It may feel like you're at the end of a long PhD journey by the time the viva comes around (and you are) but the oral exam is an important part of your doctorate and you should prepare accordingly.
Whatever else you do or don't do, listen to the advice of your supervisors. They'll have experience of all sides of the process, from sitting their own viva voce to preparing previous students for theirs. Chances are they've also served as internal or external examiners too and will know exactly what sort of questions they'd ask about a thesis like yours.
Here are seven tips for effective viva preparation.
#1 Take a (short) break first
Chances are you've been working very hard on your PhD recently, getting it written up, responding to feedback from your supervisor, making edits, sorting the bibliography (which you still left to the last minute, right) and getting the whole thing printed in time for the final deadline.
Whatever happens next, you've just successfully submitted a PhD thesis and you deserve a break. So take one.
A week or two away from your PhD will be ideal (no, don't take a copy of your dissertation with you). You'll get some mental rest and be in a better place to take a fresh look at your thesis and think clearly about it.
There's no need to feel guilty: the time between submission and viva is partly intended to make this possible.
#2 Read through your thesis
You may feel pretty familiar with your thesis by now but, actually, you aren't. You're familiar with a series of chapters that may well have developed separately over several years. It was probably only recently that you wrote them up in their final form, added an introduction and conclusion and turned the whole thing into a dissertation setting out your entire PhD thesis.
You need to know that thesis inside out and be completely familiar with the structure of the dissertation that contains and communicates it: which page a key concept or topic appears on for the first time, where key stages of your argument occur, where you cite or critique particular scholarship, and so on.
At the very least, this means reading your full thesis through at least once. Really though, you should be re-reading each chapter a couple of times and. . .
#3 Annotate key points
The PhD viva isn't a closed-book exam and you're expected to take a copy of your thesis with you. It's perfectly fine to consult it in response to questions, so make that process easy by annotating the most important stages of your argument.
There are lots of ways to do this, but, really, there's no substitute for sticking markers through your dissertation and scribbling in the margins.
If the copy of the thesis you take into the exam room looks like it's survived an explosion in a post-it note factory and then spent several years being read by rough-fingered undergraduate students in the library, well, you're on the right track.
#4 Note down potential questions (and answers)
You'll never be able to guess all of the questions that will come up at your viva, but you should be able to anticipate a few of them. Sketching out some bullet-point answers in advance will help you think critically about your thesis and boost your confidence going into the exam.
Spend extra time on any questions you're concerned about. If there's a point where your argument gets a bit strained or where you think your conclusions might be easy to challenge, have a think about how you'd defend them. Remember that your thesis doesn't have to be perfect, but you do need to be able to make a case for it – so practice doing that.
Incidentally, no one has been able to completely test the hypothesis that preparing for a viva question ensures it doesn't actually come up, but, well, the anecdotal evidence is strong. Prepare anyway.
#5 (Re)familiarise yourself with your examiners' work
The viva is about your thesis, but your examiners will have been selected due to the relevance of their own research and their perspectives will be at least partly informed by it.
It makes sense to consider how their work might inform their attitudes towards yours (this should also help you antitipate some questions, as above).
#6 Definitely take up the offer of a mock viva
Your supervisor/s should offer to arrange a mock viva with you shortly before the actual exam (once you've had time to prepare). This is a really helpful process.
The mock viva won't be anything like as long as the real thing and it won't cover every question your examiners will ask (or necessarily predict any of them). But it doesn't need to.
The most valuable feature of a mock viva is to get feedback on how you answer questions. Your supervisors will be able to spot whether you're coming across as too hesitant or too confident, or whether your answers are sufficiently clear.
#7 Try to enjoy it
Chances are you'll be sick of hearing this advice by the time your exam comes around, but it's true. A PhD viva voce really can be fun.
This is your chance to sit down with two experts in your academic field who have read and carefully considered your thesis and whose attention, for the duration of the exam, is entirely on your research. That's a privilege and it's one you've earned by getting to this stage.
Prepare effectively and give the viva voce the respect it deserves. But, once you get into that exam room, be confident, own your ideas and enjoy the chance to let them take centre stage in a serious academic discussion.