Purpose and Format of the Viva Voce Examination

Literally, "viva voce" means by or with the living voice - i.e., by word of mouth as opposed to writing. So the viva examination is where you will give a verbal defence of your thesis.

Put simply, you should think of it as a verbal counterpart to your written thesis. Your thesis demonstrates your skill at presenting your research in writing. In the viva examination, you will demonstrate your ability to participate in academic discussion with research colleagues.

Purpose of the Exam

The purpose of the viva examination is to:

  • demonstrate that the thesis is your own work
  • confirm that you understand what you have written and can defend it verbally
  • investigate your awareness of where your original work sits in relation to the wider research field
  • establish whether the thesis is of sufficiently high standard to merit the award of the degree for which it is submitted
  • allow you to clarify and develop the written thesis in response to the examiners' questions

The Examiners and Exam Chair

You will normally have two examiners:

  • an internal examiner who will be a member of academic staff of the University, usually from your School/Department but not one of your supervisors
  • an external examiner who will normally be a member of academic staff of another institution or occasionally a professional in another field with expertise in your area of research (candidates who are also members of University staff will normally have two external examiners in place of an internal and an external examiner)

Your supervisor should let you know who your examiners will be as it is important that you ensure you are familiar with their work and any particular approach that they may take when examining your thesis.

In some cases there may also be a Chair person for the examination. A Chair is appointed if the Graduate Dean or either of the examiners feels this is appropriate, for example where the examining team has relatively little experience of examining UK research degrees. The Chair is there to ensure the examination is conducted in line with University regulations and is not there to examine your thesis. If there is a Chair person, it will usually be a senior member of the academic staff of your School/Department.

Normally no one else is present in the exam.

Exam Venue and Arrangements

Your internal examiner is responsible for arranging your viva exam and they will contact you with the relevant details - date, time, venue, etc.

Usually the viva exam will take place in your School/Department, though occasionally another University location may be used. If you are unsure where you need to go, make sure you check this before the day of your exam.

If you returned your Notice of Intention to Submit Your Thesis three months before your submission date, your viva exam should normally take place quite soon after submission. Almost all viva exams take place within three months of the examiners receiving the thesis.

Format of the Exam

All viva examinations are different, so it is not possible to describe exactly what will happen - but there are general points which can be made which may be helpful, and you should have the opportunity before your examination to discuss what will happen with your supervisor or to attend the University's pre-viva examination workshop.

The purpose of the viva is to establish that your work is of a sufficiently high standard to merit the award of the degree for which it is submitted. In order to be awarded a research degree, the thesis should demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge and contain work which is deemed worthy of publication.

In order to do this, examiners may:

  • ask you to justify your arguments
  • ask you to justify not only things which you have included in your thesis but also things which you may have left out
  • ask you questions about the wider research context in which the work has been undertaken
  • argue certain points with you
  • expect you to discuss any developments which may flow from your work in the future

Inevitably, your thesis will have strengths and weaknesses and the examiners will want to discuss these. It is considered a positive thing, indeed an essential thing, that you can discuss both the strengths and the weaknesses. You can think of the weaknesses as an opportunity to demonstrate your skill at critical appraisal.

Remember that examiners seek to find and discuss weaknesses in all theses - you should not interpret criticism as an indication that the examination will not end successfully.

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