The process for examining and approving a PhD varies a lot between countries. In continental Europe, science theses are a set of papers copied into a single volume with appropriate introductory and synthesis chapters. Some universities have internal and external examiners, some have formal Viva Voce (interviews), some only external examiners, and other only an internal committee. With that in mind, here are some tips if you will have to present your work and answer questions about your thesis to an examination committee.

  1. Emphasise the most novel and important findings of the thesis. Remind the examiners of this at least once. Examiners may tend to focus on the weak aspects of a thesis, or what you did not do. If so, steer the conversation back to the thesis strengths.
  2. Know your thesis – it may be some months since you last looked at it so it is embarrassing if the examiners are more familiar with it than you.
  3. Read the examiners’ reports carefully beforehand and prepare a response to each point even if some are not raised at the viva. Better still, make the suggested changes to the thesis in advance of the meeting. That way you are familiar with them and can say “I agree, thank you, the changes have been made”.
  4. If you may make a formal presentation at the start of the interview, do so. Use it to emphasise the novel findings on the thesis, any special challenges it had (e.g., failed experiments, lost data, fieldwork delays). Address any potentially major issues in the examiner’s reports directly and not defensively. For example, re-graph data in alternative ways; or re-test data with alternative statistics; to show how the findings may or may not change, or show intent to do such analyses after the viva.
  5. Do not ignore anybody. A PhD Viva will usually have more than one examiner, and others on the examination committee. While one person may lead the discussion, remember you are replying to all the committee.
  6. Be diplomatic. If examiners may make suggestions that would require more work than you have time for, you need to be diplomatic. You may agree the extra work would be “interesting”; but is it “essential”? Do not say “I do not have time for that” as it ends negotiations and provides ammunition to any critic that the thesis was somehow inadequate and needs major revision and resubmission. Instead, remind the examiners of the key findings and strengths of the thesis, and that the suggested changes would not alter these significantly. If they might then maybe you need to find time to do them.
  7. Never be defensive.
  8. Accept any minor criticisms without argument; often these are matters of style and format of presentation.
  9. Do not be surprised if examiners ask easy, obvious or impossible questions. They are obliged to ask questions and challenge you. They may ask questions they know the answer to, or that are impossible to answer. Use these to engage in discussion; e.g. “That is an interesting question and one I have wondered about myself. I have thought ….. What do you think?”
  10. Never interrupt the examiner when they’re asking a question – the longer the examiner talks the more time you have to contemplate your response, and if you’re lucky the examiner will even answer their own question for you [this is also good advice for student seminars!]
  11. Do not ramble. Take a moment to think about an answer if it helps, and keep answers concise. Most questions can have short answers.
  12. Don’t be too casual and act like the process is a formality even if your examiners’ reports are very positive – the oral exam is to test your understanding of your topic/field, and to satisfy the examiner that the writing and thinking in the thesis are primarily your own, so it’s theoretically possible to fail the oral even if the thesis is very good.
  13. Enjoy the opportunity to discuss your work with interested experts. This may be the only time you get independent critical feedback on your work. Examiners are experts in the field and naturally interested in the work. This can lead to enjoyable conversations around the minutiae of the work. You can also ask the examiners views on particular topics, assuming you have already made a fair attempt to address them, e.g., “This is what I found, and felt the results meant, but I realise this is a controversial area, what do you think?” Prepare some ‘good questions’ in advance in case they ask if you have you any questions (they usually do); such as areas of controversy in the field related to the thesis topic or its applications.
  14. Aim to impress. The examiner is an expert in your field and may in the future employ you, recommend you to other employers, collaborate with you and/or referee your manuscripts, so do your best to impress them.
  15. Be positive, not apologetic. Apologies are boring and draw attention to weaknesses. Leave the criticism to the examiners. Reframe “issues” as lessons learned for the future.
  16. Thank your examiner(s) for their constructive (helpful) critique, including making the effort to travel to the oral if applicable.
  17. Favourite examiner questions are:
    1. What would you do differently if doing it again?
    2. What surprised you most in doing the research?
    3. What was the single most important finding of your thesis (and why)?
    4. What figure do you think captures the key message of your thesis best?
    5. What research would you do next if you had one or two more years?
    6. What would you ask [famous person in your field or historical figure] if you had the opportunity?

Please add any tips or emphasis in the comment box below.

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