The Viva Exam
This post was written by Niamh Brown. Niamh has just completed her PhD in English Literature. Her thesis examined the exchange of ideas and images between scientific texts and religious poetry in the nineteenth-century. She had her viva examination in December and is currently completing her corrections. After the stress that accompanies the last few months before thesis submission, it can feel like there’s barely a moment to breathe before the viva begins to loom. However, for all the build-up and fear, for me the viva turned out to be one of the most straightforward parts of the whole PhD. I’m not saying I’d happily repeat the experience, but at the very least I feel a bit silly about how nervous I was beforehand. In the hope of reassuring anyone with a looming viva, I’m going to talk a bit about how I prepared and what happened in my viva, and give some reasons why vivas are actually not that bad.
In the two months I had to prepare, I took a couple of weeks off (a very important step!), then re-read my thesis once thoroughly and once very quickly. That was probably the most painful bit; despite my best efforts before submitting, a few typos and less than optimal sentences had slipped into the final copy. Each error further convinced me that I was going to fail my viva. However, it was important to re-acquaint myself with my work before I tried to start answering questions about it. I practiced questions with an expert in my field (my supervisor) and someone with limited knowledge of my topic (my aunt). I also looked up some articles on vivas, and practiced the questions they suggested. Even when practicing alone, I gave my answers aloud to get used to expressing verbally ideas I was more used to discussing in writing. One thing I didn’t do during the practices was rehearse answers word for word, have flashcards, or anything else like that; a viva is a conversation, not a presentation. That said, for a couple of the very common questions, I had a few bullet-points ready in my mind that I could expand upon as necessary. In terms of other preparatory reading, I looked over the UofG viva guidance notes to get an idea of what to expect, what the process was and what the examiners had to do. I also selected a handful of the most important critical texts from my bibliography and re-read them to remind myself of my thesis’ influences and its place in the field. One of the most important things examiners are looking for in the viva is evidence that you recognise how your work contributes to the field, so it is worth taking the time to do this. When my examiners were confirmed, I read over some of their more recent work, to familiarise myself with their approaches. A couple of days in advance, I went to the location to ensure I knew where it was. On the day, I focused on keeping my stress levels as low as possible and making sure I would be at my best for the exam. I had a good night’s sleep and a lie-in, did no studying, chose a reasonably smart but comfortable viva outfit, and had a light meal beforehand. And that was it. A lot of that sounds obvious and too simple – because it is. You’ve already done the bulk of the work, and preparing for the viva is mostly a matter of reminding yourself what your thesis is about and why it matters.
At the Viva
Despite fears about monstrous examiners, four-hour long ordeals, or re-submitting for an MRes, my viva took about an hour and a quarter, the examiners weren’t scary at all, and I passed with some corrections. The conversation part lasted about fifty minutes, then I waited for a further ten minutes while the examiners conferred, and finally they spent about fifteen minutes talking me through the corrections and what would happen next. You may have heard horror stories about three- or four-hour vivas, but in Arts especially, you’re unlikely to have one last much more than two hours. The chair, whose job it is to facilitate and make sure everything goes fairly and smoothly, had been in touch beforehand to introduce himself and answer any questions. I was already vaguely personally acquainted with my examiners, so I knew they were humane, friendly people whose general methodologies and specialisms were broadly in keeping with my own. However, even if I hadn’t known my examiners already, I had discussed my options with my supervisor and trusted that she would help me select a board who would suit my disposition and research style. Despite my fears to the contrary, I was reassured that no one would tear my thesis apart, no matter the outcome. During the conversation, there were some questions I had practised and some that were total surprises, but nothing I couldn’t answer. It would be an overstatement to say I enjoyed it, but I found the questions to be the right kind of challenging, and I appreciated that this conversation would probably be the most in-depth one I’m likely ever to have about my thesis, so I tried to make the most of it.
A few things to keep in mind
- Have faith in your work, your supervisors, and the numbers
It’s very unlikely that you’ll get to the viva and find that something is terribly wrong with your thesis. There are safety nets in place throughout your PhD to check you are on track, such as the APRs and most importantly the supervisions. Your supervisors are in the best position to notice if something is going awry in your research, and they should be able to help you rectify the situation before you submit. After all your years of hard work, your thesis is almost certainly very good. If it feels unsatisfactory to you, that is likely because you are intimately familiar with it, while your examiners are coming to it entirely fresh. They won’t necessarily see what you consider to be a flaw in the same light, and if they do, they probably won’t be as distressed by it as you are. Finally, remember that the overwhelming majority of PhD candidates pass their viva. Statistically, if you make it to submission, your chances of failing are extremely small, so take comfort in the fact that the numbers are on your side.
- A viva isn’t a driving test
Unlike a driving test, where failing to check your mirrors at a crucial moment can spell instant failure, your academic future doesn’t live or die on whether you can adequately express a response to a particularly tricky question. The examiners will have already formed a preliminary opinion of what the outcome should be. While very good answers might persuade the examiners to improve their view of your thesis, it is unlikely that your responses would send your thesis down in their estimation, unless something goes very badly wrong like you suddenly confess to plagiarism or other serious misconduct. The viva is a confirmation that you know your stuff and potentially allay any concerns the examiners have; no one expects your answers to be perfect.
- A pass is a pass
Whether you pass immediately or with corrections, once you’ve handed in the final copy of your thesis, no one will ever ask or care how long you spent making post-viva changes. While passing without corrections is the dream, it’s also very unlikely; having corrections is both normal and nothing to worry about. The examiners send a detailed report listing any necessary changes, and with any luck, you’ll be finished in no time.
Finally it is worth noting that when you are looking for viva advice, try to make sure that the person writing the advice is based in the UK, as different countries have vastly different processes. The links below are general, but where possible try to use advice from websites geared roughly towards your own field as some aspects of the viva can vary quite a lot between subjects.