Viva Guidelines

Guidelines for Candidates: The Viva

A viva voce examination is a mandatory requirement for the award of PhD. The requirement for such an examination at Master's Degree (Research) level is normally at the discretion of the examiners.

The viva voce is an oral examination where a research student defends their work. The purpose of a viva voce examination is to assess the work submitted by the candidate. It gives the candidate the opportunity to present and defend the work through high-level debate with experts in the subject. It enables the examiners to confirm that

  • the candidate has a thorough understanding of the practical and theoretical aspects and methods involved in the work;
  • the work presented is the candidates own.

Two examiners and a chairperson and usually the supervisor(s) are present. There may also be a recording secretary from the sponsoring Department/School where the chairperson has been appointed external to the School/Department. Each student will have one internal examiner and one external examiner appointed by HETAC who will be charged with recommending the student for examination of the award. Staff candidates presenting for PhD will have two external examiners. The Supervisor(s) cannot take part in the examination of the candidate's work. They are there in case the examiners want clarification on a particular issue raised in the thesis at the invitation of the examiners or chairperson as required.

The examination can be of varying lengths depending on the subject matter and on the examiners. A typical examination will last between one and three hours, though they have been known to be longer. It is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure they are prepared for the viva examination.

The chairperson is present to ensure that the examination is conducted in a fair and academically rigorous manner. They are also present to ensure that the examiners and the candidate have adequate time for discussion of issues arising from the work submitted. They can advise examiners and student on regulatory matters.

The viva voce examination will normally take place as soon as possible, or within three months of submission of the work presented. It will normally be conducted in English except by agreement with the Supervisor(s), the Registrar and the Examiners. Prior to the viva the examiners will have separately read the work in detail. Before the examination begins they usually discuss their individual comments and agree a line of questioning. After the viva the examiners jointly report upon the quality of the work, usually verbally to the candidate and then formally in a report to HETAC and TU Dublin - Tallaght Campus.

The candidate must be available for pre-viva discussions with their supervisor(s) on an agreed date before the actual viva voce examination. Some supervisors may want to carry out a mock viva as part of the preparations and where this is to be the case it should be conducted at a suitable time in advance of the viva to allow the candidate sufficient time to act on issues raised.

The purpose of the viva
The viva is an integral part of the research degree examination process and therefore needs careful preparation. The viva has several broad purposes for the student:

  • to enable the examiners to ensure that the thesis is your own work; 
  • to give you the opportunity to defend you thesis;
  • to clarify any areas where there may be some confusion;
  • it allows the examiners to assess your knowledge of how your work fits into the general field of your project area.


Preparation for the viva
The preparation for the viva involves several key areas, which can be summarised as follows:

  • Know your subject matter and revise key fundamental areas
  • Know the work of your internal and external examiners
  • Know the campus regulations with respect to the viva examination.

The examiners will assess how your research project fits into advancing knowledge your field and general subject area and how your research can be of benefit in a global context. In addition they will also assess your knowledge of your general subject area -Hence, it is of critical importance that you are well up to speed on the basics of your field of study, i.e. revise fundamentals from undergraduate level.

Knowing the research of your examiners can be a good starting point for your preparation. Knowing their current research interests can help to identify areas that may be raised in the viva. This preparation should include looking at the examiners’ own publications. This is particularly important if they have either published something on your specific topic or on research methodology, or if you have quoted them in your thesis.

Read the campus regulations, with regard to the examination of a thesis. These are described on page 19 of the Research Degree Regulations in your Postgraduate Research Student Handbook and on page 63 of the more detailed Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes.[1] The information relates to the conduct of the examination as well as to the range of recommendations that examiners can make.


The period between submission and viva
The amount of time available to prepare for a viva depends on the examiners, and can be as much as three months from the date of submission. It is important to use this time wisely to remain focused on the final hurdle, and to be aware that there may be little time from being informed of the viva date to the examination. One valuable use of the time is to write papers from your findings. Although this initially may be quite a daunting task, having just finished writing up, nevertheless it will ensure that you remain in touch with your material.

In the period between submission and viva it is recommended you prepare by reading around your subject matter and particularly new developments; read and know the subject matter of your thesis; read key references used in your thesis; have a mock viva; revise appropriate topics in your field of study and know your fundamentals.

 An oral presentation on your work to the department or research group/centre or at a conference allows you to read around your subject area and to become familiar with being questioned on your results and your conclusions. Such presentations may highlight potential lines of questioning. Moreover, they also allow you to develop confidence about your work.


Mock viva
A mock viva may be offered at the discretion of your Supervisors once the date of the actual viva is known. The value of a mock viva should not be underestimated. It is usually made as realistic as possible with supervisors acting as ‘difficult’ examiners. The identification of areas in which you were unclear, or potential weaknesses, can allow you to rehearse those areas until you have confident explanations.


The first stage is to remember that the viva is an examination and therefore requires revision. The initial step is to familiarise yourself with your entire thesis, bearing in mind that some of the work may have been written some time ago. A careful and critical re-reading of the thesis is needed to identify areas of potential weakness. It is acceptable to take a copy of your thesis into the viva with you, although it is a matter of personal choice. It is useful to highlight in the text areas of potential weakness, either of the study or issues that were weak at your mock viva. A highlighted note in the text may save the day if your mind goes blank. Additionally, the use of Post-it index tabs and Post-it notes can help you to locate key points.


Defence preparation and question rehearsal

Do a thesis summary and condense into bullet points as follows:

  • What have you done?
  • Why have you done it?
  • How did you do it?
  • What have you found?
  • What are the implications?

By doing this you are providing a comprehensive overview of your thesis. Furthermore, the opening question of the viva often asks you to summarise your study, so rehearsing the points suggested helps you to provide a logical and structured overview. In more recent years, external examiners have requested candidates to give a 10 – 20 minute presentation on their thesis.

As well as an opening question regarding the summary of your study, there is often a closing question of what you would do differently if you were to do it again. Also examiners often close with how should the project continue in the future? Careful preparation of these answers can ensure that you have a strong reply.

The viva
Usually a viva is normally held on campus, and arriving in plenty of time goes without saying. It is recommended that you dress for the importance of the occasion and adopt a business-like approach.

Structure of the viva
A viva is likely to last between one and three hours depending upon the examiners and also on how you answer questions. The chairperson will ask the examiners and supervisor(s) into the room first to discuss the conduct of the viva and examination procedures.[2] Before the examination begins he/she usually discusses individual comments of the examiners and the examiners and chairperson agree a line of questioning. This will normally take 5 – 10 minutes.

The candidate is then invited in and the chairperson makes the introductions and describes the structure of the viva. Where the external examiner has requested the candidate to make a presentation, then the candidate is asked to start with the presentation.

The question and answer session then takes place. The viva is a defence of what you have done, not what you have not done, so you should sell your work and not apologise for it. It is likely that your examiners will question you on each section of your thesis, and it is important to remember that your thesis is a story that has a start and an end. Being able to look at how each chapter fits in with the whole thesis is imperative. For example, examiners may ask you to justify a particular question within your data collection process. Being able to direct them back to your literature review can support your justification for it.

Questions you cannot answer
A useful strategy, as with a job interview, is to ask the examiners to rephrase the question. This can sometimes help, but being honest is the best policy. If you have absolutely no idea of the answer it is best to say so. Remember you are being examined by very knowledgeable and skilled academics, who can see if you really understand something or not.

The result and feedback
Usually you are asked to leave the room while the examiners discuss the verdict. This is a most nerve-racking experience and it seems to take forever before you are recalled. The examiners normally have their result within 15 minutes. If you are fully aware of the different recommendations that the examiners can make, you will understand what is required of you. It is usual to be asked to make corrections, and it is best to prepare yourself psychologically for this eventuality by expecting that there will be more work to do on the thesis.

The recommendations that the examiners can make are as follows:

Recommended with minor revisions – the examiners will either recommend these be verified by the supervisor(s) or the internal examiner;
Not recommended but referred for major revision and re-examination;
Not recommended.
The option to refer the thesis for revisions is only available the first time the thesis is examined.[3] It is worthwhile asking for specific verbal feedback and it is very important to take written notes. This will enable you to start the corrections immediately and also to see exactly how much work there is to do.


After the viva
After the viva the examiners jointly report upon the quality of the work, usually verbally to the candidate and then formally in a report to HETAC and the campus.

It is useful to arrange to contact your supervisor immediately after the viva to discuss the outcome, especially if corrections are requested. Examiners will normally make a list of what corrections are required and will give you a copy of them.

Candidates are advised to do the corrections and submit the amended thesis as soon as possible after the viva.

Once the corrections have been ratified by the supervisor(s) or one of the examiners then the thesis can be formally submitted in hard bound format as per campus regulations.

Some Dos and Don’ts

  • Do  not rush your answers, that is let your examiners finish their question!
  • do not answer a question you have not properly understood: ask for clarifications (after all, they are doing the same thing, by asking you to clarify some aspects of your thesis).
  • take all the time you need to structure your answer effectively but do not be confrontational.
  • Do not start clutching at straws, be honest: say you cannot answer the question on the spot, but you will immediately delve into that aspect. In the very unlikely case that an examiner finds a real weakness in your thesis, do not aggravate the situation by irritating the entire panel with a flimsy defense: concede the point, acknowledge that it limits the validity of your conclusions but go through it all in detail underlining the aspects which are not affected by the weaknesses they have highlighted.
  • Finally, do not start panicking if they go on firing new questions on the same subject. It does not imply that they are not satisfied with your replies; it is often the result of the examiners' genuine interest in a particular aspect of your research.


Typical Questions

The first question will almost certainly be a very general one, such as
describe the rationale of your research project
what are the key findings of your thesis?
what is original in it?
what is its position in relation to the current state of knowledge in your area?
After some general questions, you should expect more detailed questions. Examiners may go so far as to refer to a single statement ("on page x, line y…"), asking you to justify/explain or expand on it. You are not supposed to know your thesis by heart, but you still need to remember its general structure and the key points of each section. (You can bring a copy of your thesis with you).

The closing questions may concern the potential development of your (and in your) field of research, that is

what is the position of your contribution as to the most recent developments in your area?
can you take your research further?
what do you expect the next steps in your area to be?
what are your publication plans?
As soon as your viva ends, you will be asked to leave the room, so that examiner(s) can freely exchange their views about your exam. The results may be communicated on the same day as the viva.

General (opening) questions about contents:

  What is your thesis about?
  Explain in your own words what you have done?
 What is the contribution of your thesis to scholarly knowledge?
 Summarise your key findings
 Why did you choose this topic?
 Why have you chosen to organize your research into these stages/chapters?
 Why is the problem you have investigated worth investigating?
 Is it possible to draw a general rule from your single observations?
 How have you evaluated your work?
 How do you know that your findings are correct?
 How do your findings relate to the critical literature in this field of studies?
 What have you done to be awarded a PhD?
 What is original in your thesis?

General questions about method

 Why did you choose this method to analyze your topic?
 Describe your methodological approach
 Would your approach be as effective for other periods and places?
 What have you learned by carrying out your PhD?
 What would you do differently today if you were to start again?
 What are the alternatives to your approach?

Questions concerning one specific aspect of your research

 What do you know about the history of this particular aspect of your research?
 What are the recent major developments in this topic?
 Which are the most important papers concerning this aspect of your research?
 Why have you tackled this problem in this way?

Questions about possible development of your research

 Do you have any plans for publication?
 Which aspects of your thesis are worth publishing?
 Where will you publish your work?

Questions about the future development in your area of study

 What is the relevance of your contribution to other researchers?
 How do you expect the research in your field to progress over the next few years?
 Where do you think your research will move in the future?

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