Today marks the first anniversary since my PhD viva, so I thought it would be a good time to look back and offer my experience for anyone who is coming up for their viva. I found this account of someone else’s recent viva rang quite a few bells with me – the whole site is worth a read as there are lots of viva tales there.
I eventually submitted my thesis in December 2010, the submission was not without drama as the day I had planned on being my last day of finishing up before taking it into town for binding was rudely interrupted by a burst pipe meaning that I had to put the thesis on hold to run up and down a ladder from bedroom to bathroom emptying and replacing the buckets on top of the wardrobe (my husband said all I needed was giant comedy foam feet and I would have looked like a contestant in ‘It’s a Knockout’/’Jeux sans Frontieres’) (now there’s a reference for the ’70s kids amongst us!). Luckily the department and university were very understanding (helped by the fact that the originally planned submission day was the day the faculty receiving office were moving offices themselves so they were also in complete chaos) and let me submit a day late.
The drama continued with the eventual viva date, which was originally scheduled for 17th March, St Patrick’s Day. 2-3 weeks before I was informed that there would be a UCU Scotland one day strike on, you guessed it, 17th March, which meant that at the very least I wouldn’t have an internal examiner or a chair! There was some suggestion of making it a couple of weeks later, but I had already taken the annual leave for that week and had arranged for cover for clinics, etc, so in the end we all agreed to hold the viva the day before, on the 16th. This did leave me with a day less to prepare, but on the plus side it also left me with a day less to flap and panic.
Work (both clinical practice and my OU work) was quite busy at the time, including if I recall correctly having to do an OU tutorial the Saturday before the viva, so I didn’t actually feel like I was able to put everything to one side and concentrate on the viva till the weekend before the Wednesday viva. (I had of course been flicking through the thesis for a week or so beforehand, but due to work this wasn’t very concentrated reading). I was worried that that wouldn’t be anything like enough time, but in the end had to just make the best of it. Over the weekend I did a full read-through of the thesis, this was useful for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and most mortifyingly for a grammar/spelling nerd like me, I spotted I don’t know how many typos, and wrote every last one down. Secondly though, and more encouragingly, I had quite a few “ooh did I write that, that sounds really good!” moments which did wonders for my confidence. Also, I found that reading the thesis all the way through reminded me of why I wanted to do the PhD in the first place, why my subject was important and why I was the best person (though I say so myself!) to research it. After that I did another full read-through, this time with various lists of potential viva questions garnered from friends and the internet, although of course I realised that the questions I would get would be much more specific. This was a useful exercise as although in the end not a single one of those questions was asked, it had got me into the vibe of thinking about justifying and defending the thesis and generally blowing my own trumpet.
On the day itself, the viva was scheduled for 1.30pm. I went to the university in the morning, via the Cathedral down the road (I found Morning Prayer really really calming!), getting to the library about 10am. I settled down in my chosen spot (on the floor where my department’s collection was; I think I was hoping that would help me gain academic gravitas by osmosis, but in any case the quiet calm atmosphere certainly helped! Being a reasonably small department, and on a floor without an amazing view unlike higher up floors, it wasn’t full of whispering students so I could fully concentrate). I read through my introduction, methodology chapter and conclusion in full, and also skimmed through my background theory and literature review chapters. I didn’t have time to also read through my three empirical chapters, but felt that I knew them well and that I was most likely to be asked knotty questions around methodology and theoretical background, as well as where my research fitted in the wider literature. By the time I had done that it was coming up to lunchtime, and that’s when I started feeling sick! I knew it was only nerves, but those two hours before the viva started were really horrible! I don’t think there’s any way around that, you just have to get through it.
When I went in, I had already decided to take off my watch. This meant that I didn’t keep looking at my wrist every 5 minutes, and so I found I could relax pretty quickly. It also meant that I was really taken by surprise when they said “this is the final question” – like the student whose account I linked to above, it really did feel like I’d only been there about half an hour, although mine in the end took about an hour and a quarter all told. My examiners were great, they tried hard from the beginning to make me feel at ease and this meant that it was much easier to relax and start to enjoy the experience. I really appreciated having the chance to discuss my work with people who had actually read it all as a whole, and because I was relaxed I didn’t feel too fazed when I was asked the odd unexpected question. I did find that aspects that I expected to be asked about passed by with barely a comment, whereas other things which I had thought were peripheral were asked about in some detail. Luckily I knew enough to be able to answer most things confidently, and I didn’t feel worried when for one question I had to say “I don’t know” – it was on a peripheral issue (which I now can’t even remember) so we just left it at that.
Once the questions were finished I had about 30-40 minutes I think where I had to wait for the decision. One of my supervisors had an office above the office where the viva had taken place, so I took refuge there and my supervisors gave me chocolate (this was possibly the best bit of the day, particularly since it was the middle of Lent so I hadn’t actually eaten any choc for a few weeks!). I definitely recommend getting someone on hand with goodies for that waiting period! It was interesting comparing my reactions (I think I sat there gormlessly) with a fellow student who’d had her viva the week before, who had apparently been pacing up and down like a caged lion!Eventually I was called back in, congratulated and given my list of minor corrections. Because I’d gone through the thesis with a fine toothcomb and identified all the typos already, it meant that the corrections list included a sentence along the lines of “the candidate should correct the typographical errors she has identified”, rather than 6 pages of individual typos! Most of the corrections were around providing a bit more detail in some areas (mainly the contextual background and aspects of the methodology), and in blowing my own trumpet a bit more around the thesis’ contribution. I was given a month to do the corrections, which was great as it meant that I could graduate in the summer ceremony rather than having to wait till November, and also meant that I could get it done and dusted and enjoy the rest of the year. We also had a brief discussion about where I might want to go from here, in terms of publishing (one examiner felt the thesis could, with some work, be reworked into a monograph; not something I particularly wanted to do but it was encouraging to have the discussion! We also discussed potential topics for journal articles). Then it was champagne time 😀
So there we are, that’s my experience. I’m grateful to my examiners for making it such an enjoyable experience, and for the opportunities that having the PhD has given me since. I hope this account gives encouragement to others getting close to their own viva – good luck!