How to have a stress-free upgrade viva

In the final instalment of my upgrade top tips it’s time for the big one – the upgrade viva. This involves a grilling by a panel of academics from within your department. Their job is to ensure that you really have thought everything through and that your project will produce a good PhD thesis.

This all sounds pretty scary and you do hear the odd horror story of malicious interviewers; but remember that most will want you to pass and will be nice! Plus your viva panel will have spoken to your supervisors and seen your talk and report, so they will have a pretty good idea that you know what you’re doing. So the viva is really just about double-checking everything and raising a few points that need clarification or that you may not have thought about.

If you get asked something that you hadn’t considered then say so – don’t be that person who is clearly stalling for time and struggling to come up with an answer on the fly. You’ll look much more competent if you just admit that you’ve not considered whatever the panel is suggesting but that you’re glad they’ve brought it to your attention. It’s also ok to ask the panels’ opinions; they are there to provide a different viewpoint on your research so don’t be afraid to use them! This also goes for any asking questions you may want some input on, it is ok for you to ask them things as well as vice versa.

Interviews are always a tricky thing to prep for and this one will be no different. I guess the best advice is to look over your presentation’s Q&A and to really think about the questions that you’d ask if you were on the panel. Get some second opinions on this, especially from other PhD students and from your supervisors. They may think of tricky questions that you’d not considered.

To get you started, here are the sorts of things that I was asked in my upgrade viva:

  • To define my project. I took this to mean giving a kind of one-sentence summary, which was tricky!
  • General questions about the project’s relevance and original contribution – definitely expect to be asked things like ‘why hasn’t this been done before’, ‘why now’, ‘what will your project’s outputs be used for’ etc.
  • General logistics questions – I had to summarise my plan of work for the next two years, discuss funding sources, and broadly outline the papers I thought the project would produce and which journals I would be submitting them to. Be prepared to justify all your project’s practicalities.
  • If you’re doing fieldwork or some other money-eating activity, then expect lots of questions on why this is essential and how you’ve worked out your budget.
  • I also had to explain some of the more specialised parts of my project and methodology again. Remember that some of your panel may not be specialists in your field, so it’s worth preparing some diagrams to explain the more obscure and complex bits.

The rest of my questions were too project-specific to be of much use in this post. But note that you will be asked some probing and specific questions as well as these more general ones. So have a think about the areas of risk in your project (i.e. where things might derail) and how you’ll deal with these. As well as these potential negatives you should consider the positives, such as how you might expand and develop the core project if things work well and you find yourself with the time to look into interesting side themes.

Other than the standard ‘relax and smile’ interview advice, I think that’s all the tips I can give you. The upgrade viva is far more project-specific than the proposal and presentation but these general points should help. Just try to view it as a chance to get some extra feedback!


p.s. thanks to yet another Google image search for this post’s title image.

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