Viva Survivors

A Research Hive scholar led workshop took place in the Hive on Tuesday May 21st to explore the realities of undertaking a viva.  Five researchers who had recently taken vivas were invited to share their experiences, insights and advice for current doctoral candidates.  The scholars asked a range of questions about the viva experience and then opened the floor to questions.  What came across very strongly was the diversity of experiences and the sense that there is no set format.  There were variations in the length of the viva of between 1 and 4 hours, in terms of the style of the viva, the sorts of questions asked and the overall experience.   This served as a reminder that it is best not to have pre-conceived ideas about what the viva will be like.  A brief overview of the five different viva stories is provided here:

Viva Survivor 1 – Media and Film Studies

Although the candidate prepared carefully for the viva, it was not what he had expected in terms of examiner style, being much more formal and confrontational than the mock viva.  He recommended that candidates should prepare to handle a confrontational style and not to expect it to go the same way as the mock.  He was also surprised at the amount of administrative or practical questions which were asked – such as how resources had been accessed whereas more theoretical questions had been anticipated.  At some points very specific, detailed questions were asked.  Also, certain questions were repeated and there were some questions which were not expected but, as they had thoroughly prepared, were able to answer without difficulty.  Participants were reminded that the viva is not a ‘tick box’ process so to keep an open mind.

Viva Survivor 2 – Global Studies

This candidate experienced the viva as highly confrontational as he and the examiner fundamentally disagreed as to what the thesis was about.   They wished they had been very clear from the beginning what it was about, questioned the examiner more and taken more time to answer questions.  The outcome was also confused with it being unclear at first as to the status of the corrections (major or minor). However, the need for corrections was reduced as he consistently argued his case while accepting certain minor corrections.  He recommended candidates should have a clear sense of their argument and stick to it, also saying to ‘be honest’ and ‘be yourself’.

Viva Survivor 3 – Prof Doc, Social Work

In this instance, the viva was experienced as highly enjoyable and much more so than expected.  There had been a pre-conceived idea that examiners would be focussed on trying to ‘catch them out’ and so the candidate over-prepared.  However, anticipated questions about obscure aspects of theory did not arise and in fact the examiners were very helpful and positive.  There were some questions about why she hadn’t covered some aspects in more detail and she agreed those points could be expanded but at a later stage (for example post-doc work).  Because she had prepared well she was confidently able to put up a spirited defence of her work.  What the candidate wasn’t expecting however, were questions about their future publishing plans.

Viva Survivor 4 – Global Studies

The viva had taken place very recently (a matter of weeks) ago.  The writing of the thesis had been done under a lot of time pressure and they had expected major revisions but in fact passed with minor corrections. The candidate had worked right up to the viva and had little time to prepare, although in some ways this was a good thing in order to avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety.  She went into the process with a positive outlook, wanting an opinion and feedback on the thesis.  A key piece of advice was to treat the viva like a performance, presentation or interview – it is important not to see the process as an attack on your work and to be overly defensive.

Viva Survivor 5 – Informatics

Due to a last minute cancellation, this viva took place via video-conference and took just over an hour.  In this candidate’s experience, the mock viva was much harder than the actual viva and she recommended making the most of supervisions and the mock viva.  As with other viva survivors, she had re-read the thesis thoroughly in order to prepare but warned that it was important to keep perspective – some mistakes you see as being glaringly obvious may not even surface in the viva.  She recommended developing a strong, convincing story of your thesis and the choices you’ve made.  It is important to remember it doesn’t have to be perfect – a doctorate is often seen as an apprenticeship and the start of a career.

Further Discussion

Further discussion related to who asked what questions in the viva and again there was disparity in the experiences – in one case the internal and external examiner had alternated questions and it was balanced whereas in another scenario the internal examiner asked much more demanding questions (the candidate had expected it to be the other way round).  There was some discussion about marking guidance which can vary between universities and schools.  While it may be a good idea to check this within your school, it may be best simply to focus on what corrections are required and to try and minimise the need for corrections in the viva.   Selecting the right examiners was another key  topic and it was recommended that doctoral candidates should be strategic in choosing their examiner, partly based on their knowledge of the field but also based on their reputation as examiners, how far their work is useful to your research and how likely they are to concur with your perspective.  It is essential that the examiner’s work is references in your thesis and also that you do research on whether it is the right examiner through supervisors, colleagues and peers as well as familiarity with their work.  The writing process itself was also discussed – it is seen as important to prepare for any questions which might arise as you go along.  However, the overriding message was not to have pre-conceived ideas but keep an open mind – just ensure you know your thesis and your arguments well and you should be able to answer any questions which arise.  It is important to ask for clarification if you are not sure about a questions and also to take your time to think about and talk through your answers.

Summary of top viva survivor tips

Do prepare for the viva and familiarise yourself with your thesis as much as possible.

It can be worth doing some extra reading in areas where you consider you have a weakness – however, remember you can’t read everything!

Some common questions that you can prepare are: (1) what is the thesis of your thesis; (2) Key findings and (3) transferability of findings. Some people prefer printing the thesis and write these answers in it.

Also, reflect of your thesis limitations and why they are limitations. When asked acknowledge them but don’t present them as one of your failures as researcher. Otherwise you will end up with many more corrections! A strategy that may work is to say that you thought about it but given the constrains of time and space you could not cover it in your thesis. However, you are aware that this is a great topic/angle that you would love to explore in a postdoctoral project.

Do make the most of your supervisions and have a mock viva.

However, remember it is unlikely that the actual viva will be the same as the mock viva!

Don’t over-prepare or worry excessively about any mistakes – keep perspective! And remember this is not a memory exam; you don’t need to know your chapters by heart. You can bring your printed thesis with you and read from it if you need to buy “time” to think or clarify your thinking before answering.

Do be strategic in choosing an examiner – consult supervisors and if possible ask peers / colleagues how they work in a viva situation – will they be supportive / sympathetic to your ideas? How useful are their ideas to your work? Do they share the same views/philosophy about the topic? More than a guru of the field, but who is arrogant or overcritical, we want someone who truly engages with our work.

Do be prepared to defend your work but don’t see examiners’ critiques as an attack.

Rather than being defensive, talk through your thought processes in making decisions about the thesis. And also pay close attention to their comments; they may pay you complements but stress or suspicion may deafen your ability to hear them!

Do see the viva as a performance – use your body language and act confident even if you don’t feel it! Breath, breath, breath. It really helps you to relax!

Know what you want to say and be consistent in arguing your case.

There may be points you concede but also be rigorous about defending points you feel are important, explaining carefully why you have chosen to do things a certain way.

Focus on what you want to get out of the viva. Also, think about what you want the examiners to take from the viva.

Don’t be afraid to challenge the examiners and ask questions / ask for clarification.

Don’t rush to answer; step back, breath and take your time to think through and answer questions. If needed read through your thesis. This will win you seconds to clarify your thinking.

In the case of a long viva, take a break if offered it. And if they don’t offer a break and you need to go to the toilet, ask for it!

Start with a few simple points about what you feel your thesis is about. Practise this with friends beforehand.

See the viva as an opportunity to gain feedback about your work.

Remember the viva is an opportunity for building relationships for your future career and can lead to references, contacts and publication possibilities.

Following the workshop, on Wednesday 22nd May @sussexreshive took part in a Twitter chat in collaboration with researchers from the school of education and social work using the hastag #eswphd. The topic was ‘Surviving the Viva’ and many more tips and experiences were discussed and shared. You can read the archived tweets here (the viva chat starts about halfway down).

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