The PhD Viva: A Survivor’s Story

Dr Harriet Boyd-Bennett is a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church College, University of Oxford, working on music tours around Italy in the 1920s. She completed her PhD in June 2014 at King’s College London, with a dissertation about opera in Venice during the 1950s. In this feature, Harriet shares with us her viva experience and offers some advice on what to expect and how to prepare for this final milestone of the PhD.

 

As the PhD draws to a close and post-submission bliss sets in, the final hurdle looms: the viva. The prospect had been haunting me since I’d typed ‘A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements’ on the title page. Yet despite the rhetorical weight of the viva inferred at such moments, I was constantly reassured that if I’d put enough work into the thesis and enough people had read it, then there shouldn’t be too much to worry about. But perhaps the most disconcerting aspect remains how enigmatic the viva moment is: it is impossible to know exactly what will happen, how your examiners will conduct it, or what they will ask. However, there is a certain amount of control you can exercise here: strategies that certainly helped to assuage my nerves as the viva approached.

 

Before I continue, first some basic facts about my own experience. My viva took place on 6 June 2014 at King’s College London, and was examined by an external examiner and an examiner internal to the University of London but not connected to King’s. My supervisor was also present, as a non-participatory note-taker; this was my decision: supervisors can either be present or not, according to the student’s choice. It lasted for about one hour and thirty minutes and I wasn’t required to make any corrections.

 

What is a viva?

The viva voce (Latin for ‘by live voice’) / PhD defence / oral examination takes different forms in different countries. In the UK it is normally between one and two hours in length (for arts and humanities subjects), with two examiners present (normally one internal and one external to your institution—but you can sometimes have two external examiners), and perhaps with a third, independent chair. At some universities you can opt to have your supervisor present, but they are generally not allowed to intervene in or comment on what is being discussed. I found it incredibly useful to have my supervisor there: he kept notes of everything said, so that I could focus on the discussion.

It is also worth remembering that the basic purposes of the viva are relatively straightforward: for the examiners to check it is your own work, for you to defend aspects (the trick here, of course, is to defend without being defensive) and to demonstrate how your thoughts and ideas extend beyond the content of the thesis.

 

Things to consider

Perhaps the most crucial decision I had to make was who the examiners were going to be. Although your supervisor officially chooses them, the decision is usually made in consultation with you. It is normally something decided relatively early on: my supervisor approached the examiners about three months before I was hoping to submit, and once they’d agreed, King’s College London had to approve them officially (i.e. to make sure that there was no just cause or impediment, such as a close working relationship, that would make their appointment inappropriate). As it happened, I’d had the two in mind much earlier on, and so had held back from sending them parts of the thesis so as not to compromise their suitability as examiners. Some things to consider in this regard are:

  • It is worth thinking very carefully about who you choose: despite regulations over how well you know someone, it is worth picking people with whom you have talked about your work in the past. It is good to know that they are fundamentally interested in your research, sympathetic to your methodological approach and will be unlikely to have a specific axe to grind. The fact that I knew both of my examiners relatively well and knew they were sympathetic to my project greatly assuaged any nerves on the day.
  • It is also worth researching potential examiners carefully: their work, past students etc. Because both of mine were hugely experienced, having supervised countless students and conducted many previous vivas—as well as being at the top of their own research fields—they knew what it was reasonable to expect, how to put me at ease and had nothing to prove.
  • If your project is interdisciplinary, then it might be a good idea to have an examiner from a different field. My work is very historical, and I intend to publish some of the material in history journals, so I wanted specialist advice. I therefore chose a historian as one of my examiners, who was able to give me some suggestions for further reading, as well as other useful tips and pointers.

 

The run-up to the viva

There was a seven-week gap between when I submitted my thesis and when the viva took place. I was therefore cautious not to over-prepare: I actively didn’t look at my thesis at all between submission and the week before the viva, so that I could return to it fresh. This period of course flew by and, when I came to re-read the thesis for the viva, I was surprised by how familiar it still felt.

My viva was on a Friday, so on the Monday of that week I started to read through the thesis. I made notes on any corrections I encountered, and inserted post-it notes on any pages where I thought there were problematic bits, or moments that I might be asked to elaborate on further. I also used post-it notes (in a different colour) to mark the chapters, making it easier to get to them in the viva. Once I’d read through the thesis, I thought about some more general questions: why did I choose this particular research topic? What was the most interesting/surprising thing I’d discovered? What might I do differently if I were starting again? How did my approach and thinking change as the thesis developed? I also practised describing the thesis and each of the chapters in a couple of minutes.

You could also arrange a mock viva. I decided not to as I felt I had garnered enough experience talking about my work with people at various conferences, seminars and at a job interview. But if you think it would help to calm your nerves then it is definitely worth doing.

Most importantly, relax the night before! I played squash and then got an early night.

 

What actually happened

I took in with me:

  • A copy of the thesis. I didn’t have it bound, as that seemed rather expensive, so I just printed it out and put it in a ring binder.
  • One page of A4 on which I’d written some questions I wanted to ask my examiners if there was time at the end.
  • A list of a few corrections that I came across when reading it beforehand.
  • A pen and small pad to make notes.

The viva turned out to be relaxed and enjoyable. My examiners were friendly and supportive, while also initiating a rigorous discussion. The questions they asked were much more along the lines of stepping back and thinking about the bigger picture, rather than asking for synopses of books in my bibliography, for example. So the kinds of questions I mentioned above proved to be the most useful preparation I did. The examiners also had excellent advice about future publication.

 

Final thoughts

Although the viva can seem like simply another stress at the end of the PhD, there are many reasons why—for me at least—it was a good experience. The PhD malaise—that no one will ever read the thing—tends to recur towards the end as you fuss over whether to use a comma or a hyphen on page 37, or endlessly rewrite that sentence in footnote 56 in chapter three. But with a viva you have world-class academics reading it from cover to cover and willing to sit down with you and discuss it in depth—quite a privilege! Furthermore, just submitting your thesis to your university at the end means you are left rather at the mercy of your supervisor: if they are helpful and vigilant (as mine was), then you will be fine, but the good thing about an oral exam is that not only do you get important feedback, but you are also alerted to typos and errors—information that can only make the finished product all the better. This is especially important now that many universities put theses on online depositories.

Most importantly, try to enjoy it! Make sure your thesis is as error-free as possible when you submit it; get as many people to proofread the thing as you can—I even delayed submitting for over a month because of this, but it was definitely preferable to mounds of corrections later. Finally, choose your examiners carefully and you should be fine.

Many universities provide workshops or classes that you can enrol for—King’s, for example, has workshop days throughout the year geared to preparing you for the viva. There are also plenty of good links online—so have a Google.

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