Surviving the Viva: Tips and Reflections

Is this the only way? (HT the excellent XKCD

So, you’ve done it. Years of painstaking research. One thesis, a huge bouncing brain-baby, has been written, re-drafted, footnoted, formatted, and submitted. Only one thing stands between you and the sweet, sweet title ‘Dr.”

The Viva.

It’s hard to describe to somebody outside the academy the kind of symbolic power the Viva has over doctoral students. It’s a legendary rite of passage, the final hurdle, the moment when it could all get snatched away, all go unrewarded. It’s also the moment when the rules seem to change drastically: when the spoken word becomes more important than the printed one as the medium through which you must communicate your message. For a long time, we doctoral students have been trained to do not very much except sit and read and write. Sure, we present the odd conference paper, and sure, we might get asked one or two questions (which there’s always the option to parry with “Thank you for that interesting thought. I’d love to look into that more and I can certainly keep you posted.”) But to sit, possibly for hours, with two people who know everything there is to know within your field, and defend your ideas in exhaustive detail, verbally, knowing that they have the power to fail you? It can seem pretty terrifying. (See this blog post for a traditionally scaremongery approach: all ‘bullying’ and undertrained examiners.¬† )

The point of this blog post is to make the opposite argument. Don’t worry, the viva will probably be fine. It can even be fun.

It should go without saying, I’m not trying to set myself up as an expert in taking vivas. I have only ever done, and only ever intend to do, precisely one. I guess that’s pretty much the case with anyone, meaning that the viva is fundamentally different from a job interview (unless you’re in the habit of racking up PhDs in different subjects.) A real viva expert would be somebody who’s examined for hundreds, and I’d love any suggestions of frank pieces written from the examiner’s perspective. BUT, that’s just one perspective, and it’s not that of the students who are preparing to sit the viva. So, before the memory of my own viva fades completely away I thought it might be useful to share the things I wish I’d known in advance. Most of them will hopefully put pre-viva doctoral students at their ease and allow them to prepare a little better, and approach the whole experience in a more relaxed frame of mind, than I did.

(This blog post was originally delivered as a talk to PG students in Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy. It can be read in conjunction with my two recent posts ‘Writing up the PhD Thesis’ and ‘Applying for Academic Jobs’. I was doing all three around the same time, so there’s a fair amount of cross-referencing between the three of them! Normal caveats apply, in that this post is aimed at UK-based humanities PhDs, and represents only my own personal experience. I am sorry that it can’t address the issues of how to deal with getting major corrections or failing outright (or about passing with no corrections!) I don’t have the experience or authority to address these eventualities.)

(1) Choose your examiners well.

It’s possible that you won’t get a say in who your internal and external examiner are. In that case, don’t worry; trust your supervisor to make a good choice; skip this section. But if your supervisor involves you in the decision-making process, then I’d urge you to take advantage of the opportunity to choose well. Pick people, both within your department and without, whose work you admire and whom you know will be able to speak knowledgeably about the subject on which you have written. Sorry to say this, but you should probably have read most, if not all, of what they have written.

In addition, it will not seem top of your list at the time, but you should try to think strategically about your examiners, as they will be the people giving you employment references (unless you have a job already) – so you want a person with a very good reputation in their field. Finally, it might not hurt to pick somebody whom you have met, even if only briefly, and you think seems like a nice person. That’s actually not the most important thing, by a long stretch. But it can’t hurt.

(2) Familiarise yourself with the timescale – practicalities matter!

When picking your examiners and scheduling your viva, there will be some practicalities about who is actually available, where and when, and at what expense. At York, the viva generally took place about two months after submission. It was generally agreed that it was ideal for both examiners to be in the same room as the candidate, but familiarity with Skype was now meaning that, as long as both examiners were happy, one could be skyped in. I was told, however, that it was vastly preferable for the external examiner to be in the same room as the candidate, since they generally led the questioning. Though this does differ – a good friend of mine was in the room with her internal examiner and had her external skype in from Australia, and that all went marvellously.

I was always keen to have a particular person as my internal examiner, so that was an easy choice. My own experience of identifying an external examiner was relatively simple, but still required a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. My top choice for external examiner was located in California, so it was originally felt that we could not ask her. We turned to discuss a UK-based potential external, who would have been amazing and was keen to examine, but was not available til about six months after my submission date. That was too long for me. Then suddenly I got notice that I had been successful in my application for a two-month fellowship in California immediately after my thesis submission date, meaning that I could travel to my top choice external’s institution and conduct the viva there at the end of my fellowship. We were able to ask her, and she said yes. My preferred internal examiner confirmed that he was also happy to do it and was happy to Skype from York. Sorted.

As I said above, this was relatively simple. I have many friends for whom by far the most stressful part of the viva was finding the right external examiner and getting them in the right place at the right time. Illness, diary schedules, last-minute objections to bureaucratic requirements… all often conspired to mean that the weeks before the viva were spent chopping and changing, and stressing over who would actually be asking the questions come the fateful day. I guess all I can recommend here is to anticipate these issues, develop a shortlist of your ideal external examiners early on, and speak to your supervisor about it very early, constantly reminding them if you think it’s slipped their mind.

You’ve submitted – you’ve got the examiners in place – what now?

3) Read your thesis again in advance of the viva. Maybe twice. But be prepared for it to be painful.

Advice differs about when, or whether, to re-read your thesis before the viva. I have a friend who said he just skimmed his Introduction and Conclusion the night before. On the other end of the scale, I read a blog post by a student who went into her viva with a lengthy printed list of minor corrections that she had identified herself, to show to her examiners. To me the first option seems very brave (and I mean that in a Sir Humphrey way) and the latter seems excessive (and also might be shooting yourself in the foot, because the examiners may only flag up a few corrections, in which case it looks like you’re telling them they haven’t done their job properly…)

I speed-read my thesis a week after handing it in, because I wanted to put my mind at rest that there weren’t any pages missing or huge clangers. Once I’d had a few days of good sleep and could bear to pick it up again, I skimmed it, peeping through my fingers horror-film-style. I highlighted the typos and what I felt were the weak sections. Then, with a huge feeling of relief (the viva still seemed so far away…) I put it back on the shelf and got on with other stuff.

When the viva was about two weeks away, I visited it again. I went through it more slowly and decided the typos were (relatively) unimportant. I then pulled out about ten substantial sections that I thought were the weakest points of my argument, and that I’d get challenged on, and I thought about these in detail. Why were they weak? What would I have done differently if I had my time again? How could I improve them? I practiced acknowledging the thesis’s faults, articulating its strengths and defending its contentious assertions.

4) Think about the afterlife of the thesis.

By this point I was getting some good advice from fellow readers at the library where I was researching in the weeks before the viva, many of whom had done the same thing not too long ago. One oft-repeated piece of advice was that, all being well, the examiners would actually focus far more closely on my future plans for the monograph than on its detailed content. So I drew up a one-page plan for how I thought I might turn it into a monograph (although others may favour a series of articles). How would I need to change the structure, the title and the scope? What further research would I need to do? Which publishers would I approach? (This was made a lot easier by the fact I’d been making a similar kind of presentation in recent job interviews!)

5) Consider a mock viva… but don’t feel you have to do one.

I was worried that I might need a mock viva, and that as I was away from York I wouldn’t be near the academics I’d usually approach to ask for one (chiefly, of course, my supervisor.) I asked Academic Twitter how much of a disaster it would be not to have a mock viva, and was quite surprised by the results. It was a fairly even 50-50 split between those who thought a mock viva a good idea and those who thought it was actually a bad one. The former thought it might give me good practice in framing my arguments succinctly and convincingly. The latter thought that mock vivas misled candidates into feeling they now knew what to expect, but that examiners’ techniques differed so radically that they might be totally thrown by a different approach in the real thing.

Armed with these opinions, and with my dilemma weighted by the fact I was thousands of miles away from my supervisor and other academics in my department, I decided not to ask for a mock viva. As I noted earlier, I felt that job applications and interviews were giving me plenty of practice in describing my research succinctly (though for those who are doing their viva before going on the job market, you’d obviously find yourselves in a different situation). I asked my supervisor a few key questions in an email about what she thought I might expect and, along with my own notes, depended on that.

At this point I’d like to say to any readers who are in the early stages of a PhD: take every opportunity you are offered to speak about your research. Present at conferences and PG forums and research seminars. Chat with your friends. Hector your supervisor. Just get used to speaking about your arguments. I promise you, it is an investment you won’t regret when you get to the viva.

6) Arrive prepared.

I don’t mean intellectually, I mean physically. Try to get a good night’s sleep (okay, easier said than done!) Have a good hearty breakfast – eggs on toast and a banana, or whatever else floats your boat. Drink a substantial but not ludicrous amount of coffee, if you’re a caffeine person.

I’m not sure it matters what you wear as long as it’s reasonably smart. I wore a dress and sandals (California weather, y’all….) My external examiner wore a pant suit and my internal examiner, in the Skype screen, was wearing a shirt. There you go. Make of that what you will!

Bring water. Bring paper and a pen. And bring – for goodness’ sake, bring – a printed copy of your thesis. Printed exactly as your examiners have it.

And turn your phone off.

7) Don’t be thrown.

So you’re sitting in a room with your two examiners (one of them perhaps peering from the Skype box on a computer screen), who are both holding copies of your thesis. The external examiner opens her mouth to begin.

She may or may not tell you that you’ve passed straight away. Whichever of these things happens, do not let it throw you off your stride.

My external told me straight away that they thought it was a good piece of work and were happy to endorse it, which I took to mean that I had passed. My first feeling was immense relief, but my second – less welcome – was absolute numbing exhaustion. I had come into the room all geared up to defend, to convince, to be passionate about my work, and now I knew straight away that I had passed and by god, I just wanted a beer and a cigarette and fourteen hours’ sleep.

But of course – quite rightly – they still wanted to talk.

It’s a first-world problem, I admit. But look, my point is, you should be prepared for either eventuality. If they tell you that you’ve passed straight away, be prepared for that wave of exhaustion and to nonetheless remain bright-eyed and alert. If they launch straight into questioning without telling you that you’ve passed, don’t start trembling with fear. Be aware that either of these things could happen and it doesn’t necessarily mean much – it’s just the examiner’s preferred method.

Once we had cleared that, and I had pulled myself together, we spent about an hour talking. Both my examiners were very pleasant and very learned and very insightful. They asked me to describe briefly what the argument of my thesis was, and what contribution it made to my field. They asked me how I felt about it now that I had had some time to reflect, and what my future plans were for it. They then proceeded to go through the chapters in order, each examiner asking one question about each chapter. Usually these were very broad questions about the place of a particular author or observation in my argument, often hedged with helpful reading suggestions or ideas for a direction that I could take that point in the future. They seemed mainly to be interested in drawing my ideas outwards, in making them more ambitious and expansive, and getting me to draw new connections between various parts of my work.

Of course, that is not to say they didn’t have criticisms. For example, they both agreed that in my Conclusion and my Appendix I used an inappropriately colloquial tone for a thesis. Completely fair point. I found the following formulation very useful when faced with a constructive criticism: “I can absolutely see what you mean, and I think if I had my time again I’d do x x and x differently. Moving forward with a monograph, I think I’ll try to x.”

8) Listen carefully to what your examiners say – and write their points down!

You know what’s really easy to do? Listen to an examiner ask a long, complex, interesting question, and sit there nodding. And then when they look at you expectantly for an answer, to realise you’ve forgotten the lot. Jot a few notes down. Read them back over. Think about how to get to the heart of the question they’re asking. And then answer.

9) Use your examiners. Ask them questions.

You know what? I reckon it’s relatively rare that you get to sit in a room with two world experts who have read a long piece of your work, and ask them questions about it. I also reckon it’s pretty valuable. So, ask them questions. About why they were unconvinced by something. About how they’d suggest improving it. About how they would go about developing and placing and publishing this project. Ask them which scholars you still need to find out about, what new work you might have missed.

You might even enjoy this bit. I did.

10) Make sure you know what happen next.

Once an examiner looks at her watch and says, “Well, I guess that’s pretty much….” you may want to weep/scream/run out of the room. But wait. You need to be totally crystal clear on whether you’ve passed and with what. I think my exact words were “Please can I just confirm for the record that I have passed with minor corrections?” After that was confirmed, I spoke to my internal examiner for a couple of minutes about what I had to do next in the way of implementing and submitting those minor corrections. This will be the last thing you want to do at that moment, but it’s worth getting straight in your head.

11) Treat yourself.

One or both examiners might invite you for a coffee, or lunch, or a drink. Or they might be busy and send you, newly doctored, out to meet your friends. You might want to pop the bubbly, you might want to catch up on sleep, you might want to chill out with loved ones. Either way, enjoy it. This is Doctor Day!

I think the note I’d like to finish on is this: a successful viva can be just an amazing chat. I will not go as far as to say that it is just a chat, because different examiners do things differently, and some vivas might be far more formal, or intense, or critical, than mine was. But many people I know have had a similar experience to me, and we all agreed that we got far too worked up about it in advance. With that in mind: good luck. And try to enjoy it!