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.

Second Chances

I have heard stories of candidates that are asked to correct and resubmit their thesis after their viva. Resubmission is a formal process; it can mean that the candidate has to have a second viva. It could be that the thesis was incomplete or in some way “not right”. It could be that on that occasion the candidate needed to say something in particular – but didn’t.

It could be this or it could be that, but one thing that is certain is that the “second chance” of resubmission and a second viva is incredibly rare. It happens and it happens for specific reasons. If you’re concerned about it in advance of your viva it might help to read the regulations for your university or talk to your supervisor to see if there is anything in your work to really be concerned about.

Again, it is incredibly rare for all of this to happen. While it might help to find out more about resubmission and second vivas just in case, it’s probably better that you focus on other things instead: your research, your thesis, your preparation. These are certainties that can help you to succeed – a far better focus than a hypothetical that will only serve to distract you.

A Collage Of Expectations

Viva expectations are a collage of different kinds of information: possibly dry regulations glued next to stories heard on the grapevine that then line up with the boundaries of firsthand, close-to-home experience.

Often, you simply need to realise that your viva will be unique but not an unknown. There’s a range of possible experiences but nothing outlandish that you’ll be unprepared for. The collage of expectations won’t present a clear picture of your viva, but it will show you how things are supposed to be.

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.

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.

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.

The Standard Viva

Vivas vary because every thesis and every candidate are different. Regulations create a layer of structure. Good practice for vivas creates expectations. You can’t have a script but you can reasonably expect a viva to have certain standard features.

  • You can and should expect examiners to prepare.
  • You can ask for a break at any point.
  • Vivas tend to start with a simple question.
  • Corrections are a standard request for candidates.

Success is part of the standard viva. More than anything, it’s expected you will pass.

Why Might You Have An Independent Chair?

It could be that you have an independent chair at your viva; they would be a member of staff from your university. Their role in the viva would be, largely, to observe what happens.

There are lots of reasons you might have an independent chair:

  • Their presence could be part of the regulations for your university.
  • It may be part of the culture for your department to have one.
  • One of your examiners might be a fairly new academic and so it’s been thought to be good to have an experienced member of staff present.
  • It may even be that your viva has been randomly selected to be observed, so that your institution can be confident that vivas are being held in an appropriate way!

There are lots of reasons you might have one, but no bad ones: an independent chair is there to watch and to make sure that the viva is going well. They won’t have read your thesis. They won’t ask you any questions. They will make sure the process is fair.

An extra person in the room might add to nerves, but really the best thing you can do is check far in advance what the situation will be or might be for your viva. Then you can do anything you need to do in order to be comfortable on the day.

Patterns

Vivas are governed by regulations. There are over 100 universities in the UK, each with their own set of rules for thesis examination – but these rules are all very similar in purpose.

Vivas are mostly conducted by academics. While there are typically two examiners in any viva they have colleagues who they talk to. Ideas of what makes a viva “good” or “right” are passed around.

This leads to cultures of thesis examination.

Culture can be specific to individual departments. Academics can have the idea that a certain length of viva is desirable, a certain focus, a certain structure and so on.

So: there are rules for what happens, ideas for what is right and these lead to patterns of experience by candidates. Viva stories describe exams tending to be a certain length, beginning with similar questions, and so on.

Patterns of experience, if passed on, give rise to useful patterns of expectation.

You can’t know exactly what will happen at your viva. Every viva will be unique, but if you ask the right people the right questions you can get a good idea of what to expect – and then prepare accordingly.

Talk to your supervisors, friends and colleagues to find out more of what vivas are like in your department. Understand the pattern of what happens at the viva and you’ll know what you need to do to be ready.

A Small Part Of The Story

It’s essential to read the regulations for thesis examination at your institution before you submit. They’ll tell you what you need to do and what you need to know. Some of this you’ll have picked up by being around other postgraduate researchers for years, but there can be key points you have missed.

Check for details on timelines. Check for paperwork you need to complete. Check, if needed, what the requirements are for having a viva over video.

Remember that reading the regulations is only a small part of the story. They won’t tell you what questions will come up. They won’t tell you what you need to do to get ready. They won’t tell you what vivas are really like.

So ask your friends and colleagues. Talk with your supervisor. Read blog posts and viva stories to get a sense of what to expect. Explore whether or not there are norms within your department for how vivas take place.

And when your viva is finished and you’ve passed, consider sharing your experience to help shape the expectations of other candidates. They’ll read the regulations too, but will need your story to help guide their expectations, preparation and confidence.