The Decision

Before the viva, your examiners will have an idea of the outcome. They’ve read your thesis; they have thought about it; they have experience. They will have an outcome in mind before the viva based on what they think of the thesis.

But it’s not set in stone. It’s an outcome they think is likely, but you still have to show up and show them what you know, what you think, what you can do.

In very rare cases examiners tell candidates the result at the start of the viva. In those cases they are so sure of the viva outcome that they want to put the candidate at ease to then have a great discussion. But those cases really are rare. Don’t expect it for your viva.

Expect that your examiners will have an idea: they do their job in the preparation and come prepared to do their job on the day. They come with a decision that they look to see confirmed by your actions and your words.

You can make a decision too. You can decide to be ready for your viva. You can decide how you will show up on the day.

So decide.

When Examiners Disagree

Your examiners have to reach a decision, but it may be that they don’t agree on everything. It could be that one likes a particular idea or experiment or conclusion in your thesis and the other doesn’t. It may be that they can just work it out before they meet with you, but it could be the case that you have examiners who disagree with each other about something in the viva.

What do you do?

  • First: listen and let them lay out their positions. You may have strong feelings for a topic, but let them talk first and see whether this is something you actually need to respond to. They may just be expressing different opinions, it may not be disagreement.
  • Second: be sure of what you are responding to before you respond. If someone doesn’t like something, ask why. If they are vague, ask for details. Be clear and then respond as best you can. You don’t have to take sides, you just have to explain what you think.
  • Third: if discussion results in corrections, get as much clarity as possible to see what’s involved. If there is disagreement about corrections between examiners, ask again for clarity.

Remember: it is not your job to resolve disagreements between your examiners. They’re professionals: expect them to be professional.

Wait for them to clearly state their points, then do what you can to engage with them and find out what (if anything) you have to do as a result.

Exceptions To The Rule

There are always some. For the viva think of them as exceptions to the expectations

  • …the six hour vivas, out of the ordinary, but they do happen.
  • …the vivas done over video chat, which don’t happen that often, but often enough.
  • …the vivas where an examiner doesn’t have a PhD, or perhaps where there are two external examiners.
  • …the viva where the candidate is stood for four hours answering questions in front of a blackboard!

That last one was me. Totally unexpected, not unpleasant or terrible, just different. At the time I didn’t have either knowledge or experience to know it was out of the ordinary. I’ve never met anyone else who has stood for their whole viva.

There was a reason for why my viva happened that way: I was asked to give a presentation, and I stayed at the blackboard.

There are reasons for all of the exceptions; they don’t just happen, particular circumstances lead them that way. Not all exceptions to the rule can be seen in advance, but some – like the make-up of your examining group, or being asked to give a presentation, or doing the viva over videochat – can be. In all of those cases, there are rules and regulations for what happens.

Expectations for the exceptions.

7 Tips For Completing Corrections

Most candidates will be asked to complete corrections after the viva.

Most candidates will have other things to do which could make doing corrections feel like a tricky task.

Being busy won’t excuse you from corrections; here are some ideas to help you get them done.

  1. Check the conditions of various viva outcomes in advance. How much time is given for different corrections? Factor that into your plans.
  2. Ask for a list of what your examiners expect after your viva is done. Nearly all examiners give this anyway; if you have any doubts, ask for a list of required amendments.
  3. Ask for clarification of what is expected. Ask your examiners for details of what might satisfy their requests (how much detail about a reference, say, or what wording they think is unclear).
  4. Check your current plans. If you have a month after your viva to complete all of your corrections, when could you schedule time to work?
  5. Check who needs to approve your corrections. Is it just to the satisfaction of your internal, or for your external as well? And what is the effective deadline?
  6. Make a quick plan. What are you going to do and when are you going to do it? Create a clear checklist so you can mark tasks off when they are completed.
  7. DO THE WORK! Once it is done then you’ll be over 99% finished with your PhD.

It is also useful to check what you need to do after your thesis is corrected. Some institutions have short periods between when corrections are approved and the final thesis submission. Be sure of the timeline so you are ready to meet your institution’s requirements.

Corrections are an opportunity to make your thesis as good as it can possibly be. After your viva, go do that. Get it done, then go on to the next great thing you’ll do with your life.

The Problem With Pass Or Fail

“Pass or fail” is too simple a story for the viva. Two outcomes plants the idea that both have equal likelihood. Even when a candidate knows that’s not the case, having a binary outcome allows for one (the negative one, of course!) to rest heavily in the mind.

There are many outcomes – minor corrections, major corrections, resubmission, no corrections… If we tell the story that the viva is pass or fail, the real outcomes confuses the matter. I’ve had many candidates ask me “Is major corrections a pass or not?” because they think the viva is only pass or fail.

Check the outcomes at your institution. Check what they mean. Focus on the fact that most people get some corrections to do, and that’s not a problem. They’ve not failed.

“Pass or fail” is a nice, simple story, but it’s not accurate. There are many outcomes, not just two, and most of them are a pass. There are conditions to the pass, and there are reasons why candidates get those outcomes. Find out why. Learn more. Understand the situation.

Not “pass or fail” but “pass and why”

Correcting Corrections

Corrections don’t mean your thesis is incorrect.

They are the typos and mistakes that crept past the editing process. A correction could be a suggestion that you direct the future reader to another reference, or direction to improve clarity for that future reader. They’re the ideas from experienced academics steering your work to a good place.

Corrections aren’t the system’s response to imperfection. They’re not given as a punishment. They’re not asked for on a whim.

A list of corrections is the answer to the question, “What changes would help your thesis be the best it could be?”

Check The Outcomes

What might the outcomes for your viva be?

Maybe: No corrections, minor corrections, major corrections, fail?

Or: pass without amendments, minor amendments, resubmission, re-viva, no award?

It’s never simply “pass or fail”.

Different institutions have different formal terminology. They can also have different formal consequences for outcomes, like the amount of time given to complete corrections. Be sure of the possible outcomes at your institution.

You can reasonably expect to get minor corrections, because most people do. Be sure of what that means so you can plan that period after your viva.

You can also reasonably expect to find your university’s thesis examination regulations at my Regulations link page, because most people do – and I’m working on tracking down links to the missing institutions!

A Foregone Conclusion?

Is passing your viva guaranteed?

No, but let’s say that it is the most likely outcome. Statistics, stories and the structure of the PhD journey say it clearly: how else could a candidate get to submission if they and the work weren’t good and ready?

Passing is the most likely outcome – many, many times more likely than failing. You should not expect to fail. If you feel really worried, dig into that. Why do you feel that way? What’s the problem? What’s getting in the way?

Now, what can you do about it?

 

Failure Is (Not) An Option

If every outcome was a pass with various conditions then the viva wouldn’t be an exam. Failing is possible but not likely. A rare outcome, not one you should expect.

Failure is an option for the PhD viva, but one that comes at the end of a generally long list of possible outcomes: no corrections, minor corrections, major corrections, resubmission without a viva, resubmission with a viva, awarded an MPhil, no award. Failure is the exceptionally rare last option that makes the viva an exam and not some kind of confirmation process.

Don’t expect it for your viva. Given everything you’ve done and how far you’ve come, it’s not an option for you and your thesis.

Happy-Sad

I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel about my PhD being done. Reflecting now that’s pretty true for all of the different stages of “done” there are. I was almost overwhelmed by how many different states I felt.

When I submitted my thesis I felt relieved, but it felt unreal that I’d finished writing.

When I was preparing I felt confident, but then suddenly insomniac the night before.

On the day I was happy to pass, but exhausted, and overwhelmed I think.

It was also an anticlimax. My viva was challenging, but fine too. It was just suddenly done… Anticlimax feels the right way to describe it.

Submitting my final, corrected thesis was a happy day, but at the same time sad.

Happy to be done, sad to be leaving.

As I often say on this blog, there are lots of realistic expectations for the viva. As a result you can do a lot to prepare but I’m not sure you can prepare for how you might feel after it’s done. It’s good that you’re done, but it might not feel great.

That sense of “I’ve done something significant” took time to hit me. I didn’t get it on the day, or the day after. It took weeks.

You might not know how you’ll feel. It doesn’t take away from the achievement.