The Unfair Viva

From time to time I’ve been told that the viva is unfair because candidates are at a great disadvantage due to the position they’re in. Examiners can ask what they want, they have more experience, they get to decide the outcome, candidates don’t know what’s coming – and so on.

I’ll admit, there are things that a candidate won’t know at the start of their viva – but does that really disadvantage them?

There are regulations that govern the viva. There are consistent expectations – patterns of experience – that are derived from countless viva stories. The viva is a custom exam every time, but it springs from the seeds of the candidate’s work. The viva is an exam on their thesis and their journey. A candidate might not know every question, but they know everything they need to be able to respond to them.

A candidate is in a different position to their examiners. They have a different role in the viva. They have different information. But that doesn’t mean they are at a disadvantage.

Necessary, Not Evil

Too often the viva is thought of as only a negative experience.

Questions, Examiners, The End, Stress, Worry, What If, Failure, The Unknown…

In advance of the viva, for many very understandable reasons, a candidate could expect it is going to be a bad experience. The viva is a necessary part of the PhD process in the UK, but also one that is a little unclear. It’s an exam so thinking about it can be a little worrying. It involves examiners and discussion – which can make thinking about engaging with the viva more than a little concerning.

The viva and the outcome really matter. The viva is important. Hypothetical questions about what might happen and worry about failure are reasonable.

You can’t simply change a negative opinion of the viva. You have to find out more. Ask friends about their experiences. Check the regulations and prepare yourself to meet the expectations you find there. You might still continue to think of the viva as hard or difficult, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience.

Your viva is a necessary part of your PhD journey. It doesn’t have to be a bad part.

Odd

An odd viva could occur. Odd in a way that nobody is anticipating prior to it.

How odd?

  • A four hour viva.
  • A viva with an additional Doctor or Prof.
  • A viva without many hours of discussion.
  • A criticism you had not thought of.
  • Or finding no typos in your big fantastic book!

Odd is not automatically bad. Odd but OK. Odd is not hard, not tough and not a fail.

How odd?

As odd as a Viva Survivors blog post without our common fifth symbol of communication!

The R Expectations

Information about viva experiences can be presented in different ways.

I did a survey some years ago that showed that approximately half of vivas were less than two hours. How do we turn that information into a useful expectation?

  • There’s a fifty-fifty chance your viva will be over in two hours!
  • You just can’t know what’s going to happen.
  • Hope you’ll be done in two hours – but you might not be!

None of these are helpful!

There are three words to keep in mind when framing expectations:

  • Is the framing relevant? Does it practically help?
  • Is the framing reasonable? Does it match common sense ways of thinking – so as to be accepted as useful?
  • Is the framing realistic? Does it agree with the information?

Approximately 50% of viva are less than two hours. How can we share an expectation to help someone?

How about: Expect your viva to be at least two hours: it might be shorter, but you can prepare for the potential effort.

This is a big expectation for the viva, based on a lot of data and experiences. It helps to try to express things clearly and concisely. I keep the three Rs in mind when sharing general viva expectations, but they help when sharing your experience too.

When trying to share your story or viva experience, consider whether what you’re saying is relevant, reasonable and realistic.

Assemble With Care

It occurred to me recently that the viva is a little like flat pack furniture: a wardrobe or chest of drawers that you have to assemble from eighteen pieces of wood with three kinds of screw and two very similar looking types of dowel.

There are clear instructions for the viva, like flat pack furniture, but that doesn’t guarantee that it will be easy. It’s a challenge to get it done, takes a few hours usually and benefits from having others present to help – examiners in the case of the viva!

Like all good analogies, it breaks down when you stretch it too far. The viva is far more like a piece of bespoke furniture, one of a kind even if it follows a type or form. The viva is always brought together by very skilled people.

To bring it back to flat pack furniture, the viva is better when it’s assembled with care. Take time to know what you need to do and how you can do it well.

Things The Viva Isn’t

It’s not a quiz.

You need to know a lot, of course, but you’re not expected to have rapid recall or a photographic memory of your research and your thesis.

It’s not an interview.

You might choose to dress smart, but you’ve not applied for a position. The focus and purpose of the viva are radically different.

It’s not a game.

The people involved have roles but aren’t players. There are rules to be followed but there aren’t moves to make or best strategies to employ.

It’s not a question and answer session.

There are going to be lots of questions but the structure and flow is not simply question and answer, question and answer.

 

The viva is an exam.

The viva is a discussion.

The viva is a challenge, but one you can prepare for.

The viva is one more day to demonstrate your capability as a researcher.

Starting

Starting the viva could make you feel a minute or two of nervousness. Your examiners will know this might be the case, so will respond accordingly. Simple questions to get things started. Perhaps a presentation, requested in advance, to give you a good way to begin.

Starting the viva is not the first thing you will do on viva day. Consider how you could plan ahead to begin your day well. Decide in advance how you will get to your viva. Decide in advance what you will wear to remove a decision from that day.

Starting the viva is a challenge, but not one that is wholly unknown to you. It is not something for which you have no experience to prepare you. Reflect on what you know about the viva and what you have done that can help you.

Starting the viva is almost the end of your PhD. Remind yourself that you could not have got this far by being lucky or by being unskilled. You must be good by this stage of the journey.

What You Wish For

Be careful what you wish for your viva, because you have no direct control of what will happen. Wishing for this question or that direction of conversation, for a certain length or a particular comment is a distraction.

Be careful what you wish for, because you can draw your attention away from the work you’ve done, the preparations you’ve made and the confidence you’re building.

Learn about general viva expectations. Check the regulations. Ask your friends and colleagues about their experiences. Then get back to getting ready.

Now I Forget

I remember checking in with my supervisor half an hour before my viva and asking him about a key definition. I don’t remember seeing him at all later that day, but he must have been there. Right?

I shared an office with four other people at the time, but don’t recall any of them being there on my viva day. Isn’t that strange? A Monday in early June and no-one was around. Did that happen? Or do I just not remember?

I started my viva with a presentation. I remember my examiners asking me questions almost immediately, as I was sharing a summary. I remember difficult questions about my explanation for some results. However, I don’t remember any questions at all about the key result of my thesis. Isn’t that strange?

I remember passing but have a hole in my memory until that evening, a celebratory dinner in a restaurant with my family. I don’t know if my examiners gave me a list of corrections after my viva. I don’t know if I saw any friends around the department. I don’t know if I called or texted anyone to let them know I was done.

 

I’m starting to forget my viva. I remember a story, a fragment of what happened, but not the day.

Maybe it means my viva really wasn’t that big a deal compared to everything else in my PhD. Maybe it means I’ve finally finished thinking about that day – unlikely as that may seem!

Why am I sharing this? To offer a little perspective, for those who have their viva in the future. It matters. Your viva is important. But it won’t be the most important thing you ever do.

The viva is one day on your journey to getting your PhD.

And maybe one day you’ll realise you’ve forgotten all about it.

Agreeing

The viva is a discussion. Questions are asked to prompt and probe; responses are given to move the conversation along. Your examiners ask questions and make comments to explore your research and your capability.

If your examiners disagree with you in the viva: ask them questions if needed, then listen and figure out what – if anything – you have to say in response.

And if your examiners agree with you in the viva, then the process is the same: ask them questions if needed, then listen and figure out what – if anything – you have to say in response.

It’s understandable why any candidate might worry about examiners disagreeing with them. It’s helpful to remember that disagreement does not mean failure. It’s helpful to remember that you can engage with critical questions and comments; that’s what you’re supposed to do as part of the viva.

It’s also helpful to remember that the vast majority of vivas are successful.

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