sort. However that’s a very minor niggle, and I really did like using them. I’d certainly recommend them as a useful tool in the lead up to the oral exam.

The more help I can get with viva prepping, so that I can be of more help to the candidate, the better.

PS The viva result? Yes. She passed, with one small correction to make.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in contribution, viva and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to preparing for the PhD oral exam

  1. Louise Wilkinson says:

    Which web site did you get the viva cards from? I have searched on the web and can see the cards but can’t see where to get them.

    I enjoyed your article, it was very useful.

  2. John Okoria Ibhakewanlan says:

    Thanks Pat; this is excellent – your style is honest and easy to follow – refreshing break from what am reading currently…

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