By Laura Harrison |
Whether or not it is true, it can often feel like your whole PhD is heading towards one moment – the viva. I became a #vivasurvivor this past May so thought I would share my experiences and thoughts about the process in the hope that it may alleviate some fears out there. For the sake of transparency, I had a good viva – my examiners were very knowledgeable about my thesis and their feedback was positive and useful, but I did get some corrections that were beyond just typos. When people tell stories about vivas it tends to be amazing (‘she got offered a job in the middle of it!’) or terrifying (‘he failed his second viva!’), so hopefully my middle-of-the-road viva offers a more realistic picture.
I basically had three phases of prep. First, I read through my entire thesis and noted down any typos I found. Phase two was revisiting the conclusions to each section and noting down my main arguments, so I felt confident articulating the contributions of the thesis. Finally, I collated a list of a bunch of viva questions that I found online and the day before the event I went through and answered each one. I would really recommend this as it made me feel like I had at least considered an answer for most of the general questions that could come my way. A lot of examiners begin by asking either ‘how did you come to this topic?’ or ‘what are the main contributions of this thesis?’. I also prepared answers to these so I felt confident about my first answer (if nothing else). Altogether I think my prep probably took about three days. I did not do a mock viva, and I don’t regret that choice, though I also know people who have said it was really useful for them.
My viva happened to occur following a week where my time was split between a holiday in Barcelona and a conference in Oxford and throughout all of it I had a terrible cold. My pre-viva holiday to Barcelona was a happy accident, but I have since recommended it to everyone I know since it was very hard to be stressed about the viva when I was sitting by the sea drinking sangria. However, as soon as I touched down in the UK I began to fret. The conference was also a good distraction, but the sangria was better.
The Day Of
I was lucky that my viva was in the morning so I didn’t have to kill too much of the day, but I would suggest having a plan to fill your time. I met my supervisor for coffee and I remember absolutely nothing about our conversation, but it was very effective in terms of allowing me to talk about anything besides the viva. He also walked me to the viva itself and was joking with me before we went in. A friend could also fill this role!
In terms of the viva itself, it took a long time afterwards for me to actually remember anything about the conversation, which is not uncommon from the people I talked to. I had a constant internal monologue that was questioning how it was going and that is still the overwhelming thing I remember about the whole event. Some things stick out, however:
- Ahead of time my supervisor advised me to write down each question and take a moment to think about my answer. I tried this method with the first question and it just gave me time to freak out so I ditched that and launched straight into all my answers. I think this shows that however you want to approach answering the questions is totally fine.
- My examiners did not focus on the parts of my thesis that I thought they would. I was concerned my explanation of my methodology had some serious holes, but they were totally happy with it. They had more concerns with the historiography, which I thought was really strong. I think it is important to go in expecting anything and see where the conversation is going.
- Another good piece of advice I got was to not be afraid to defend your decisions. For example, at one point we discussed the structure of the thesis and I was able to clearly articulate why it was set up that way, and the various iterations that hadn’t work on the way to get there. I also pushed back a bit in a discussion of the time frame my thesis encapsulated, and my examiners were happy to take my point. There is a massive tendency to just make your examiners happy by agreeing to everything they say, but you know your thesis better than anyone. If you feel like maybe they are missing something in your decision-making process then point it out (respectfully, of course).
The biggest thing that was said to me before my viva from people who had already had theirs was ‘I really enjoyed mine!’. Let me just say that I did not enjoy mine. Like I said, it went really well and there is absolutely no reason I shouldn’t have, but I spent the whole time so incredibly stressed that mostly I was just relieved when it was over. So, just in case no one else says this to you, it is totally fine if you don’t enjoy your viva.
Due to the aforementioned stress, I was an emotional husk after my viva. I roamed the halls of the department for ten minutes before I remembered that I actually did have friends who were waiting for me. I also needed to talk it out A LOT before I felt like it actually went well – even though it absolutely did! You are probably going to feel really weird afterwards, so it is a good idea to have a plan – I went out for ice cream with my friends – but it is also good to factor in a bit of alone time. I went home for a few hours and just processed everything, so I was ready to head back out for celebrations later that night.
Overall, everyone’s experience is different and there is no telling what yours will be like until you actually go through it. I think keeping an open mind as to any outcome really helped me going into it. The viva can be an emotional time but that is because it is the culmination of a lot of time and effort – enjoy the moment and good luck!
Laura Harrison is the founder of Pubs and Pubs. You can follow her attempts to navigate ECR life on Twitter @laurasharrison.
Image 1: flickr; Image 2: pixabay; Image 3: Laura Harrison