In this short blog post I will share general tips on preparation for the final PhD defense, as well as ideas on publishing en route to the PhD. I believe these tips contributed to my result of ultimately passing without corrections. I will not share the specific line of questioning that arose in the defense, since this is not particularly important, other than to indicate that it focused largely on philosophical debates around theoretical and methodological choices centered on, for example, Bourdieu, diffraction, post-humanism and new materialisms. From my post-viva standpoint it now seems to me that the focus was on identifying the threshold at which my knowledge on the subject ended in order to challenge me to think beyond the limits of my philosophical and methodological approach – all the while remaining grounded in the literature, my methods and the data without presenting unsubstantiated claims. It was a challenging, humbling, constructive, and exhilarating experience.
Prior to the viva I expected that I would have at least minor corrections. To overcome my anxiety and prepare for the final viva voce, I followed four avenues of preparation to ensure that I was as calm and prepared as possible. I now believe that these four steps in part led to the positive result of no corrections – as the oral defense was strengthened through practice. I followed these four steps:
First, I watched three YouTube videos concerning a PhD defense. Each had a different focus: one on how to speak – in terms of inflection in the voice and how to position oneself in the room in terms of engagement, e.g., sitting upright in the chair and avoiding casually leaning backwards – and two more substantially on how to respond to questions, particularly those for which you are uncertain of the answer. You can find these here: The Perfect Defense, Oral Examination, and How to Defend.
Perhaps the most important point I gathered from the videos was to listen carefully to the question (which may sometimes go on for several minutes prior to an actual question being asked). Once you are certain of the question, then pause and think for a few moments followed by a confident response that is supported by the data from your study – do not exaggerate – and then ‘zip it’. In other words, the videos suggest that you should not allow yourself to speak so much as to casually begin to editorialize points not supported by the study. In addition, if you didn’t understand the question at first simply ask for clarification rather than going off on an unrelated tangent. Asking for clarification will give you the time to prepare a more thoughtful response.
Another great tip in the videos explained that if at any point you are uncertain of the answer then focus on what you do know. For example, state, “You asked me, and I am not certain, but I think…” Or, “If I knew X, I would say Y.” Or, “I don’t know, but that question has interesting implications, for example….” I watched the videos several times over the two-week period leading up to my examination, reflecting each time on the main points outlined in the videos, and I certainly did use some of these strategies (presumably well) in my viva.
Having watched tips on the defense, the second thing I did one week prior to my viva voce was to re-read my thesis once with a fresh mind. I wanted the main argument and flow to be clear to me again. It had been over two months since I had submitted the softbound copy to the famous Red Door. Once I had done this, and I was confident that my work was defensible, and that I now knew strategies for responding to questions, I then began to answer a standard set of queries asked in various PhD defenses.
- What motivated and inspired the research?
- What are the philosophical assumptions?
- What is the theoretical framework?
- Could you have used a different framework?
- What published work is closest to yours?
- How is your work different, i.e., what does it contribute that is new to the field?
- How did you translate the research questions into a data collection method?
- What were the alternatives to this methodology?
- How did you recruit your sample?
- What are the weaknesses of your sample?
- How did you deal with the ethical implications of your work?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of your data?
- Do you think the data collected were most appropriate to answer your research questions?
- Can you explain your methods of analysis?
- Did you combine induction and deduction in your analysis?
- Can you describe your main findings in a few sentences?
- How do you know your findings are correct?
- What are the contributions to knowledge of your thesis?
- How do your findings relate to literature in your field?
- Do the findings confirm, extend or challenge any of the literature?
- How does your research connect to your examiners?
- How did you decide to order your thesis?
- Where are you in this study?
- What would you do differently next time?
(I did not generate these questions; I received them from a colleague. The original source is unknown.)
Although these questions did not arise verbatim in the viva voce, related questions most certainly did. My preparation of these points prepared me to confidently answer the varieties asked in the examination, and this put me at ease.
Third, the next natural thing for me to do in preparation was to practice speaking my prepared responses. This helped iron out the rigidity of the written responses and made them more fluid in speech. I participated in two mock viva sessions the week of the defense: one with my supervisor and one with a supportive colleague. These mock sessions assisted me in articulating my responses more succinctly and substantially, and they allowed me to practice the points covered in the videos that I had watched. Having done this, my supervisor then suggested that I also read my examiners most recent publications. The point was to be familiar with the types of academic debates to which they frequently contribute, so that the viva could become (as I presume many examiners wish) an intellectual conversation rather than a test.
Fourth (and please check with your supervisor first on this approach), in the months leading up to the viva I prepared and sent several chapters of my thesis to peer-reviewed journals (as well as to many close colleagues), so that I could get critical reviews to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of my work. The points raised in the papers reviewed – by both the blind reviewers and colleagues – helped me tremendously to identify the weaker (and stronger) sections of my argument, and to gauge the sorts of areas I might be questioned on. Indeed, I eventually was questioned on many of these areas.
Furthermore, all of the papers reviewed were subsequently published (click here for the papers: JTED, GSE, and EPAT). This prepared me better for the viva, and it also taught me much about the publishing process. The positive by-product of this approach was that, in addition to strengthening my thesis, publishing during the PhD has jump-started my postdoctoral academic career (see also Cora Xu’s blog post). I would highly recommend this approach to all of my colleagues.
Finally, upon reflection on the viva itself, I have learned several points that I will share here. First, I now believe it matters immensely how the work is defended. It is not merely a formality, as I had mistakenly presumed. The defense gives the examiners the confidence (or not) to pass you, or request substantial changes, due to the responses provided. These are compared with the examiners’ initial impressions from their reading of your thesis. They might be debating whether to give minor or major changes, or no changes at all. The verbal explanation in the defense could confirm or challenge their previous impressions, and it could mean the difference between passing straightforwardly without corrections, with minor corrections, or revise and resubmit. In other words, you have the beautiful opportunity in your viva to convince your examiners of your depth and breadth of thought on the subject.
Second, you most likely cannot guess the specific questions your examiners will ask, as part of the exchange (at least from my experience) is to take you into uncharted territories, but you can prepare for the standard set of questions, which may form a variation of the actual question. The usual set of queries I reviewed above, along with the tips from the videos, helped prepare me to be confident and thoughtful in my responses during the examination.
Third, undoubtedly the viva is a narrative that you will share numerous times with colleagues, friends, family, and perhaps future students, whenever you discuss your PhD journey. Do prepare well (and be proud of) this story that you will inevitably share with many others. For me this has meant at least two dozen times in the first 10 days after the examination. Make the examiners and yourself the protagonists in the story.
Finally, these are obviously tips from just one person’s experience, and everyone’s viva will surely be different. I do hope, however, that you might find what I have shared here valuable in your preparation for the final viva. Whether this year, next or beyond – good luck for a strong and successful conclusion to your PhD! Do feel free to be in touch should you have any questions.
Kevin Kester completed his PhD in the Faculty of Education in 2017 with Dr Hilary Cremin. He is currently chair and research assistant professor of International & Area Studies in the John E. Endicott College of International Studies at Woosong University in Daejeon, Korea, and a research associate at the Institute for Development and Human Security at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. His research interests lie in the sociology and politics of education with a focus on the international system, social theory, and qualitative research methods. He teaches courses on the foundations of international studies; modernity, globalization and education; and peace and conflict analysis. To find out more about his research and teaching, see his Research Gate profile. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.