Tuesday, 8 January 2013

What questions are asked during a PhD viva?

"I'd like to know how much of this thesis is really yours - which chapters have the questions that weren't given to you by your supervisor?"
This was the opening question for one student in a PhD viva. Although we've all heard about the more unusual viva questions and behaviour, the one-to-one (or few-to-one) nature of most vivas makes it pretty tough for other PhD students to get a good insight into what happens. How to learn about what kinds of questions crop up, and avoid the biases of individual student accounts?

One way is to read the results of a survey of PhD vivas, published by Vernon Trafford and Shosh Leshem in a 2002 paper in Higher Education Review. It provides a list of questions that give an overview of questions asked across a sample of 25 doctoral vivas. This work achieves a generalisation across multiple vivas that few supervisors could hope to achieve, let alone doctoral candidates. An important point is that these issues are not only relevant to those researchers who are just a few months or weeks from their viva - these issues are of high relevance to students just beginning their PhD research. What better way for a new PhD researcher to know the standards expected of a PhD degree other than to know the questions posed by the examiners in their reading of the thesis (a topic for another day), and in the viva?

The research results showed that the broad categories of examiners' questions ranged from the choice of topic, conceptual issues being addressed, the choice and justification of methodology, the selection of instruments/materials/respondents/, the contribution to knowledge made by the work, and candidate's critique of their own work. Each category had about five questions associated with it. These questions will be very useful for any PhD student. 

As an example of the topic 'being critical' (of your own work), the questions are: 
- How else might you have undertaken your research? 
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of your research? 
- What would you do differently if you repeated your research?
Other questions include: 
- How did you use your conceptual framework to design your research analyse your findings?
- How generalisable are your findings - and why?

I was so impressed by this work that I asked for permission to reproduce the list of questions in 'Getting a PhD', and ensure that all  of my students have addressed these questions before their viva. They have all found the questions to be extremely helpful in preparing for the external examiners' questions, and in reassuring them ahead of their own viva. I have even known these questions to be read in advance of the viva by a number of colleagues acting as PhD external examiners! 

Of course, these specific questions may not be asked during your PhD viva in the exact same way as presented in the paper. Nevertheless, the questions in the paper reflect broad categories of questions that test 'doctorateness', and PhD candidates can be certain that variants of these will be prominent in the viva. And although it doesn't appear in Trafford and Leshem's (2002), it's also a good idea to know which of your chapters have the questions that weren't given to you by your supervisor!

PhD Skill: prepare for the PhD viva by considering the questions in Trafford and Leshem's (2002) paper, and how they may be applied to your work 

Update: See related blog post on Doctoral Writing SIG by Susan Carter: Defending research choices in doctoral writing: getting the habit at the start of the research

Trafford, V. and Leshem, S. 2002. Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review 35 (1): 31-49.

These same authors published a book in 2008 'Stepping Stones to Achieving your Doctorate: By focusing on your viva from the start.'

If you have some great questions from a PhD viva, I 'd love to hear about them, and share them in another post - I will accredit all contributions. 

photo credit: mnadi via photopin cc

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