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10 Tips on Surviving PhD Defense and Coming Out at the Top

A friend of mine is defending her PhD thesis in a couple of weeks and was asking me for some tips and advice. This has brought all the memories back from my own PhD journey, some of which I discussed here. I realized I still has lots of tips and hints on PhD viva (defense) I could share. I hope they will come handy and help others to prepare for one of the most exciting and important events in their professional and academic career.

My 10 top tips on surviving PhD defense:

  1. About 10 days before viva, start rereading master copy of your thesis. Go through it carefully highlighting important and interesting points, interrogating major arguments as examiners would, thinking of possible answers and making notes on the sides of the pages as you go along. Placing page stickers at the beginning of each chapter and marking them will help you easily refer to important points during the viva.
  2. As you reread your thesis also start preparing for the oral examination. There are plenty of viva guides on the internet. Although some questions will be specific to your discipline, others will be generic for any viva (for example – Why did you chose this topic? What is your epistemological position? What makes you think your research data is valid?). As your fellow PhD students if they have some sample questions that have been used before by examiners in your department. This should be a good start. Just as a job interview, it’s good to go over these questions and prepare sample answers.
  3. I would advise to have a mock viva with your supervisor/s and/or fellow classmates. Not only they might come up with questions that you haven’t thought of, but they will also provide feedback on how you did and help you identify areas you need to strengthen. Mock viva will also get you used to talking about your research out loud and prepare you to think on your feet.
  4. Do a bit of research on your examiners and find out what their scientific position/orientation is. For example, one of my examiners was famous for his quantitative research so he challenged the fact that my study was mostly qualitative, but I knew that so I was well prepared to address his questions.
  5. In the run up to viva as nerves start getting hold you, try to do everything to relax. Go on walks, do yoga, eat and sleep well, take baths and take regular breaks from revising. The night before viva, go to bed on time so you feel fresh and rested in the morning. You will need this energy to be in your top mental shape. Go over your notes and feel confident you will do well.
  6. On the day of viva, go with the attitude that you have prepared well enough and there is only so much you can prepare for. Average viva will last 1-2 hours and even though it’s an important event and celebration of your achievements, it’ not the end of the world. If you look at it, viva failure rates are quite low in most of the universities (find out what they are in your school) so you will either pass with no corrections or with some. If you fail (you won’t!) then it becomes a responsibility of your supervisors who allowed you to get to viva with existing issues with the thesis.
  7. Remember you are the #1 expert on the topic and be proud of it. Be prepared to defend your baby, the fruit of many years of blood, sweat and tears. But that doesn’t mean to be defensive. You will score major points with your examiners if you don’t argue as though you know everything (you don’t since you are still a junior researcher) but rather accept there are weaknesses and shortcomings and show your appreciation for their feedback. Being humble will take you further.
  8. I was lucky that my viva after some hard interrogations turned into a friendly chat with examiners who were making suggestions on how to further strengthen my thesis, something that I could only benefit from. So be pleasant and friendly and use interesting illustrative examples to put a human face to your research.
  9. After viva, take a deep breath and go celebrate. The day belongs to you and it will feel amazing to have accomplished something major and have such heavy weight off your shoulders!
  10. Finally, if examiners suggested corrections, make detailed notes of their comments and start making those changes as soon as you are done with viva (before you get the official report which may take from days to weeks). This will save you lots of time at the end!
Good luck and welcome to the Doctor-hood!!!
PhD thesis

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