Your oral defence: What to expect

The oral defence, sometimes called ‘viva voce’ (Latin for “with living voice”), is normally the final stage in the Ph.D. journey. Although by the time candidates reach this stage (especially in North American institutions) they will have completed the bulk of the work required to obtain the doctoral degree, this last step is an important and often quite emotional one.

At UVic, the oral defence will be scheduled after your thesis is complete, submitted, and distributed to your examination committee (this will include your supervisor, an internal examiner, and an external examiner). After completing the paperwork required to schedule the oral defense, you may feel pressure to prepare or, conversely, like things are now out of your hands. What can you do?

  • Read your work….again. After so much writing, revision, and editing, it can seem impossible to approach your work with fresh eyes, but it’s important to remember that your examiners will be seeing your work as a whole, and at one time. They won’t have insight into the painstaking construction process, and connections that may seem apparent or self-evident to you may not appear so to a new reader. This is the time to see the project as your examiners will encounter it.
  • Continue to read around your topic, lightly. Your thesis stands alone. You should have clearly marked “borders” around what your work does – and doesn’t – consider, and no one could expect you to integrate material emerging after submission or even after the writing stages are complete. However, it’s useful to stay current, and be aware that new material might be useful in the discussion portion of the oral defence.
  • Prepare your presentation. At UVic, you’ll have twenty minutes to present your work. This is quite a short period of time for this task. The challenge is to structure your presentation such that you offer your audience a coherent, cohesive, engaging view of what you’ve accomplished. Your assessment committee will have read your thesis and won’t necessarily need to be informed of it as you present; working to pull out the key elements of your work, without getting too detailed or derailed, is another form of demonstrating mastery over it.
  • Plan for questions. After your presentation, you will be asked questions on your work, first from your external examiner(s), then from internal(s), and then (if there is time) from members of the public audience. There is no way of knowing what you will be asked, but you can prepare in a few ways. Be able to speak to your project and the context in which it is situated. You know your thesis best. Be prepared to explain decisions, support structural and formal elements, and offer insight into how the project came to be. Write down likely questions, and anticipate tough ones and how you’ll react. Don’t ignore what you don’t want to discuss; if it comes up, you’ll be glad you prepared.
  • Release the idea that you must know everything. You are a doctoral candidate, not an all-knowing entity. You are expected to show expertise on your topic, but there may be questions that, for very good reasons, you can’t quite answer fully. Answer as best you can.
  • After questions are over, the committee will convene to determine the outcome. Your result will be one of four possibilities, two of which rarely happen.
    • You may pass without corrections. In this case, you have effectively just been granted your Ph.D. This happens very infrequently; in most cases some changes will need to be made.
    • You may pass with minor corrections. In this case, your committee will have found some minor errors, which can include stylistic issues, formatting inconsistencies, referencing problems, or something similar. You’ll be given a timeframe in which to make these changes and resubmit. Once the errors are fixed, you’ve passed.
    • You may pass with major corrections. The idea here is the same as the possibility above, but in this case the changes will be more significant – perhaps there are significant omissions from your literature review, or a more serious weakness in your methodology. You will be given a timeframe to make changes, and instruction on whom to resubmit to.
    • Your work may be deemed inadequate for the doctoral degree. It’s important to stress that in North American universities this almost never occurs – by the time the oral defence happens you will have demonstrated your capability to proceed to the final stages with your project.


Some people find the oral defence intimidating; others welcome the opportunity to ‘have the floor’ on their project, as the culmination of years of work. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, accept that this final stage is a very meaningful part of the process, and go into it prepared, knowledgeable, and practised. No matter how it goes, it’s likely to be a day that you won’t soon forget….

Page by Micaela Maftei. Last updated October 27, 2016.