First of all, the Sussex Research Hive Scholars would like to thank all the participants and the speakers who joined our doctoral discussion last week!
Notwithstanding the unfortunate room where it took place, the event was a success. We had a very interesting discussion on different types of viva experiences and a very dynamic Q&A session highlighting the main concerns shared by PhD students preparing for this important milestone in their doctoral studies.
I’ll try to summarise my 14 pages of notes in this blog post, but you will probably read the second part of the recap next week.
The viva experience
- Marinating in your own panic: the months before the viva.
Our panellists talked about several stages of the viva experience. All of them had a very different paths leading to the viva after the day of submission. This process can be either very long or fairly fast: it all depends on you. Miles Willey from the Research Student Administration Office informed us that usually they aim at scheduling the date for the viva within 3 months of the day of submission. The key to a smooth process between these two moments is a good communication between the PhD student and her PhD. Ideally, the discussion on “what do you expect from your viva?” and “what examiners could work for me?” should happen well before the submission date. If it doesn’t or, as some of our panellists pointed out, it gets very challenging to find a suitable date and time for the two examiners to be available: the viva can be scheduled even 6-8 months after your submission.
The second point related to this is on how much and how long for to prepare for your viva during those months. Again, very different experiences from our panellists, but overall we can summarise as follow:
- Give yourself sometime after the submission before re-opening your thesis. A good way of spotting errors and anticipate possible questions is to read your work with a fresh mind
- Prepare well. Know your work and go through your thesis. Use stickers, highlighters, post-its or whatever you need to really feel that the thesis is yours and that you can defend it. Gossip from faculty members/examiners: they hate when candidates don’t know their own work.
- Don’t overdo it. As one of our guests said “Once you submit your thesis, the work is done”, so don’t spend the months before the viva focusing on the weaknesses of it to try to solve them. Be aware of the limitations, but don’t focus preparing something completely unrelated to what you have been doing for three/four years.
- Prepare a short summary to introduce your work at the beginning of the viva. This will help you breaking the ice once you are in front of the examiners
2. Have a say on what is the right strategy for you.
What do you want to get out of your viva? Do you just want to pass or do you want to have good feedback for publication? Do you want to stay in academia? But mostly, how to choose the examiners?
You should discuss these questions with your supervisors well in advance and have a sense of what they think about the different options. If you aim at having a very good examiner, who can give you a good reference letter and help you with feedback for publishing your work: you should factor this in in the decision of the examiners. Another factor that seems to have a big impact is the seniority of the two examiners. Make sure that the combination of internal and external is appropriate. You won’t have a final say on this, but probably you can flag your concern to your supervisors if you feel that the viva is not going to be about your thesis, but about some egos-competition.