Are you already looking forward to celebrating once you finish your PhD, but are you dreading the day of your oral defense? You are not the only one. A couple of tips to put your best foot forward for this viva. A job well begun, is a job half done!
Just so you know, these tips are based on vivas at Dutch Universities.
Tip 1 Visit viva’s of other PhD students
Defenses are public, so try to visit some, even if you are not invited, or log in and watch them online. View the viva out of the perspective of the PhD student: how does he/she react to the questions, what kind of answers are formulated? What would your reaction be, your answers? Have a look at the pose and behaviour of the candidate? What are strong points, what would you do differently? Write it all down, the positive and the negative things.
Tip 2 Make sure you are completely immersed in your topic
Start rereading in the months up to the defense the most important articles and books. Make notes. It is really useful to have your main publications available during the defense.
Revisit your thesis in its entirety! Why did you do a PhD in the first place, what is the reason for choosing this particular field, which methods did you use and why, why did you choose that specific perspective? What are the implications? What might you do differently if you had to start over? What is the core of each chapter? What is your elevator pitch – what is the main message of your thesis? Make sure you can pitch in less than a minute.
Tip 3 Anticipate which questions you might be asked
Revisit your thesis and gather possible questions that might arise. What questions might be asked: the choices you made; maybe some elaboration on some weaker points in your thesis? What consequences – for example in methodology – did your choices have? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your thesis? Don’t hide the weak points in your thesis and realise that you could also be asked why you didn’t choose a certain theory or method.
Tip 4 Familiarise yourself with the examiners
Learn about the research of your examiners, look into their profiles. What makes them enthusiastic, what would they perhaps criticise? Maybe they offered some suggestions for your thesis a while back, a great source for questions now. It’s also important to keep up on all related research in the field.
In general, the viva is to establish the value of your thesis and the originality, the useful contribution in this specific field, the methods and data you used; how all the results are combined with existing knowledge and which important lessons or implications can be distilled from your research.
Tip 5 Understand the process
Make sure you know how to answer: how to address the different members of the committee. Practice all this. What are the rules of your university? How long does the viva normally take? Who decides which questions are asked in what order? In which order do you enter the venue, when are you allowed to leave? Will you start with an introduction to your topic for non-academic listeners? Prepare your elevator pitch in understandable language.
Tip 6 Choose your ‘paranymphs’ carefully
According to Dutch tradition, a PhD student is accompanied by 2 paranymphs during his/her viva. The official role of a paranymph s to take over the defense if necessary. Changes are small this will ever happen, nevertheless, make sure you talk it through with your paranimphs.
Besides this role they are masters of ceremony, they might organise your mock defense and they are your confidantes. Therefore they play an important role on the day, so make sure you choose wisely. You want to feel supported. This party is going to be your party!
Tip 7 Arrange a trial viva
Arrange a trial viva. For instance, by asking knowledgeable colleagues if they can pose a question regarding a specific chapter. This will allow you to practice questions for each chapter of your thesis. In case these colleagues also know some members of the committee, ask them to formulate the questions in view of these members.
Let the mock be as realistic as possible, a venue with a lectern, a chairperson and call each other like in a real viva. This dress rehearsal will help you to get used to the whole process and by doing so you will be less nervous on the day.
Tip 8 Visualise your viva
Athletes are real masters in using the power of visualisation. In the time leading up to the big day, visualise yourself walking into the room, your posture and demeanour, the way you are responding to the questions. Use visual, auditory and kinesthetic ways. And make sure you visualise not only from your viewpoint but also from a helicopter point of view.
Know it is going to be a great day because it is the completion of your PhD!
Tip 9 Use the day before as a rest day
Use the last day before the defense as a day to relax. What about a day in the sauna, or going for a bike ride, a long walk or the cinema? Take a long bath, nestle yourself with a good book on the sofa. Make sure you listen to what you need. And don’t forget to go to bed early to be fit and energized on the big day.
Tip 10 Realise that your thesis is good
You would never be able to defend your thesis if it wasn’t good enough. You are the expert in your field of research, you have occupied yourself with it during all these years so trust you have all the knowledge.
Tip 11 The minutes before you enter the room
Before you will walk into the room, you will be waiting in the so-called ‘sweat shack’. Make sure your paranimfen know what you want. Do you want to spend this time in silence or otherwise? Do an exercise that calms you down and gives you energy, like a breathing technique.
Tip 12 Listen carefully to the questions
Don’t start to prepare the answer during the question. Really listen intently and make notes on the question. Often there are more questions wrapped in one question. Paraphrase the question so your answer is connected to the question. In case the question is about something you haven’t done, it might be helpful to explain what you did do and why and then explain why you haven’t done what was asked.
Tip 13 Take your time
Take your time while answering the questions. It is okay if you are still writing once the questioner has spoken. You have the time to structure and analyse before you answer the question. Use the core of the chapters you have formulated and your elevator pitch. Take the easy way by answering the simple sub-question or the most relevant one. And point it out once a question is outside the scoop of your research.
Tip 14 Enjoy!
I received another tip from a PhD candidate. You might be asked an unanswerable question. Don’t freeze but give a general answer and/or avoid the question by talking around it. Generally, the chairperson will stipulate that the answer is sufficient and continue to the next question,
Do you have any more to add to this? Please leave a comment below.