preparing for – then surviving – the viva

This is a guest post from Dr Jill Berry who has just passed her viva. Jill tweets as @jillberry102 and writes for a range of publications including the TES and the Guardian

Following thirty years as a teacher/school leader, I left full-time headship in 2010 and started part-time study towards a Professional Doctorate in Education (EdD) at the University of Nottingham.   I wanted to do something different with the last phase of my professionally useful life.  I loved being a head, despite the challenges of the role, but ten years felt like enough for me.  I decided to see if I could carve out a part-time career as a freelance educational consultant, and thought the EdD would help to provide some structure, and an interesting challenge, to my new life.  I wanted something that would stretch me and make me think.  The EdD certainly did that.

I am particularly interested in leadership transitions and chose to research the transition from deputy headship to headship, conducting a case study analysis of six deputies who had been appointed to their first headships.  I charted their progress through their final six months as deputies and into the first five months of headship, visiting them three times – twice in the school where they were deputies and finally in the school they had moved to lead.

I loved the data generation phase.  In addition to conducting three semi-structured interviews with my six participants over the 11 months of the project I also shadowed them as they carried out their deputy/head responsibilities, and I conducted “role-set analysis” (Bush, 2009), informally interviewing multiple members of each participant’s role-set.  This included a sample of senior leaders, teaching and support staff, pupils, parents, governors, members of the wider community and in several cases my participants’ partners.  I enjoyed listening to their stories, and ultimately had a significant amount of fascinating data to draw on.   I then moved to the analysis and writing phase.

I finished my thesis by the end of December 2015, submitted it by 1st February 2016, and then waited for the date of my viva voce examination – the oral examination/interview in which UK doctoral students ‘defend’ their thesis.

I had discussed with my supervisors who my two examiners might be (one internal to the university, one external) and they identified academics in my field who might be appropriate.  It was slightly over three months between official submission of the thesis and the viva, and I had two months’ notice of the date and time.

I gave careful thought to how I could prepare.  When I have faced interviews for jobs, my strategy has always been to anticipate and prepare answers to possible questions, and then rehearse/practise them.  Putting myself in the shoes of the selection panel – in this case the two examiners – and considering what I might want to ask had I been in their position, has always been a useful exercise.  I realised I also had to be confident I had a thorough knowledge of my thesis so that I could talk about it, in detail, with self-assurance.

I had already sought opportunities to talk about my research, and my emerging findings, to a range of audiences – my fellow EdD students, the Post-Graduate Research Conference at my university, the delegates at the BELMAS (British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society) Conference, and a number of professional groups, including aspiring heads.   This had been useful preparation, but defending your thesis before examiners who will make a decision about whether you have demonstrated you have securely met the doctoral standard is considerably more nerve-wracking.

I am aware different universities might manage the process in different ways, and particular examiners might have their foibles and preferences, but the following outlines my preparation and experience, and I hope it might be of use to doctoral students facing their own viva examination.

  1. I reread my thesis twice, making notes in the margins and occasionally stopping as a question occurred to me and giving carefully consideration to how I might answer it. I practised being as succinct and methodical as possible; I know how challenging it can be to remain concise and to keep to the point when you are nervous.
  2. I had been asked by a publisher to read at copy editor draft stage a new book in my area and to give them a comment for the book jacket. I decided to reread the book and use it to generate possible questions.  It is a clearly written and comprehensive description of all elements of the research process, which begins by outlining what they consider to be the foundations of good educational research.  I considered how each of their descriptors (for example: “focuses on a definable issue or problem”) related to my own research project.
  3. I purchased a set of viva cards ( – coloured cards suggesting possible general questions in several areas (introductory context; methods, design and analysis; results and discussion; implications and utilisation) which you can shuffle and use to test yourself. (Think Trivial Pursuit for academics…) This made me consider questions such as ‘What are the theoretical/research/practice/policy implications of your research?’

By the time I reached the viva I felt reasonably well-prepared, but, I hoped, not over-rehearsed.

My main supervisor came into the viva with me, sat at the back and made notes – he recorded the questions and my answers in bullet points.  Occasionally he added his own comments (for example “Steady on, Jill…” “Stop talking now, Jill…”) though of course I only read these afterwards!  The viva lasted two hours, and I have to say I felt energised rather than anxious.  Discussing my research (about which I feel proud and passionate) with two academics who are fully engaged and interested was actually pleasurable.  They probed some of my choices, and the different decisions I had taken at certain points of the process, but I did not feel there was a ‘right answer’ they were trying to uncover.  They were asking me to justify what I had done, and what I had written, and they let me know when they felt I had done so successfully.  The external examiner said at the outset this would be a ‘professional conversation’, rather than an adversarial exchange, and that certainly proved to be the case.

The questions were very firmly grounded in my research rather than general, and they were structured according to the chronology of my thesis.  Often they referred to very specific things I had done, or written, and I had taken my annotated copy of the thesis in with me so I could refer to specific examples and quotations, too.

At the end of the two-hour conversation, I left with my supervisor while the examiners conferred.  We were then called back in – both of my supervisors came with me for this, sitting either side of me which felt as if I had taken in my “minders”.  I was given the judgement: ‘Award with minor revisions to be completed within three months’.

I was delighted to have passed, and not unhappy with the minor revisions, which I felt were well within my capability and which would actually make my thesis stronger.  Being awarded the degree was such a good feeling.  I suggest, though, that it may be useful to have planned what will come next in your life (in my case I am writing a book to disseminate my findings to a professional audience) to guard against any sense of anti-climax.

If your viva is ahead of you, very best wishes!



Bush, T. (2009)   Leadership development and school improvement: Contemporary issues in leadership development, Educational Review 61 (4) 375-389


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Jill Berry, viva and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to preparing for – then surviving – the viva

  1. laurammonk says:

    My submission date is 2 months away so I was really interested to read this. Thanks for sharing it here. I might get some of those viva cards – they sound very useful!


  2. Me too, and thanks so much for sharing your revision strategies Jill.


    • jillberry102 says:

      You’re welcome, Cathy. Hope this is useful.

      Liked by 1 person

    • rrosa says:

      My viva is at the end of the month so I was very pleased to read your account – not only because the positive outcome fills me with optimism rather than dread but also because of your approach.
      I’m doing preparation for mine at the moment and I wondered if anyone had ideas about good questions to ask your examiners.
      And congratulations!

      Liked by 1 person

      • jillberry102 says:

        I think you may find the questions you have for them come from the questions they ask you and your responses. I was keen to know how they thought I could make the thesis better – and that’s what the minor edits have led to, I believe.


  3. Wish I’d known about the Viva cards!
    Some of the best preparation advice I was given: take advantage of the Viva as probably the one and only chance you’ll have to talk at such length about your research and what you’ve been doing for the last x number of years. Obviously it was still nerve wracking, but approaching the Viva from this angle helped turn it into a surprisingly enjoyable and constructive two hours or so (which also seemed to fly by in no time).


  4. jillberry102 says:

    Great advice, and it certainly mirrors my experience. Many thanks for the comment.


  5. malliou says:

    Well done and congratulations. I am in more or less the same position as you were i.e. a mature Phd student. I am in the process of writing my thesis!


  6. jillberry102 says:

    I found the writing stage hard – especially the early months. Because I didn’t write it in chronological order (I started with the analysis, then the discussion, then the lit review, methodology and methods, introduction and finally the conclusion), I used to say it felt like building a wall but starting in the middle… With each new brick I put in all the other bricks shifted.

    But when I got to the final months and was pulling it all together, I found it satisfying and enjoyable. There was a sense of coherence and unity. Suddenly it was a thesis!

    The very best of luck with yours, @malliou.


  7. Fiona Birkbeck says:

    As a p/t PhD student staring down down the barrel of completion a big thank you Jill for a clear detailed and honest desription of your experience


  8. Psych Nairo says:

    That tip on viva cards has proven to be super useful! I cannot thank you enough!!


  9. Pingback: Thesis writing advice | A Roller In The Ocean

  10. Pingback: Completing a doctorate part-time – jillberry102

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