In the Middle Ages, a student defending his thesis would hope to do so before a crowd – the greater the audience, the greater the glory. It would start civilly enough. Carefully crafted points would be met with equally clever counter points. Soon, however, the debate would get heated, the attacks more caustic and perhaps even casuistical. The audience would behave as if at a ‘prize fight’, wrote Nathan Schachner in his 1938 book The Medieval Universities. The candidate would find himself ‘impaled on the horns of a dilemma’ one moment, before saving himself with an artful retort the next. ‘The disputations were battles’, he wrote, ‘literally battles of words, just as the jousts and the tournaments were battles of physical strength’.
In many parts of the world, a thesis defence retains its sense of theatre. In Sweden, you may be asked to literally nail your thesis to a wooden board. In Germany, once your defence is over, it is possible your supervisor will pull you down the street on a mobile throne. In Finland, you receive a doctoral sword and a hat. The public, performative oral component of such systems endures, though defanged and more or less a part of the ceremony for those who have already proved themselves. In the UK, the opposite is the case.
Formality is almost entirely absent in a UK oral examination. In place of the formal gowns and quirky traditions that comprise the stately dance of many European defences, you’ll find nothing but your examiners at a table in a familiar room. And that table might well have on it the debris of university-catering sandwiches your examiners hadn’t quite finished before you entered the room. The almost comical British casualness belies a severe system, where much is at stake. Though it takes place behind closed doors, you might say the viva retains a medieval battle quality – a gentle battle, with an opponent who may even be on your side. Nevertheless, it’s an event where your mettle is tested.
So, how do you prepare for such an ordeal? First, you might prepare strategically by asking exactly how your mettle is being tested. What is the purpose of a viva? What exactly are your examiners looking for? How will they judge you? These questions are surprisingly difficult to answer. Several research papers have found that universities lack universal, absolute standards against which to judge a thesis or examine a viva. The authority to award a PhD rests with individual institutions, and they rely on the expertise and nous of the examiners. Accordingly, when researchers have asked about the purpose of a viva, what examiners are looking for, and how a student will be judged, they’ve found ‘inconsistencies and contradictions’ and have been unable to find a ‘consensus.’ One sensible way you might prepare for your viva, then, is to read up on your institution’s specific guidance, and talk to your supervisor and others in your field about their own experiences.
A second, practical step would be to think carefully about the examiners you pick. As Keith Noble suggested in his case for abolishing PhD vivas altogether, ‘examiners can, and do, enter bitter and rancorous disputes over doctoral research, and this type of development always leaves candidates helpless and in an extreme state of stress’. In an attempt to avoid the bitter, jaded, and deranged professor types, PhD candidates are sometimes advised to choose younger, newly qualified examiners. With their own wounds so fresh, it’s thought they’ll be naturally more supportive of the candidates in front of them. However, evidence collected by Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley suggests that veteran examiners with their longer experience turn out to be the safer choice: they are more likely to know what a student can realistically achieve in three years. By contrast, unseasoned examiners, they found, are more likely to have impossible expectations and need to be reminded that they are evaluating a ‘PhD, not a Nobel Prize’.
Another of Mullins and Kiley’s findings was that first impressions count. ‘Experienced examiners’, they write, ‘decide very early in the process whether assessment of a particular thesis is likely to be “hard work” or “an enjoyable read.”’ They do this by looking at the structure, references, and particularly the quality of the written work. Does your thesis make sense, and is it presented well? Does it meet the relevant form of university guidelines and has it been proofread for typographical mistakes, grammatical and punctuation errors, structural infelicities, and sentences that do not read well? A badly written thesis tends to be a bad thesis. While this may not always be the case – bad writing could conceivably conceal a brilliant thesis – examiners have also admitted that sloppy presentation is irritating, and this first impression influences how they approach your viva. Given a sparkling performance in a viva, a student can come back from any bad impressions they gave in their written work, but it’s a struggle. As one examiner put it, she has to ‘work very hard at overcoming this irritation [and] this is not easy.’ A badly prepared thesis, she concluded, indicates ‘lack of attention to detail’.
At the University of Helsinki, doctoral candidates must ensure that the language of their dissertation fulfils academic publishing standards. If they are writing in a language other than their native one, then they are instructed to submit their dissertation for language revision (the cost of which is typically supported by the faculty). As a general rule, this revision is undertaken after the preliminary examination and before printing and binding, but it may also be done before the preliminary examination. Understanding the specific expectations of your institution, choosing the right examiners, and submitting a tidy and well-presented thesis are three strategically sound ways to prepare for your viva.
You might also prepare for the ordeal itself. Some of the advice given in our blog post on major corrections applies here, too. Visibly marking your thesis copy, for example, will help you come across as a conscientious scholar, in the same way as a well-presented thesis shows respect for its reader. You might also keep an eye open for new developments in your field in the weeks leading up to your viva. And identifying and having a view about weak (or weaker) sections of your thesis will help you prepare: work on justifying in speech what you failed to justify in writing; admit to mistakes, and tell your examiners that, were you to write your thesis again, you’d write this bit a little differently.
It is highly advisable to arrange a mock viva with your supervisor, and approximate this experience by posing yourself some of the questions you’re likely to be asked. Why have you decided on your particular study? How have your ideas have developed during your PhD? In what way is your contribution to knowledge unique? Which scholars have most influenced you and how? Why did you choose your particular methods? A quick google will reveal more sample questions than you could ever answer. And it’s a good idea to practise with these, both to prepare your response to such common questions, and to become fluent by thinking about the same issue from multiple angles.
As you start to watch the clock and count down to the viva – for the final twenty-four hours or so – it may be difficult to even think of preparing. Some find it helpful to re-read their entire thesis in those final hours, perhaps reviewing their overall argument and original contribution to the literature in anticipation of being asked to summarise it. Others will try to forget they have a viva coming up. These are personal choices, and down to temperament. You might try to manage nerves, breathing deeply, collecting yourself before an ordeal you expect to be unpleasant. It’s also possible you might enjoy the viva, adopting something of the swagger of your medieval predecessors, hoping to feel some delightful anticipation for the verbal jousting ahead. However you budget your time in the moments leading up to your viva, make sure that the moments following your viva are low-pressure, celebratory, and prepared especially for you.
 Nathan Schachner (1938). The Medieval Universities. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, p. 322.
 Carolyn Jackson and Penny Tinkler (2001). ‘Back to basics: a consideration of the purposes of the PhD viva’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26(4), pp. 355-66.
 Chris Park (2003). ‘Levelling the Playing Field: Towards best practice in the doctoral viva’. Higher Education Review, 36(1), pp. 47-67.
 Keith Noble (1994). Changing Doctoral Degrees: an international perspective. Maidenhead: Open University Press, p. 67.
 Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley (2002). ‘“It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize”: How Experienced Examiners Assess Research Theses’, Studies in Higher Education 27(4), pp. 369-86.
 Ibid. p. 377.
 Ibid. p. 378.