PhD Exam Tips

Believe me or not, there is no written exam for a PhD, which is the highest academic qualification one can attain! So, why bother about tips then?

Well, having said that there is no written exam, PhD is perhaps the longest exam on its own, at the end of which you’d have written a big book, called a thesis, which no one is, perhaps, ever going to read, including yourself, after you have completed the studies. So, how to successfully go through this 3-4 years long exam and successfully manage to write the big book at the end (i.e., complete your PhD)? Well, a few good tips may help you stay on track and achieve the goal with confidence.

Define a clear problem right from the beginning

Your tutor may ask you to start working without a clear goal. In some places, it is assumed that you will soon find a problem (or, the topic) after you have done some random work. This is a big mistake in my opinion. I have literally seen students, without a clear topic, puzzled and even left the course half way through. You MUST have a clear path of action in mind (or, better on a piece of paper) before jumping into this deep pool.

Choose the right tutor

Not every professor who offer you to work with them is the right person to go with even if they belong to the same school where you intend to study for the PhD. Every field of knowledge has many further branches and not everyone in that broader field knows the fine details of each branch in the same field. Look at their past publications to get an idea if they have the right knowledge to guide you through the PhD.

Create a Project Plan for your PhD

Introduction to a project plan requires a separate article so, briefly, define your targets for year 1,2 and 3. Then work out a plan on how you will achieve those targets. Don’t worry if you have to change the course of action at some point during your PhD. It is NORMAL. Every good plan can change and there is a saying that all project plans are wrong, some are useful. Just make sure that you revise the plan and that it always ends on the final task of completion of writing the big book.

Attend conferences and write papers

Your tutor may or may not encourage you to do so, but as soon as you have enough data (or, even a novel result) get it published. In case of a novel idea, just check with the IP guys at your school first, as they might want to do something with it before you publish it. It takes a while to write a paper and get it through the publication process, so never leave it till the last days of your course. Finally, conferences are a great place to get new ideas, get to know other and to get you noticed in the crowd, so make the most of it.

Do teaching and lab assistantships

It not only gives you extra money, but is a valuable asset for you CV too. Also, you can learn some new things which you may not be aware of before.


At some places, it may be called a defence but at the end of the day they all serve the same purpose – check if you understand what you have written in the big book and, to a lesser extent, test your knowledge in the field. The questions in the viva highly depend on background of the external examiner(s). If possible, look at some of the recent papers of the examiner to familiarise yourself with what their opinions are regarding certain topics. Try not to contradict them unnecessarily. As a rule of thumb, you’d pass the viva unless the work done is worthless.

To find out more about how doing a PhD may feel like, Pile Higher and Deeper offers some good comics to learn from.

The author has obtained a PhD degree from a university in the UK.


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