How to prepare for a PhD viva - Ten tips for success

Written by Tiago Marcos, PhD, University of Edinburgh.

Guest author Tiago Marcos from the University of Edinburgh successfully defended his PhD last month, and has written 10 tips on how to prepare for the big day.

There is no universal key to ensuring a successful viva, as by their very nature each one is particular and idiosyncratic. Some examiners are more focused on technical details while others might spend an hour weighing the pros and cons of one paragraph in your introduction. You have worked hard for this over many years, no one knows this project better than you, and now is your chance to show this off!

Here are 10 suggestions on how to prepare for a viva:


1. Date setting:

If you can, try and set the viva close to the thesis submission day as doing so will help dealing with the anticlimax that follows thesis submission and, perhaps more importantly, keep the momentum gained while writing your thesis regarding literature, techniques and every minor detail of the thesis. This may not be applicable to everyone however, so do the next point will help!

2. Read your thesis cover to cover:

If there is a substantial gap between thesis submission and your viva, take the time to read through and thoroughly remind yourself what this important document entails. Make notes, highlight points you think could be a strong avenue of questioning, remind yourself of the key stats and analyses you did and why.

3. Speak to other students about their viva experience:

Get an overall feel of what a viva is like so it is not a complete shock on the day. If you can, talk to people who also had your examiners to get some insider information on what they like to focus on/what their approach is. If someone is known for being consistently unfair (for example they dislike theses in the alternate/paper format), it is acceptable to ask for a different examiner. But remember, every viva is different. Just because one person had a bad experience does not mean that you will too.

4. Prepare a brief summary of your thesis (elevator pitch):

It might be best to do this in two formats, a concise 30 second overview, and a five minute, more detailed breakdown of the overall content and what you were trying to achieve in each chapter.  It is also useful to prepare a two-minute summary of how your data fits in the available literature and understanding of the field. Practice this pitch to friends and family so that when you are nervous on the day you know this is something you can ace.

5. Honesty is the best policy:

It is okay to say you don’t know the answer. For example, “I have not come across this paper/idea/technique, please can you explain it further”. Any good examiner will then guide you to an answer using what you know. The viva is not meant to be a trap.

6. It’s okay if you don’t feel up-to-date:

It is extremely difficult to keep up with all the literature, pre-prints and new techniques coming out every week in almost every field of study. Once I started to get to grips with single cell RNA sequencing, RNA Patch sequencing started gaining traction (this technique involves single cell RNA sequencing following patch clamp electrophysiology!) Know about all the techniques and knowledge you cited, but do not panic and try to memorize every existing technique or potentially relevant pre-print.

7. Avoid revising the day/night before the viva: 

Eat a Scotch steak pie with a can of Irn Bru in Edinburgh city center, try a delicious vegan doughnut in Lisbon, or scuba dive in Santander. Most importantly, do not pull an all-nighter and try and get some sleep!

8. Plan the celebration!:

If you can, ask your closest friends to book a nice venue to celebrate your hard-won success. This will give you something to look forward to in moments of doubt. The Mexican meal that followed my viva was highly rewarding and it was great to share jokes with the external examiner at the end of this long, weary road.

9. Get organized early:

For those starting their PhD work, a PhD folder can be really useful. Give it a cool name. Mine was PhD Jam, in honour of my favourite band, Pearl Jam. In the folder include all your self-learning, teaching experiences, science engagement projects (the ones you organized, the ones you were a speaker on, such as Pint of Science), and experiments that didn’t come to fruition (immunohistochemistry, coding side projects, to name a few). This will help you keep track of everything you did and make the write up that bit easier. Additionally, keeping a log of what doesn’t work will certainly help future investigations.

10. Lastly, don’t panic!:

The viva is a culmination of all your hard work for the past 3,4,5,6+ years! Enjoy it. Let’s be real, these are the only people in the world (apart from yourself and your supervisory team) who will read your thesis. This is your time to show off what an excellent scientist you are.


For other tips on careers and life as an early-career researcher, please visit our ECR hub.

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