7 Questions To Ask Friends About Their Vivas

Friends who have recently had a viva in your department are good to ask about what to expect. Listening to their stories can give you certainty for your viva.

There’s great variety generally when it comes to viva experiences; local knowledge of your department’s practices can both shape your expectations and help you to prepare. By asking the right questions you can get the information that will be most useful to you.

  1. Was your viva in-person or online? (this helps frame other expectations)
  2. How long was your viva? (everyone wants to know this!)
  3. How did your viva begin? (it’s helpful to know the sorts of things that happen)
  4. Was anyone else apart from your examiners present? (some vivas have chairpersons; some candidates invite their supervisors)
  5. What was the flow of questions like? (were they big picture, focussed and so on)
  6. How did your viva end? (get a sense of what to expect)
  7. How did you feel throughout your viva? (knowing some of the thoughts and feelings that flow can help)

If you ask only one person then you might hear a helpful story that puts the viva in perspective. If you ask several people you might spot patterns in the structure of vivas in your department. Perhaps your department has a certain way of doing things. Knowing that information could really put you at ease.

Don’t simply ask a friend, “How was it?”

Go deeper. Ask more to help yourself more.

Surprised

If I had a pound for every time someone told me they were surprised they enjoyed their viva I would probably have a very healthy savings account. When I share stories of success and enjoyment with candidates they are surprised. They’ve heard that vivas are OK or that most people pass, but don’t know that they can be good.

With candidates and graduates being surprised by this we have a problem!

So what can we do?

Candidates can find out more about what to expect to get a better sense of the reality of the viva. Graduates, surprised or not, can share their stories more widely. Vivas aren’t perfect, but they are more often enjoyed than awful.

The UnWords

Questions about viva expectations often lead towards the UnWords.

  • “What if examiners are unfair?”
  • “What if I’m unprepared?”
  • “What if I’m uncertain about a question?”
  • “What if what they want to know is unknown?”
  • “Will my examiners be unkind?”

It’s human to expect the worst. It’s normal given the rumours, myths and half-truths told about the viva for a PhD candidate to expect the worst. It doesn’t match the reality though.

Examiners have regulations and training in mind to make sure they’re fair. You can take time to be ready. Examiners are looking for engagement rather than answers. They’ve no interest in being unkind.

It’s natural to ask questions about the PhD viva. Thankfully the answers you’ll find will generally lead you away from expecting the worst.

Benefits and Space

In principle you can invite your supervisor to your viva. It’s up to you, there are plenty of benefits.

  • You could show them what you know and what you can do.
  • They could make notes on your behalf and give them to you afterwards. A good record of the discussion in the viva could be valuable.
  • You could feel supported: you could feel better that there is someone in your corner.

These are all possible benefits from your supervisor being at your viva – but you still might not want them there. It might feel too uncomfortable. The idea of it might make you nervous.

It’s not a bad idea to have them present but it might not be a good idea for you.

Say yes if you need some of the benefits. Say no if you need that space for yourself.

The Waiting Room

It could be that, like me, having to wait for something means your thoughts turn to asking “What if…?” These questions aren’t always helpful for keeping calm or confident. Sometimes they even prompt nervousness. They could be natural to ask, but seriously unhelpful in those moments.

Before or after the viva, wherever you are, there’s a good chance that you’ll need to wait.

Waiting to start, waiting while your examiners talk afterwards. Wait to get going or wait for it to be done and the result known. Waiting might simply feel uncomfortable or it could spark anxious questions, depending on your temperament and how you feel in those situations.

If you know you feel uncomfortable in those situations, what could you do?

By now, I’m pretty confident when I deliver a presentation or seminar, but I still get nervous waiting. So I have a routine that starts things off. I have a small series of tasks to calm me and engage me while the time ticks down. I have music that I listen to which connects me with the work I’m about to do.

What could you do? Is there something you could listen to before your viva that might help? Is there a series of steps you could take to keep you calm? A process for setting up your space that would help you?

And afterwards, if you’re at home or your university, what could you do while waiting for your examiners to finish their discussions? Could you go for a short walk? Make a drink? Talk to someone?

You’ll most likely have to wait on the day of your viva. What can you do to feel comfortable in those moments?

The Viva Speedrun

Over the last year I’ve introduced my daughter to more and more video games. While we have different tastes and skill levels, we both love exploring, creating things within games and the simply joy of playing.

What neither of us has is much taste for is the desire that some gamers have for speedrunning – trying to complete games as fast as possible. Sometimes a game will have a certain bonus or prize for finishing in a certain time; sometimes people like to brag on YouTube that they are the fastest in the world. It definitely takes skill to do, but it’s just not for us.

 

Which brings me to remind anyone who needs to hear it that there’s no trophy for finishing your viva in a certain time limit. There’s no prize or even bragging rights if you were faster than a friend.

A long viva might not always be comfortable, but there’s not a lot you can do about it. You show up, ready to engage, and discuss whatever you need to until it’s done. Speed doesn’t matter. Long vivas don’t necessarily lead to more corrections.

Passing is already a great achievement. You don’t need to set any records to show that you’ve done something amazing.

Video Viva Expectations

Last March I asked for examiners and PhD graduates to share their experiences of being part of a video viva. Lots of generous people shared their stories, observations and advice. A consistent detail – from the examiner perspective – was that video vivas tended to be shorter than in-person vivas. They were a little more formal, but due to the medium they were more focussed and completed more quickly.

As 2020 continued and became 2021, I heard more recent graduates describe their pandemic viva experiences. Long vivas over Zoom and Meet, three-and-a-half hours, four hours or more! The assumed explanation was that as no-one needed to travel to participate in the viva, examiners could give more time to the discussion in the viva. There was nothing negative seen in any of this – other than the amount of time spent in a video-meeting!

Are these long video vivas outliers? Possibly. Not every candidate shares their story, and of the handful I’ve heard there would be hundreds more I have no details of. It’s reasonable to expect that there would be differences in the viva over a video chat. Length of time is one aspect I could definitely see changing compared to the previously “typical” viva.

Some expectations remain true though. Examiners will be prepared. The candidate will be too. The viva is being done for the same reasons. The candidate has done the same work as if it was in-person. The outcome is likely to be the same, even if the process has changed.

In-person or over video, expect that you will have done everything you need to be ready to pass your viva.

Time Passing In The Viva

Candidates give a lot of focus to time in the viva. How long could it be? How short might it be? What do they feel like?

My four hours felt very short. The short break afterwards felt very long. Many graduates have told me similar stories over the years; however long their viva was, it felt like it flew by.

It’s useful to be aware of stories and expectations, but how long a viva is doesn’t really matter for the most part. You won’t know how long it will feel like until you’re there.

Rather than focus on how long it will be or will feel like, it’s better to focus on what you will do in the viva.

How will you respond to questions? What will you take with you? How do you want to engage with your examiners?

Expecting the Unexpected

It’s right to learn about viva expectations. Get a sense of what vivas are generally like, read the regulations, listen to the stories of your friends to build a picture for what your viva could be like. Get a sense of what to expect.

And expect that yours will not follow that plan at all.

You won’t get the same questions. It might not be the same length. You won’t get the same corrections. You might not get the same first question and you won’t face the same challenges.

There’s no contradiction. Vivas are unique, but not unknown or unknowable. Vivas have structures and follow patterns, but never repeat. Expect that yours will be similar to many others. Expect that yours will be different in ways you can’t predict.

And expect yourself to be ready for whatever you’re asked.

Key Examiner Expectations

Expect your examiners to be professional.

In the same way that a candidate can be expected to get ready for the viva, expect that your examiners will do what they need to be ready to examine you.

If they’re a relatively new academic then they will receive training to be an examiner. They’ll rely on their colleagues to help them explore the role. If they’re a little disconnected from your area or topic of research, they will do their homework in advance of the viva.

An examiner might not know everything about your field before they read your thesis, but they will learn enough to be a good examiner for you. If they’re busy they will make the time. If they’re uncertain, they will dig deeper.

If they’ve said yes to being your examiner then you can expect they will be working to do the job well.

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