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Posted on 24 May '24

The Mini Viva: What Is It and How to Smash It

Alongside your first-year review report, you may have to complete a mini viva. Although it sounds quite intimidating, the whole point of the mini viva is to help develop your skills in defending your work. It’s a small taster of what to expect during your PhD viva once you’ve completed your full thesis. Think of the mini viva as a discussion about your research and how much you have learned over your first year of study.

Here are my tips for preparing for your mini viva.

#1 Understand what the format will be

The first key step is understanding what the format of your mini viva will be. Who will be assessing you? What is their area of expertise? Is it in person or online? How long will it take? Mini vivas are usually an hour maximum, but this depends on your university department. Once you know the format, you will be able to confidently prepare for your mini viva.

#2 Ask around your department

It’s a good idea to approach students within your department who have already completed the mini viva to ask about their experiences. They may have advice on how best to approach questions, or what they recommend you do beforehand.

#3 Read and annotate your report

You’ll need to read over your report from start to finish so you remember exactly what you’ve written. One thing that I found very helpful was printing off a copy as it’s easier to read and I could annotate. I read a few key papers I had referenced again and annotated extra information onto my report. You can also add clarity or specifics to your methods or results section via post-it notes or highlight important areas which you think your examiners may ask about.

Going through my report encouraged me to do some further reading around the topic, and I was able to identify where my strengths and weaknesses were. For example, I had a strong understanding of one of the scientific methods I had utilised but for the other method I wasn’t so sure. This gave me the opportunity to read up on this technique and add the notes to my report.

Make sure you ask your department if you’re allowed to take an annotated copy of your report in for your mini viva. If you are, that’s great – if you are not, this exercise is still valuable in gauging your own understanding of your work.

#4 Think of potential questions you could be asked

While you’re reading and annotating your report, stop and think about how this sentence or method could be turned into a question. For example, why did you use this method over another well-known method? For a lot of the questions, you can just read your report and add the word why in the margins. Then practice your response to these questions out loud to help you remember the key points you need to cover.

#5 Ask your supervisor for some example viva questions or a mock mini viva

Your supervisor has more than likely been an examiner for other PhD vivas and other internal mini vivas, so there’s no one better to ask for sample questions. Your supervisor may even carry out a mock viva with you if you ask nicely and with enough notice. Having these practice questions or mock mini viva will prepare you for the real session.

Don’t worry if you can’t get a mock viva scheduled, there are plenty of viva questions online which you can adapt and tailor to your research. You could write out a page of questions and ask your family or friends to quiz you, so you create your own mock mini viva.

#6 Understand that it’s ok not to know something

No one expects you to know absolutely everything about your research. It’s ok not to know the answer to some of your questions. The main point of the assessment is to find out if you understand your research project, and if your research plans are achievable within the time limit of your PhD. If you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest and say so. You can then maybe attempt to answer the question if you think you know how to. The examiners are not there to try and catch you out, they just want to gather what you know about your research.

#7 Know when to stop revising

Like with all exams, it can be hard to know when to stop studying. I recommend having a read over your work the night before the mini viva and then get early night and rest your brain. On the day, have a quick look at areas you aren’t so sure about, eat breakfast, and get to your mini viva early so you’re not rushing around. It’ll be over before you know it and hopefully you’ll get the outcome soon after. Outcomes of the mini viva vary between universities and often rely on the accompanying first year report you are defending. The outcomes can be; pass with no changes, pass with minor changes which will be specified by the examiners or referral of report back to supervisory team for further work and potentially having a second mini viva. The most common outcomes are pass with no changes or pass with minor changes as your supervisors would have helped you with your report draft so they should believe you will pass your mini viva before you walk into the exam!

I actually enjoyed my mini viva. It was interesting to see how much I’d learned and developed over the first year of my PhD. It was also encouraging to see how I’d started to become somewhat of an expert on my niche area. You know a lot more about your topic than you realise!


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Last Updated: 24 May 2024