Preparing doctoral candidates for the viva: issues for students and supervisors

Watts, Jacqueline H. (2012). Preparing doctoral candidates for the viva: issues for students and supervisors. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 36(3) pp. 371–381.



The PhD viva has been described as mysterious (Burnham, 1994; Morley et al, 2002), unpredictable (Rugg and Petre, 2004) and potentially fearful for students (Delamont et al, 2004), with its form and duration a function of the predilections of individual examiners as well as a function of differences across disciplines. Despite its myriad manifestations the PhD viva voce (live voice), as oral examination of the doctoral thesis, constitutes the final ‘test’ of the PhD endeavour. In the UK this is a private event, though in some countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, the viva is conducted in a public arena (Delamont et al, 2004). Although there is no standard or prescribed format, students across all disciplines can expect to defend their thesis with this involving questioning, clarification and discussion of key elements. This critical commentary discusses a number of issues that inform the preparation of students focusing on the role of the internal and external examiner, the viva voce process, guidance for students and some practical suggestions for supervisors and students, particularly the value of full role-play in building students’ confidence. The extent to which the doctoral viva, in its current ‘secret’ form, can be seen as a fully accountable and independently rigorous process is taken up in the conclusion that highlights the phenomenon of ‘cosy’ reciprocal examining arrangements, the spectre of litigation when things go wrong and the need to consider a fundamental review of both the purpose and conduct of the viva.

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