The End of the Viva

As with every aspect of the PhD and the viva, there is a variety of experiences for the end, but several common stories.

Candidates might be asked if they have any questions or comments. Then when all the talking is done, examiners most commonly ask the candidate to leave the room so that they can have a quick chat. While the candidate waits nearby, perhaps nervously, perhaps not, the examiners confer and make a firm decision. They check they’ve got satisfactory answers to all of the things they needed to raise, and talk about the viva and what they think of it all.

The length of the wait varies. One person told me they waited two minutes and were called back; another told me they waited half an hour, and while there were no problems they had really started to worry! Ten to twenty minutes is seen as a reasonable length of time for examiners to chat.

Typically, examiners give the result then. They tell the candidate what the outcome is and what that means. If corrections are involved they might say a little about them. Examiners might need time to put a full list together. While minor corrections is the most likely outcome, it’s important to know in advance what all the outcomes mean. How much time is given? What is the process for getting examiners to certify that corrections have been completed?

The viva is not the end of the PhD. The end of the viva is not the end of the PhD. It can seem like there’s always something to do. But you’re getting close. Compared to everything that’s come before, you’ve not got far to go.

Playing The Odds

Please don’t.

There are statistics about the viva, both in terms of experiences – around 50% of vivas are two hours or less – and outcomes – around 85% of candidates get minor corrections – but these are only useful in terms of sharing broad expectations. Don’t just use the numbers to imagine a most likely scenario.

Instead, put them all together to create a smudgy, blurry image. Don’t just hope that your viva is less than two hours but work so that you feel confident whatever the length. Don’t just believe your thesis will pass with minor corrections whatever happens, work to make it the best possible thesis it can be.

Stats help tell the story, but it’s not enough to just hope for a particular outcome or experience.

Fortunate

If things work out during your PhD, that’s not simply luck. You have to work for it. If you get the most fantastic results or the brightest ideas they come to you only through effort.

Which means that when you get to submission and then the viva, it’s not simply luck. You HAVE worked for it. The end result of a good thesis and a good candidate for the viva is due to your effort.

You’re fortunate, not lucky. If your hard work has produced results this far then what would stop your fortune continuing to the viva?

Good Luck Isn’t Good Enough

A lot of people around you will say “good luck” before your viva.

They can do a lot more if you ask.

Your supervisor might say good luck, and mean it, but what they really mean is they hope you can demonstrate what they know you can do on the day. Good luck might feel good, but if you’re not sure about your talents, or if you want more help (perhaps with a mock viva or more feedback) then ask.

Your researcher friends might say good luck, and mean it, but what they really mean is they hope your viva will be alright. They hope the process and the questions will be fair to you. Good luck is nice, but they can do more if they can tell you about what they know or what their experiences were like. Ask them. Find out more and feel better.

Your friends or family might say good luck, and mean it, but what they might mean is “I don’t understand what you do. I don’t know what you do. A viva? Is it a test? Well, good luck then!” And good luck is well meant, but you might need help from them. You might need time or space to think. Thank them for the well wishes, and tell them what your viva is, what it means, what you need to do to prepare and what they can do to support you.

Good luck is nice, but good luck isn’t good enough.

Luck doesn’t pass the viva, work does – and support helps.

Refreshments Might Not Be Provided

Take a drink with you to the viva. After years and years of working with researchers, chatting to examiners and asking at institutions, I’ve found very few places where providing tea, coffee or water is part of the practice for the viva. Take something to stay hydrated.

Maybe take something to eat too. I don’t hear many stories of sharing cake or biscuits in the viva, but plenty of tales of candidates feeling drained as soon as the viva is finished. Take something you can eat to help energy levels in a break or when you’ve passed.

Little things can make a big difference.

7 Things Not To Do During Viva Prep

There are lots of things you could do. Here are seven things I think it’s best to avoid.

  1. Don’t look for typos obsessively.
  2. Don’t read your thesis passively.
  3. Don’t read the entire publication history for your examiners.
  4. Don’t treat your preparation like a chore.
  5. Don’t avoid prep that makes you nervous.
  6. Don’t do something just because someone told you it worked for them.
  7. Don’t create model answers for every question you can think of.

Some people say “don’t worry.”

I won’t. I don’t think it helps to worry, but it doesn’t help to get directed to not worry.

However, it is possible to distract yourself from worry by working towards being ready. And if you reflect on the negatives expressed above, you can find the positive actions you can take towards getting prepared.

Raid The Stationery Cupboard

There’s a lot you can do with only a few resources to prepare for your viva.

  • Pens and pencils can be used to add layers of information to your thesis. Underline typos consistently in one colour to make them easier to parse afterwards. Use pencil to add short notes in the margins.
  • Post-it Notes are great for marking out the starts of chapters and other important places. Longer notes that would be cramped in a margin can look great on a big Post-it; you can move them as needed afterwards too.
  • Use highlighters to selectively grab your attention. Chapter or section headings, important references or quotes – whatever you want to be able to see at a glance.
  • Get a small notebook to use as a viva preparation journal. Capture reflections, prompts, provocations, interesting questions.

There aren’t a lot of resources needed for viva preparation. Perhaps raid your department’s stationery cupboard before you take a trip to the local stationery shop!

Survival Time

Have you heard of the “rules of three” for surviving in extreme conditions?

  • You can survive three minutes without oxygen.
  • You can survive three hours without shelter/warmth.
  • You can survive three days without water.
  • You can survive three weeks without food.

People survive in extreme conditions, but only just.

I’ve heard PhD candidates wonder how they might survive in a potential three hour viva. That’s not extreme conditions, even relative to the viva! Most candidates could expect to be finished within three hours. It’s difficult to imagine what an extreme viva might be. There are challenges inherent in the process, but they’re not all or nothing, do or die.

PhD candidates survive the challenges of the viva – they manage to keep going in difficult circumstances – because of the challenges they’ve already faced in the three or more years of doing research.

The years help with the hours.