Defending your MSc or Final Project dissertation

The next few weeks we will be having the MSc oral exams in the CCE Division in which students will have to summarize and defend their work in front of the examination panel. I am sure every person has his own list of tips and “do’s and don’ts” on how to face these type of exams although a viva can go in many different directions depending on your work, the examiner and other factors. We all have heard the typical wise advice of “be relaxed, be confident, be prepared”, tips which might lead to the exact opposite: that would be panic.

What are you best tips for a successful viva?

Here are some random thoughts I had on this based on my experience which you might find useful or not towards preparing for you viva…

  • On the day of the exam you are very likely to be asked to summarize your work and contributions in a short period of time (5 or so minutes); this applies to all kinds of vivas including Final project, MSc or PhD. Remember that before you explain WHAT you did during the project you must explain WHY you think the topic is relevant. Think about the global context of your work and be aware of the practical applications.
  • Often you will be asked to discuss WHY you choose to follow one path or approach over another. You might be tempted to say “I did this because my supervisor told me to do so”. Although this might be true, this could be interpreted negatively as lack of engagement to the project. Instead, you could demonstrate your confidence and knowledge in the area by presenting the different methods that you contemplated and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each one. This will help you to justify your final choice.
  • In relation to the previous point, if you selected an approach during your project because it was simpler than others, you can sell it in many different ways; for example that this simpler approach would be more likely to be used in practice. Saying that you choose a method because it was the easiest and there was no time to do anything else sounds quite desperate and it might not reflect the amount of work you invested in the project. Focus on the positive aspects and identify the limitations of your work honestly but in a positive manner.
  • If you did not understand a question (partially or fully), don’t be afraid to ask the examiner to repeat the question. This can help you to gain some time to think about it and formulate your answer better. If you still don’t know the answer after the examiner has reformulated the question, be honest but don’t give up too easily. I think it is always better to give an incorrect answer with a certain logic behind it rather than simply give a blank answer. In some cases the examiner might give you some hints; try to grasp these lifesavers as they might help you to find the answer to the question.

Good luck in your exams!