How to prepare for your viva: 8 useful tips

Agata Frymus

21 June 2018

1: Read your thesis

No matter how many times you have done it before, reading your thesis a week or two before the viva is always a good idea. Although I have proofread my thesis several times before the submission, this time my focus shifted: rather than looking for spelling mistakes, typos and missing references, I concentrated on the quality of my argument. What are the research questions posed in each chapter? What are the main findings? And, most importantly, how could this work be improved?

To make sure I actively engaged with the ideas developed by the thesis, I highlighted some parts of the texts and made notes. I also produced a rather short document in which I summarised each of my eight chapters (as well as the introduction and conclusion) according to the following criteria:

  • Key arguments and findings
  • Methodology and scholarship used
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses

Thinking about my work in those fairly broad terms helped me to understand how to explain it to those who might not be familiar with the specificity of my subject. Additionally, it enabled me to reflect on the potential shortcomings of the research I conducted, which proved instructive during the viva discussion. Although this might sound like a laborious process, let me assure you that it was not. I have spent about a week (if not less) reading the thesis and making notes, and it wasn’t even the only thing I was occupied by (which brings me to my next point).

Part of the table/ document I produced as I was re-reading my thesis

2: Don’t over prepare 

How long is one supposed to spend on viva preparation? Given the importance of the examination, you might be tempted to think that the longer the better, right? Well…not exactly. After all, everyone I talked to (see point 4) admitted they regretted spending too much time on the prep. Even though I have heard stories of PhDs devoting a month – or more –  solely to viva-related study, I decided to be sensible and spend no longer than two weeks on preparations. Two weeks in which my mind won’t be occupied by anything else but the viva. When I shared my plan with my supervisor, he deemed it extravagant. ‘How long do you need to read something?’, he asked, and I’m glad he did. The thing is, as a PhD student you have spent at least three years researching your topic. At this point, you are the expert in your chosen field; it is probably fair to assume that you do not need weeks and weeks of additional study. You have already done the groundwork. Be confident in your knowledge.

3: Think about the potential questions

One of the best things you can do to maximize your chances of a confident viva performance is to consider the potential viva questions and the way in which you could approach them. There are plenty of websites that provide you with sample discussion points that are likely to be raised by your examiners and most of them are broad enough to be applicable to your thesis, regardless of the specificity of your topic. I used these and these as starting points. Considering the questions in advance will add to your confidence as you will be less likely to be taken by surprise. If you do, however, end up being mildly shocked by the question asked by the examiner, do not panic. It is perfectly fine to take some time to gather your thoughts, or even write main points down on a piece of paper if the question is more complex.

Some of the questions I have been asked at the beginning of my viva included:

  1. Why have you chosen these particular stars as your case studies? What sparked your interest in them?
  2. How did you go about conducting your research?
  3. What are the differences between researching print copies of fan magazines and the online/ digitised versions?

Most of the questions, however, related to specific paragraphs and passages from my thesis. The worksheet I produced as part of the prep process (see point 1), enabled me to anticipate criticism and answer such questions without feeling like I’m losing my ground.

You don’t necessarily need to write your answers down either: one of my friends told me they went on long walks during which their pondered the potential discussion points and subsequent responses.

4: Talk to people who have passed their viva

The views expressed by those who have successfully passed their viva seemed to share a similar tone: it’s nothing to worry about, it’s nowhere as scary as you think it will be, it will be fine, and so on. This, in itself, is quite reassuring. Talking to friends and colleagues about their experiences, however, might give you some interesting insights too. I really dreaded questions relating to the critical choices I made in the process of compiling my thesis: why have I chosen this star/ fan magazine, and not a different one? How should I explain something that was, in many respects, not only an analytical, but also a personal choice? What I understood as a result of those conversations was that simple, honest answers (‘these specific fan magazines are easily available in the digital form and are searchable’/ ‘Pola Negri has something of a cult status in Poland, where I come from’) are often the best ones.

5: Arrange a mock viva

It’s a truism, I know, but confidence is key. Even if you have conducted high quality research, your points will not come across particularly strong if you mumble or are not able to express yourself clearly. Before presenting any paper or a lecture I always, always make sure I practice my presentation in front of friends, family members or anyone who is willing to listen. This gives me a better understanding of how I will behave under pressure, because a certain amount of stress is always there, no matter if I present in front of my boyfriend or an academic audience of 30.

Therefore, I think it is crucial to run a mock viva as part of one’s preparation. It will not always increase your confidence at the actual thing, but it will also give you some useful feedback regarding your answers and performance. For example, my mock viva – which I organised with a fellow PhD student and my supervisor as examiners – made me realise that I need to be more explicit when talking about my methodology, starting with more general terms. Although I have explained the importance of post-colonialism, critical race studies and feminism in structuring my approach, I failed to mention gender and film studies, which are much broader and probably more important categories. Secondly, the feedback I received as the result of this exercise boosted my confidence. Despite the fact my heart was racing/ my hands were shaking/ I felt very anxious, neither of my mock examiners noticed any of it. At the end, the mock examination turned out to be much more stressful than the real one!

Alternatively, you can arrange a mock viva with friends, or even video record your answers on your phone. Whilst watching yourself might sound painful, it could show you that you never come across as bad as you think you do. It’s scientifically proven.

6: Know your examiners

I find interviews/ examinations/ any form of discussion less threatening if I have met the person doing the questioning. This might not work as effectively for everyone, but somehow meeting one of the examiners in person beforehand – even if that meant simply knowing their tone of voice and general demeanour – made me feel much more confident in myself. If you feel the same way, I would suggest you try to meet your examiners in an informal setting. They will probably be fine with a coffee sometime before the viva, as long as you explain your reasoning and stay away from discussing your PhD and the viva itself.

7: Relax

My viva took place on Tuesday. I spent the last couple of days leading too it doing absolutely nothing in terms of preparation, assuming, rather correctly, that it will achieve little more than stress me out.  I went to see a friend over the weekend (we made vegan burritos) and stayed at another friends’ house the night before, watching First Dates. I know that people deal with stress differently, but for me, preparing earlier and then taking my mind off the viva was the best thing I could do. Have a bath/ go on a hike/ exercise the night before; whatever works.

Source: phdcomics.com

8: And finally… Enjoy it!

The viva is a rare opportunity to discuss your research with two people who not only have read your thesis in its entirety, but who are also likely to be specialists in your field. Make the most of the opportunity it offers, and enjoy yourself as you do; after all, you produced a valuable piece of work and there is no reason why you should not feel happy about it.


Agata Frymus is a Marie Skłodowska Curie post-doctoral fellow at University of Ghent, Belgium, where she works on black cinemagoing in the 1920s and 1930s.​ Her main research interests include silent film, classical Hollywood and the history of gender and race representations in American culture. Agata’s work has been published in Celebrity Studies JournalEarly Popular Visual Culture and the ​Historical Journal of  Radio, Film and Television.


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