Just over a month ago, I successfully passed my viva voce examination. Needless to say, the elation, after years of sacrifice and hard work is unparalleled. However, I felt it would be worth sharing my experience and perception of the process with the hope it may provide a sigh of relief, especially to those who feel anxious about facing this final PhD hurdle.
I started preparations around 3 weeks in advance of the exam, ensuring I understood my thesis, the examiners’ area of expertise and tried to anticipate potential questions. I was unfortunate to have chronic laryngitis which rendered me voiceless for 6 weeks earlier in the year. Still recovering from it, I was unable to have a mock viva with my supervisors but would recommend others to do so. I’d also bought a new suit for the day, as looking the part helped me feel ready in some small measure.
On the day, I arrived at my department and awaited the chair person to come and collect me then lead me to the booked room for the viva. You’d imagine it would be in some fancy venue but it’s usually just in an available meeting room. Once inside, I greeted both examiners and sat opposite them. The chair person sat a little away, just out of my eye line. Then it began as the examiners started with ‘ice breaker’ type questions to ease me in before asking questions about my thesis chapter by chapter.
The phrase ‘defend your thesis’ is frequently bandied around and seems to invoke a misconception regarding the nature of viva examinations whereby one’s work is attacked requiring the student to seemingly defend their research. Yes, in other countries this may be the approach however it is not the case in the UK. Rather, it is more of an intellectual conversation about your thesis and any research or ideas by others that may be pertinent to that discussion. My viva felt like a chat, was very relaxed and I didn’t overtly feel any nerves.
Dare I say it, my viva was the most enjoyable exam experience I’ve ever had. That’s not to say that it was easy or that my examiners didn’t ask incisive enough questions. Recalling back on specific moments, they asked very taxing questions: probing me on hypothetical scenarios, asking me about tangential concepts to my work which would have been difficult to anticipate and prepare for, enquiring about various methodological and even stylistic choices in my thesis amongst others. What facilitated my equanimity was the understanding (by virtue of fantastic supervision) that they were not trying to trick or trap me. The process is merely geared to see if the thesis was my own, that I could explain anything they wanted elaboration upon and whether I could deal with questions in an intelligent manner. Essentially, you need to demonstrate that you know your own work, which isn’t as hard as people make it out to be. Additionally, it’s perfectly acceptable to not know the answer to a question. As my supervisors informed me, examiners just want to see where the edges of your knowledge are and see if you can deal with difficult questions. In this instance the faux-pas would be to reply with “I don’t know”- as long as you attempt to make a well-thought answer it will be well received by the examiners.
While there, I lost all concept of time (maybe I should’ve checked my watch was set correctly). The viva doesn’t feel like 2-3 hours. Once we got to the end of my final chapter, they thanked me and asked me to wait outside while they deliberated. In my case, the chair person escorted me to my supervisor’s office for 10 minutes. I updated my supervisor as much as I could and before I could send a frantically composed text to my family, the chair re-appeared to summon me and my supervisor back for my result. My supervisor and I chatted and joked along the way, there was a quiet confidence in both of us that everything was okay. Surely enough the external examiner finally uttered the words that I had passed. Cue tears from my supervisor and a contentment like no other. I thanked the examiners before leaving to tell my waiting family the good news.
I’m very thankful for my supervision and the advice conferred to me beforehand as it helped me keep calm and composed. A stress-free mind is certainly one that has greater capacity to deal with difficult questions. The examiners really aren’t dragons for you to slay, instead the viva is somewhat of an intellectual obstacle course and the examiners run you through it. Thus, I implore other PhD students to not dread your viva but instead view it as a challenge and an opportunity to showcase your work, your ability and yourself as a researcher.
For more support in preparing for your viva, you can:
- Attend a workshop “Preparing for your Viva“;
- Visit the online module “Surviving your Viva“;
- Access resources on the “Preparing for your Viva” ResourceList;
- Talk to your supervisor and your School about local support.
Have you had your viva? If so, how was it? What was the most useful advice you were given?