Recap: Doctoral Discussions Viva Experiences

On Tuesday, the Research Hive held their final Doctoral Discussions event of the year. Our subject was the viva.  Always a nerve-wracking subject, the aim of the event was to demystify the viva experience and hear some stories from individuals who have recently passed the viva.  We had four speakers on our panel: Dr Thomas Houlton (English), Dr Neil Dooley (IR & Politics), Dr Tim Carter (Politics & Philosophy) and Dr Bjoern Lekitsch (Physics and Astronomy). We were also joined by Dr Camilla Briault, head of Research Student Administration at Sussex.

Here are some points that came out from the discussion:

  • Remember your ‘intention to submit form’:  If you fill in this form, you are alerting the Research Student Administration Office that you will be handing in your thesis soon.  They can contact your supervisor to start discussing examiner options with them.  This ensures that the process can get started as quickly as possible, and reduces the amount of wait time between thesis hand-in and viva completion.
  • Conferences: A couple of panelists mentioned that conferences were very useful for their viva preparation, as it gave them the opportunity to discuss their finished research and practice answering unknown questions.  It may be a good idea to try and find a relevant conference in which to practice communicating your key research ideas.
  • Consider the examiners in the viva: You are allowed to discuss possible examiner choices with your supervisors, and indeed, all of the panelists had some discussions with their supervisors about this. Consider the dynamic of the room, and think about how different examiners may work together.   You want to include an examiner who you think will be engaged in your ideas.  A possible examiner might also be someone whose work you have included in your thesis.  One panelist mentioned that it is a good idea to read some of your examiners work (if you haven’t already!)
  • Learning to summarise your thesis: It is a good idea to learn how to describe your thesis in a succinct way so you can communicate the core ideas behind your work.  There are lots of ways of practicing this: try practicing with friends, family and peers, plus look out for the Sussex 3-Minute Thesis competition for good models!
  • Proofread your thesis: There will always be some errors in your thesis that you miss, but ensure that you have read through your thesis adequately to reduce the amount of typos, grammatical errors, or misspellings.
  • Read through your thesis with friends: Panelist Tom suggested getting together with other students who are at a similar stage and taking it in turns to discuss each thesis. Practice discussing your work and your key ideas so that you are as confident as possible in the viva.
  • Ensure you are comfortable: You need to be comfortable during your viva.  It’s fine to ask for a quick comfort break if and when you need it so don’t feel shy about asking for one.  You don’t have to suffer through it, so know that you are allowed to ask the examiners to open windows, close blinds etc.  You are also allowed to go and see the room in which the viva will take place at an earlier date.
  • Bring whatever you think you may need: The panelists didn’t all bring the same things, but you are allowed to bring your thesis, notes, water and snacks.  Bringing your thesis and notes on the thesis is not cheating!
  • Remember the thesis is a conversation between academics: Though it may be incredibly nerve-wracking, the viva is essentially a conversation between academics – of which you are one! Try not to feel too intimidated by the situation and instead take ownership over your work.
  • Try not to over prepare: You may feel like you want months before the viva in order to feel confident, but over preparation may not be beneficial.  Remember that the thesis itself is the preparation for the viva, and that you are an expert on what you have written about.  Panelist Neil also suggested that you want to keep some spontaneity in your responses.  You will not be able to prepare an answer to every question and they may not always focus on what you expect, but you will know enough
  • It is your supervisors responsibility to help you submit work that is good enough to pass the viva: If you feel very nervous about the viva, remember that your supervisor is there to ensure that your work is of a high enough standard to pass.  They will be able to give you guidance on finishing your thesis and help you finesse the work to an excellent standard.

Helpful resources

The Research Student Administration Office have lots of helpful information and summaries on their website, including a page dedicated to submission and examination process.  Their pages include information on assessment rules, submission practicalities and names of places that bind theses.

This article has a quick summary of viva procedures, but also includes a quick tick-list of things to think about in the viva itself.

This article, though titled rather scarily, ‘How not to write a PhD thesis’ is full of great succinct advice that gives you an insight into the mind of your PhD examiner.

Last year’s Hive Scholars also ran an event on the viva.  You can read a blog post about this event here and listen to a recording of the conversation here.

Check out a blog post  here on the Hive Blog, in which Dr Sarah Robins-Hobden discusses her own experience of the viva.  She also goes into lots of detail about how to use the viva experience in a positive way.

If you come across something else that would be useful to add to our resource list, let us know at our email or via our twitter @sussexreshive.  We’d love to hear from you!



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