10 Hard Questions Asked During a PhD Dissertation Viva

Every PhD candidate has to defend their dissertation through a viva, but it can be a daunting prospect. The PhD viva is an oral examination and is the final hurdle before a doctoral degree is conferred on a candidate. You’ve invested years in research, made contacts with professionals, and now you have to convince your examiners that you’ve covered the topic well. The success of the viva depends on how you prepare for it. This article reviews ten hard questions during a PhD dissertation viva!


What are the strengths and weaknesses of your research?

This dissertation viva question is asked to gauge how knowledgeable you are about your topic. The examiners expect you to answer honestly, but it is not an opportunity to fully undermine your research. For weaknesses, highlight how methodological approaches chosen, data or location of focus have impacted your findings’ generalisability. You could also highlight how the time or scope of the project has also impacted your ability to explore other related areas or conducted more experiments, but be careful not to poke too many holes in the core of your work. For strengths, highlight your contribution to knowledge, your use of new approaches and how new insights gained as a result of your research would improve the body of knowledge or the world in general.

If a weakness is pointed out to you by the examiners, be sure to explain what steps you’ve taken to improve that area. It can help show examiners that you know what you’re talking about and don’t make claims that aren’t backed up. As for strengths, it’s essential to identify those, but don’t go overboard. It’s also good not to focus only on strengths, as there are always weaknesses in every study.

Questions like these can also sound like they’re pointing out an obvious flaw in your research, so be prepared with an answer in case they do!


How well did the study design work?

The examiner may ask you how well the study design worked, e.g. if you think it was appropriate for the research and provided a good opportunity to answer your research questions.

Generally, to pass your viva, the research design must have worked well to answer the research questions, but there might be limitations that you could have or could not have addressed as you progressed the research using such a design.

You should consider the following questions when answering this:

– Did you include all the necessary control groups?

– Was the sample size large enough?

– Did your methodology allow for in-depth analysis?

– Did your methodology and approach help to achieve new insights?

– Has the study design been used in similar studies with good results?


Tell me about yourself and your research?

This question will set the tone and set you up for success or make things harder. How you answer this question will depend on how well you know your dissertation topic. If you’ve been able to show that you are knowledgeable about your subject, this question will be a great opportunity for you to talk about how your work is making an impact. However, if it is difficult for you to answer the question, then avoid talking at length here and keep it brief, linking back to each of the points of your research instead.

Your answer should highlight 

  • who you are
  • what your research is about, 
  • what influenced your choice of the research topic,
  • your primary research questions, 
  • your contribution to knowledge and 
  • your publication record or conferences attended.

After completing your research, which part of the process did you enjoy the most and why?

When people defend their PhD, they’re asked to reflect on the process and how they feel about it. Was it the research, literature review, data collection, writing up or the viva examination? It’s a difficult question because many people enjoy different aspects of it. A good way to answer this is by saying that you enjoyed the whole process because there were both highs and lows. You might also say that you learned a lot from the experience, and this was an enjoyable time for you. If you found a specific area particularly interesting, you should explain this to the examiners and explain why.

What change has this research brought in you?

This is a question that challenges you to demonstrate the value of your research to you as an individual. You don’t want to answer this question with a generic statement, such as “I have learned so much about this topic.” Show them how your research has changed your life! You should ideally highlight the essential skills you have gained over the period of doing the PhD. It would help if you also discussed some things that you did not know about the research area before embarking on a PhD.

Did the research process go as you planned it?

Every research process is different, and, in some cases, the entire process doesn’t go as per the plan. No matter how much research you’ve done before starting a project, there are going to be moments when things don’t go as planned. 

You should be ready to explain instances when the project derailed from the plan and how you got the project back on track. It is important to discuss what you did and how it impacted other aspects of the project. Early in the PhD process, some students find out that the thesis topic is not something they want to pursue or that the resources needed for the research can’t be obtained. If this happened or something similar, explain during the viva.

How much of your work was original research, and how much was secondary research? 

One of the questions that examiners will ask is what percentage of your work was original research and what percentage was secondary research.

To be awarded a PhD, you must have completed original research and made a significant contribution to knowledge. To answer this question, highlight the original research conducted and discuss the methods and approaches used for the study. You should also mention any secondary research or resources you used during your viva. Remember to give credit where it’s due! It is normal for your work to have built on some existing body of knowledge.

What is the key focus of your research?

This question seeks to understand what core research questions you have focused on for your PhD. You should be able to articulate this and discuss what your contributions were. You must establish the background of the research, why it was important, provide the context where necessary and help the examiners understand the main results. You should also, where possible, highlight some of the research focuses in your area but particularly focus on your research questions. 

Can you Summarize your thesis, please?

Similar to the question around the research focus, with this question, the examiners are interested in you explaining all about your research in a few minutes. 

You should highlight 

  • the background to the research
  • what your main research questions are
  • what methodologies and data collection techniques were used
  • what your contributions to knowledge were
  • main strengths and weaknesses of your research
  • how your research helps the world.


What original contribution has your thesis made to this field of study?

The examiner will invariably ask you what original contribution your thesis has made to this field of study. Remember, to earn a PhD; your research should have added new knowledge. One way to answer this question easily is by highlighting how your original research has improved knowledge in the field of study. What new thing do we know now as a result of your research? This could be a framework, a new theory, new datasets, new experiments or more. 

Suppose you are not able to pinpoint an original contribution. In that case, you should highlight the methodology used in the research and how it contributed to a better understanding of this field.




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