The Viva Is Not…

The viva is not a rite of passage.

The viva is not an academic ritual.

The viva is not a Q&A session.

The viva is not an interview.

The viva is not a mystery.

The viva is not trivial.

The viva is not impossible.

It’s an exam. A unique oral exam based on the particular research you’ve done. Given that it’s based on your work, you can prepare for it.

Given that there are regulations and a culture of examination, you can learn reasonable expectations and build those into your preparations too.

The viva is important, but the viva is not more important than your PhD.

The Control Room

You can’t control how long your viva will be. Or what question you’ll be asked first. Or what parts your examiners do or don’t like. Or how they express themselves or pose their questions to you.

You can’t control the flow of the viva. Knowing which questions commonly come up won’t mean you can control if they’ll be asked to you. You can’t control whether or not a response to a question will be satisfactory. You can’t control if your examiners agree with you on a methodological point. You can’t control whether or not they are going to ask that one question which you dread being asked.

But you can control how you prepare.

You can control what you do to get ready.

You can control how you start your viva day.

You can make choices to help lead you in the direction of confidence for your viva.

Exceptions

There are lots of general expectations for the viva. Common lengths. Typical structures. Regulations that determine process. But whatever the expectation, there are always exceptions:

  • Really short vivas or really long vivas.
  • Vivas with more than two examiners.
  • An examiner without a doctorate.
  • A viva that comes after a long period since submission.

And there are many more circumstances that either can’t be anticipated in advance of the viva, or are incredibly rare when they occur.

Exceptions are often worrying. They’re not part of the pattern, so there might not be a quick and simple response for what someone should do or how they should behave. Still, with a little thought there’s a way to find solid ground beneath the shifting sands of exceptions.

Look at the difference between the exception and the expectation (assuming it’s something you can know in advance).

How big is it? How can you measure that difference? What does it really mean?

For example, if you had three examiners, one more than “typical” – what would you really need to do differently to be ready?

  • Read a little of the research of the third examiner, as you would for the other two (it takes a little longer, so your prep needs a little more time).
  • Perhaps build your confidence at being part of an exam with more people.
  • Perhaps ask around on Twitter or in your department to see if others have had a similar experience (you won’t be the first!).
  • Reflect on how much of a difference it really makes, and see if there’s anything else you need to do.

Earlier this year, I panicked slightly at the thought of helping people prepare to have vivas over video: what strange new situations would people find themselves in? How could I help candidates with this big shift? What could I do, and what would they need to do???

It was a big shift, there were a lot of people suddenly needing to have the viva over Zoom or Meet or Skype – but they weren’t the first. It might have been their expectation to have their viva in a seminar room, but the rare exception of vivas taking place over video were already quite numerous. One question asked on Twitter lead to lots of generous responses that helped many people. Because whatever the expectations there are always exceptions.

Whatever your exceptional situation, however rare, you’re probably not the first. Ask your community, look for support and I’m pretty sure you’ll find what you need.

Aspects Of The Viva

There are lots of elements to the viva:

  • There is what’s presented in your thesis, the pre-requisite to being in the viva at all.
  • There is why you did it in the first place, a subject that often comes up in some form.
  • There is who you are, and to a lesser extent who your examiners are.
  • There is why you are there and what you have planned afterwards perhaps.
  • There is the logistics – how, when, where – and the expectations – the things that tend to happen and influence how people feel about the viva.
  • There is the beginning, middle, end and afterwards.
  • There is the dance between feeling excited and feeling worried.
  • There is the preparation, the support, the help – and then just you and your examiners.

There’s a lot to the viva. Focussing only on one element means you will miss something important in all the other aspects. But trying to focus on everything means you’ll also probably miss something.

Another aspect worth mentioning: they almost always result in success for the candidate. Whatever else you need to explore or reflect on for yourself, remember the most likely outcome for all your work.

Incorrect

Corrections don’t always mean you are wrong.

It could be that you’re not clear, or that you’ve not considered something, or that you could use something extra in your thesis. But they don’t always mean you’re wrong. They’re very rarely connected with even a hint of failure.

And if you’re asked to do something because something is wrong in your thesis, you now have the chance to make it right or make it better. Fantastic! (it might take time and work – which has consequences – but now it can be right)

Corrections and amendments to your thesis are part of the thesis examination process. Vivas and corrections aren’t about finding fault for the sake of it.

Information & Insights

You’ll have a lot of information that can help you in the viva. Ideas, questions, answers, reading, references, facts and figures. You’ll need to know a lot of things to get you to the viva, and of course, to get you through the viva.

As essential as these things are, remember that your examiners will be more interested in the insights that you have: how you think about a topic rather than simply what you know about a topic. What conclusions you reached, rather than simply the results you got.

The viva is not simply a test of what you remember. What do you know?

Most

If most vivas result in success, why would yours be any different?

If most candidates can get ready with only a little work, relative to the rest of their PhDs, what’s different for you?

If most people have a viva that’s two to three hours long, does it matter if yours is longer or shorter?

If most theses need correcting in some way, what’s the problem with you doing yours?

 

If you have a real response to any of these sort-of-rhetorical questions, then in most cases you’ll have to do something. You might have to work more, or get more help than most, or ask for support, or get clarification about how your viva can be made fair.

But for some candidates, you might simply have to think about what’s really going on for you. Think about what might be skewing your point of view, and explore what you could do to change your perspective.

Hold on to this: most vivas, the overwhelming majority, result in success.

Mind Your Manners

It may seem like an odd thing to post about, but I’ve been asked about the topic many times before by PhD candidates!

“Is there anything I mustn’t say or do in the viva???”

I don’t think there’s a real danger of being impolite in the viva. You don’t need to look out for anything that wouldn’t occur to you ordinarily about watching what you say, or behaving improperly.

  • Try not to swear maybe? (unless curse words and their origins are the topic for your research!)
  • Don’t insult your examiners? (hopefully obvious!)
  • Don’t be arrogant?

There’s a little ray of worry in the last one. There is a difference between confidence in your work and arrogance at being right. There could be difficulty in balancing talking about the rightness of what you’ve done, as you see it, against questions about alternatives or being sure. That could be tricky. But it doesn’t mean that it should be avoided or obsessed over either.

Talk about alternatives before the viva, in preparation for perhaps needing to talk about it in the viva. Get more comfortable in the trickier parts of your methods and results, then you won’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing.

Comfortable Silence

There are many reasons for silence in the viva:

  • A moment while a broadband router buffers in the background.
  • Time while a page is consulted or a note made.
  • Processing time while someone thinks through the implications of a comment.
  • Thinking time in a candidate’s mind while they prepare a response.

The latter might feel unnerving, but none of these could feel particularly comfortable. Silence invites speculation. Knowing possible reasons doesn’t dissolve fears, it simple gives you something else to wonder about.

Rehearsals help. A mock viva won’t be a way to learn your lines like a play, but can give you the confidence to be in that space. Silence is just silence. The reasons don’t matter in a way. The silence is the space between the discussion. You have to wait for it to pass, or use it to help you think.

Practise and get comfortable with the little moments of quiet that you’re sure to find in your viva.

Acceptable

Acceptable is a funny word. It means that things are fine, but it sort-of sounds like they’re only just alright. Like if you think about it more you might decide that actually you’ve changed your mind.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions related to the viva with the word “acceptable” in them.

How much do I need to write for an acceptable thesis?

Who would be an acceptable examiner?

What’s acceptable to say if you don’t know something?

I know the feeling that flows behind these kind of questions. Fear and concern, a little worry that perhaps something isn’t good enough but might just pass the standard.

I recommend candidates remove ideas of perfection from the PhD and the viva: there isn’t a perfect thesis, no perfect candidates, examiners aren’t perfect – none of these need to be for someone to find success in the viva.

In a similar vein, we need to get rid of acceptable from the PhD and viva lexicon. You can’t have things be perfect, but you should expect a lot more from yourself, your thesis and your viva than acceptable.

You can aim a lot higher and do a lot better than acceptable.