Surviving the Viva

Email: d.l.a.flack@reading.ac.uk

Recently in the department we have had a fair number of students submitting their PhD theses and awaiting or completing their viva.

For many students at the start of the PhD the viva seems a long way off and can often be thought of as a terrifying experience. So why then do many PhD students come out of their viva saying that they enjoyed it? and is it really as XKCD portray it?

MY RESULTS ARE A SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENT ON THE STATE OF THE AAAAAAAAAAAART
Thesis defense according to XKCD

With the help of some former PhD students (Hannah Bloomfield, Sammie Buzzard, Hannah Gough and Leo Saffin) we’ve come up with a summary of our own experiences and some advice for people just about to go in.

But before I get into that I’ll briefly explain a little bit about the viva. The viva is (alongside writing the thesis) the examination for the PhD. Its essentially an oral exam where you sit and talk about your thesis and the area surrounding your field. The viva can last anywhere between 90 minutes and 5 hours, depending on how much you have to talk about (and how much you or your examiners talk). The result from the viva is as follows: Fail; Major Corrections requiring another viva; Pass: Major corrections; Pass: Minor corrections (the most common) and Pass: No corrections (very rare), and at the end of the day it’s the pass or fail that matters.

So what can you expect from a viva? Well, as with each PhD each viva is different (hence why this post is a collaborative effort). Even people’s nerves are different, some go in feeling confident, whilst others are still fairly nervous about it (which of course is very understandable). I certainly was in the nervous camp, but I would have been disappointed if I wasn’t because I always feel I perform better if I am nervous beforehand. Indeed, many of us who are initially nervous become relaxed as soon as we get into the swing of things and the questions start flowing. Furthermore, many examiners (not all) will know and understand that you will be nervous so will immediately put you at ease by saying something along the lines of “I really enjoyed reading your thesis and you don’t need to be worried about the result.” This last statement is probably key for anyone going into the viva – by the time it gets to the viva your examiners have already decided the result, the viva is mainly to check that you did the work.

Looking at the recent experiences of the PhD students I have broadly classified the viva into three types, Presentation,Traditional” and Thesis covering described below.

Presentation (Hannah Gough):

Hannah was asked to produce a presentation for her viva. She did find this useful as it was a good way to settle into the viva and bring across the aims and key conclusions of her thesis, at the same time highlight what she felt was the most important figures in her thesis. After the presentation, the examiners asked questions on her entire thesis. These ranged from points of clarification, to the wider implications of her work.

Traditional” (Hannah Bloomfield, Sammie Buzzard and Leo Saffin):

The more “traditional” viva asks you to summarise your thesis for the first 3-5 minutes and then goes through the thesis asking about wider implications and where your work fits in, basic theory, parts of the thesis they are unsure about and implications of your work (amongst other things).

Thesis covering (myself):

Essentially, all we did was go through my thesis cover-to-cover discussing bits specifically related to my project (some minor wider implications/knowledge) and comments that they had on my work.

So why do people enjoy the viva then? Well, there is a fairly simple answer to this question. You’ve been doing work for between three and four years and now you get to discuss it in detail and the examiner can see that you know what you are talking about and will often ask some interesting and thought provoking questions that you either haven’t considered or didn’t necessarily view as important.

Other things that are worth mentioning about the viva, before going on to our collective advice, is that most of the time (unless you spend a while talking about basics of your area) the viva doesn’t feel it is taking as long as it actually is (2 hours feels like 15 minutes – I’m not just saying that, it really does!) – it’s essentially the old saying “time flies when you are having fun”.

So, that’s a brief overview of the viva and our experiences, so how do you actually survive it? Our collective advice would be as follows:

  1. You are the expert in your thesis – so don’t panic – your examiners don’t know as much about what you did as you do.
  2. The examiners are not there to trick you, they are just checking that you did your work – they’ve already made the pass/fail decision.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for breaks from time to time (your examiners may want a break too).
  4. Don’t look at the clock (if there is one in the room). All you will then do is think about how long you have been in the viva.
  5. Bring food (biscuits, etc) and enough to share with your examiners.
  6. Prepare a simple 3-5 minute overview of your thesis and know it well – generally you will be asked to summarise your thesis.
  7. It can be useful to read a couple of your external examiners papers – just to find out a little bit about them at the very least.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to be explained in more detail so you know exactly what they want.
  9. Eat something before you go in no matter how bad you feel.
  10. Try and get a good night’s sleep beforehand.
  11. Don’t be afraid to say how you would do things differently, after having had time to look back at it.
  12. You are the expert in your thesis – so don’t panic – your examiners don’t know as much about what you did as you do.

With that all I can say if you are facing a viva soon is good luck.

A special thanks to all the former PhD students that helped provide information for this blog: Hannah Gough, Hannah Bloomfield, Samantha Buzzard and Leo Saffin.

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