Status

Your examiners have a high status in the viva for several reasons. They have titles. They have experience. They have roles in the viva (and before it) that gives them authority.

You have a high status in the viva for several reasons. You have worked to be there. You have deep experience that has put you in the room. The viva wouldn’t be happening at all if you weren’t there.

Status doesn’t have to signify conflict though. Status in the viva is just a consequence of recognising that everyone in the room has an important role to play.

The Welcome Mat

I love visiting friends who have a mat by their front door, big letters: WELCOME.

We’re glad you’re here. You’re supposed to be. Come in, join us.

I’ve never heard of a viva that had a welcome mat. I wish they did.

If it’s viva day, then you are supposed to be there. You did something good to get your thesis finished and your examiners are expecting you.

You are welcome.

We Need To Talk About The Viva

We don’t talk about it enough.

One day in every UK PhD’s life that is shoved aside, joked about, under-analysed, glossed over and swept under the rug. Don’t think about it too much because you’ll worry or stress. Don’t ask about it because you might hear a story you don’t like the sound of. Don’t explore what happens in case you feel you’re not up to the task. Don’t tell anyone afterwards because it’s over and done with now.

We need to talk about the viva – and I mean “we” because I can’t do it by myself!

We need graduates to talk about how they were feeling: what their expectations were, what happened and what they think that means.

We need academics to talk about their role in the process: what do supervisors do to help and what do examiners do to examine?

We need candidates to talk about how they’re feeling about their viva: what they know, what they don’t and what kind of support they need.

In general we need to talk about the viva more than we’re doing so that we can do a better job of helping candidates realise that it is a manageable challenge in their future. Difficult but do-able, especially given what they’ve already accomplished.

Pass It On

After your PhD, tell others what you learned. Not just the ideas in your thesis, but what you’ve learned about working well. What you can do now that you couldn’t before. What you learned at the viva even: what that experience was like for you and what you think it means.

Write it down so you don’t forget. Make a page in a journal to summarise how far you’ve come. Write a blog post. Give a talk before you leave your department. Do something to mark this change: you’re now a PhD!

Your story could help others write their own.

Standing

I stopped telling people that I was stood for all of my four-hour viva.

I used to always tell candidates, but after a time I discovered that that aspect of my viva experience was so far removed from the norm that it would only serve to confuse people.

Or worry them!

I’ve never met anyone who has had a viva in the UK who was stood for all of the experience. When I started sharing my session with PhD candidates it grabbed attentions in a seminar room, but for all of the wrong reasons. Over time it dawned on me: this is true, this really happened, but it won’t help others to hear it. And other than being tired afterwards I don’t feel that it was a bad or good thing for me, it was just part of my viva experience.

It happened because I was giving a presentation and without really thinking about it I stayed at the blackboard while my examiners started asking questions. I responded and drew a diagram, and then a few hours later we took a break. And I was still there. And I stayed there. By that point it seemed right, and I didn’t know any different because I had never really asked my friends about their experiences.

Vivas have expectations, but vivas are all unique. Some stories will sound remarkably similar, and some will have curious aspects that are surprising. If you hear a story with a worrying element, don’t automatically think this is something you should expect. Dig into it. How did it happen? Why did it happen?

Think about the particulars if it still worries you: even if it happened for that other person, why should it happen to you?

No Silly Questions

There are none about the viva. I’ve been asked:

  • “How many questions can I get wrong?”
  • “How can I guarantee I won’t get any corrections?”
  • “How can I make it as short as possible?”
  • “What if I get nervous and spill my coffee all over myself?”

I’ve really been asked that final question! None of these are silly questions. Questions about the viva tend to come from either not knowing about the process, regulations or expectations, or from being worried about the situation and how to pass. None of these questions are silly. It could be that a question is the wrong question to ask about a situation, maybe there is a better focus, but no questions are silly.

If you have a question but think, “Oh no, I’m being silly,” then you need to find the right person to ask. It could be your supervisor. It may be a friend who has already passed, or possibly your graduate school. It could be me! Whoever it is, get rid of your questions by trading them for answers.

More often than not you’ll then have to trade those answers for action you have to take, but that’s much better than either being in the dark or worrying.

 

Behind The Scenes

I love movies. I sometimes go through periods where I watch a movie every day. A couple of hours of story, tension, excitement, wonder, hopefully interesting dialogue, emotions, and occasionally incredible special effects.

I love learning about the making of movies too: how were the actors cast? How did the script develop? Where did that cool idea come from? And how did they get that amazing shot to look so good? It’s rare that finding out these things breaks the magic for me. It’s possible, for me at least, to appreciate a movie and marvel at all of the hard work that went into it.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the viva too, but it’s easy to forget that, easy to focus on just that one person on the day, hoping to pass. We have to remember…

  • …all of the hours spent by the candidates doing the work.
  • …all of the time spent organising thoughts and ideas into words on the page.
  • …all of the work invested by many others (supervisors, academics, universities) to get things to this point.
  • …the work of the examiners to get ready to give a good viva.
  • …the preparation work that a candidate can do to get ready and feel ready.

The viva is a couple of hours of dialogue, tension, excitement, maybe wonder, emotions – maybe few special effects, but it is certainly a special event! And it doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot that has to happen behind the scenes first.

Predictions For The Future Of The Viva

Virtual Vivas: Have your viva from the comfort of your home, while you can have the best external from ANYWHERE in the world!

AI Examiners: Profess0R V.Iva will read your thesis and optimise a set of question trees for discussion routines. Genetic algorithms will simulate instances of responses to produce a fair set of questions. And your viva will take place within three hours of submission of your thesis to the V.Iva Cloud!

The Honour System: “You did it? And it’s good? Fair enough then, here’s your certificate…”

Bonus Round: For every question you give a good answer to from the Super-Hard Questions List you get ten points! Get fifty or more and you could qualify to spin the Wheel Of Doctorateness and maybe win bonus doctoral endorsements!

Refreshments Will Be Provided: A water cooler and a hot water urn with several tea and coffee options. This would be nice if it was relatively common!

Predictions for change are tough. Predictions based on regular, common experiences are much more straight-forward. There are regulations for vivas in the UK. There are common patterns of experience. Within all the variety from what is essentially a unique exam every time we can see ideals to work towards, and so you can be prepared.

Who knows what the future will hold, in the short or long term? You can decide what you will do now.

Don’t wait for your viva future: work for it.

YMMV

Your mileage may vary.

That prep tip from a friend might not help you as much as it helped them.

The regulations might say to expect X, but you experience Y.

While others get a lot of help from a mock viva, you find it makes you worry.

But while your friends are nervous, you feel confident.

While someone else got minor corrections, you get none!

And the advice you heard didn’t just make a small difference, it made the difference to your viva.

Experiences vary. Preferences matter. Not everyone will have the same needs, the same circumstances, the same viva. We can hope for minimum standards, work hard towards preferred outcomes, and still some things won’t be quite as we might like. Some experiences will be better; some tips or techniques will be very helpful for some.

My advice is to share honestly, share openly, share positively. I hope it all helps, but your mileage may vary.

Descriptions Are Relative

Long viva, short viva. Good viva, bad viva.

Discussion or conversation? Chat or challenge?

Ready or prepared?

Words change how we feel about things.

Some people are tired by their viva, but I was exhausted.

Confident or nervous, nervous or anxious, anxious or worried, worried or terrified?

The descriptions for your viva are relative. A three hour or longer viva might feel intimidating now, a really stressful idea. Compare it to the thousands of hours of work you’ve done before. Compare it to how you might feel afterwards. Maybe, like some researchers, you’ll just think, “Was that it?”

Words really, really matter. Choose them carefully.