As I mentioned in my previous post, I had my PhD viva last week. In the weeks leading up to it, I spent a considerable amount of time reading posts about other people’s experiences. You don’t have to go far down the search results to find the awful stories about it all going wrong, and four years of research going out of the window – these stories are probably the most widely read viva experiences, and yet the chances of anything similar happening are pretty remote, assuming that you’ve done the work yourself and made some contribution to your field, however small, and that your supervisor thinks you’re ready to submit. So, I decided to post about my viva experience in the hope that someone else finds it useful as they wait for their own exam.
I submitted by thesis at the end of April – This took a real push, as I could have extended the writing-up phase indefinitely if left to my own device. I constantly felt that it just needed a bit more work, so I was still adding material when I really should have been cutting it down and tidying it up. Eventually, my supervisor encouraged me to just give my notice of intent to submit and get it boxed off. This turned out to be the push I needed to finish it, and though I got it submitted in time, I was working right down to the deadline making changes. After this, I didn’t look at my thesis at all. I went on a short holiday, did some other work, and allowed myself to do other things I hadn’t had time for, such as making music and doing things with family.
I had the viva date confirmed for the 9th of July, and started preparing 3 weeks beforehand. The first thing I did was to re-print my thesis and put it in a file, and then collected various highlighters and post-notes of different colours. I then read my thesis for the first time in 2 months. It was important that I’d had this break as it meant I had a fresh perspective; I spotted a lot of typos and other errors which I’d been completely unaware of when submitting, and also noticed other things, such as opportunities for further research, weak points in the argument, good points which should have been reinforced or worded differently, and so on. I marked any errors with red pen, and then assigned a post-it and highlighter colour for four areas I’d look for:
1. Key points and findings – anything which leads to and supports my conclusion
2. Originality – anything new or novel
3. Gaps and limitations – any weak points, limitations with the research model or thesis
4. Opportunities and wider application – any ideas, findings or suggestions which could be taken further in future research
As I went through the thesis looking for these four points, marking examples in the text and writing a few notes on post-its, I tried to think of any questions I might be asked, and added these to a list. If I had any responses on post-it notes, or within the thesis, I added the page numbers to these questions so I could find the material again later.
I probably went through the thesis, in this level of detail, three times over the next couple of weeks. During this time, I had a mock viva with my supervisor, which was useful as it gave me an idea of the kind of specific questions I might get asked. Having something of a tendency towards pessimism, many of my proposed questions were unrealistically aggressive, so I was put at ease by the line of questioning my supervisor took, which was aimed at promoting discussion rather than finding faults.
I then made a list of questions I might get asked, and added notes and page numbers from my thesis to help me answer them. There are lots of examples of viva questions online – You will often be asked to start by describing your thesis briefly, and will almost certainly be asked about your methodological model. Some questions will be specific to your thesis, so it’s a good idea to come up with a list of your own questions as well as some general ones. I had a few pages of these, and worked on notes and page numbers for all of them. I also had some other notes, such as a summary of my findings across all of my studies, a summary of each chapter, some abbreviated useful quotes which would be central to my argument with their page numbers in the thesis, and so on. All these notes, and my annotated thesis, were what I used to revise. I would look up a question at random and then give an answer to an imaginary panel. If I struggled with any question, I made more notes on this subject. This was a useful process, as it highlighted certain things I wouldn’t have expected to find difficult; for example, I knew my findings, but struggled to summarise them concisely. I spent a lot of time going on walks and fixing these details in my mind during these couple of weeks, and I think this paid off.
I’d been making sure to maintain a regular sleeping pattern, get up early, exercise etc. so I actually felt quite well rested when the viva came around. The day before the viva (a Sunday), I saw family, went for a walk, did a few things I enjoyed and took a break from my thesis and revision, so I didn’t feel too stressed out. I generally have difficulty sleeping at the best of times, so I didn’t have high hopes for the night before the viva, but I think having a day off helped me to relax. I felt that I’d prepared as well as I could so I didn’t feel anxious.
My viva was scheduled for 10.30am Monday, so I got up at 5am. I have an unshakeable belief in sod’s law, so I was fully expecting some sort of commuting catastrophe, and set off just after 6am to allow lots of time. This got me in before 7am, so I checked I had everything then had a walk around the park while I waited for the building in which my exam would take place to open. At 8am, I got in an set up the room how I wanted it – I had some software to set up for demonstration, and some tablets and other resources I wanted to use, so I set these up and arranged the tables. Below is a photo taken later on by my supervisor, of the view from the room I was in – As it happens, my dad was working on that building site that day just over the other side of the river. If he’d brought some binoculars, he could have checked how it was going:
At about 9.45am, a caterer arrived with some coffee and pastries, and the external examiner at about 10am. I was a bit nervous about meeting my external examiner, who is a prominent academic from my field who had come over from Cambridge University. I was glad that they arrived early, as I was able to have a chat with them, and this put me at ease. My supervisor later arrived, along with the internal examiner and the chair.
The chair introduced the session, and myself and my supervisor left for a few minutes while they discussed the agenda. I then was called back in, demonstrated the software and was asked the questions. This all took about 2 hours. The questions were tough but encouraging – it was mostly aimed at extending ideas rather than finding faults with them. I defended certain points, such as the methodological and analytical model I’d used, and the implications of the findings, and conceded certain other points which I knew would involve minor corrections, such as unclear definitions and possible additions, diagrams etc. As the exam went on, we began to discuss possibilities for future research, so I was pretty certain by this point that I’d passed. I was asked to step out again for a few minutes, and was called back in to be told that I’d passed at A2, which means a few minor corrections. A1 means pass with no corrections, which I understand almost never happens. My supervisor had been confident that I’d get an A2 after the mock exam, and it turned out he was right.
After the exam, the caterer brought lunch in, and we all chatted for a while until the external examiner had to catch their train back to Cambridge. They had some very nice things to say about my research. All in all, I couldn’t have hoped for it to go much better than it did. I was glad I’d prepared for it, and thought about the amount of time I’d spent fretting about it. For anyone else who’s viva is coming up, I’d say don’t get worried, just get ready. It was a really enjoyable experience – after all, how often do you get to discuss something you’re passionate about, that you’ve worked on for 3 or 4 years and become an expert in, to an interested specialist audience?
I don’t have any photos of the viva itself, but I did present some of my work for the Festival of Research at Salford yesterday, so here are a couple of photos from that: