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.

The Formalities

Find out when and how you’ll have your viva. Check the regulations. Google your examiners and bookmark their staff pages. Note down key expectations your supervisors share. Be sure of the viva process at your institution.

The formalities matter. They’re also a really small part of the viva and of getting ready for it. Sort them out as soon as possible so you can focus on preparing yourself, your thesis and your confidence for the viva.

Do I Need A Printed Thesis?

Over the last year a lot of PhD candidates have asked me variations on this question. Any response has to be layered, because there’s lots to think about. Often, the question is being asked because it has been more difficult than usual to obtain a printed copy.

Do you still need a printed thesis in the age of Zoom vivas?

  • The first thing to do is check what your institution and department say. Have regulations or expectations changed? If yes, you could consider having a digital copy, but if not you just might need to get a printed copy produced regardless.
  • If you need a printed copy but your institution print shop is out of action or has greatly reduced capacity, then Google is your friend: there are lots of online printing services that can produce this and ship to your door quickly.
  • If you don’t, according to the rules, need a printed copy, then you have to consider about what you need for the viva.

You need a copy of your thesis, in a format that is easy for you to read, search through and find sections. You need a copy of your thesis that you can annotate, both before and potentially during your viva. Annotation makes your thesis more useful for the viva and helps you to reflect on your thesis as you get ready. A digital copy of your thesis could do this, but you have to be sure that the format, the software and the device you are using is going to be enough for you in the viva.

My personal opinion is that a print copy of a thesis could, in many cases, be the best solution. But that’s my personal opinion, based on my needs, how easy I would find it to use a paper document and so on. I don’t have any needs that wouldn’t be met by a paper thesis. I don’t have any restrictions in terms of getting access to a printed 200-page document if I needed one for that purpose. I’m me, I’m not you.

If you need a digital copy, then it’s worth exploring how you would make that work well for you in the viva.

If you need a paper copy but that might be tricky to find, then it’s worth searching for a way to get one.

In The Chair

An independent chairperson for the viva can be really valuable. They act as an impartial observer, recording what happens. They can be a navigator carefully steering examiner or candidate away from fruitless discussions. They don’t decide the outcome but they can help set the tone for a good viva.

And not every viva has one. If you don’t, then your internal examiner takes on some of these responsibilities. They’ll make sure your viva is fair.

Is there a chair or not for your viva? Find out. One situation isn’t better than the other – they’re just different. Knowing as much as you can about what to expect can help settle your mind that your viva really is going to be fine.

Popular Culture

When I was a teenager, me and a few friends liked superheroes. We bought random American comic books from this one newsagent in our home town that stocked them. This was the mid-1990s. No real internet, no way to connect or find out more. There were three or four of us in our school who loved superheroes, and hundreds who didn’t. The thing we liked wasn’t popular.

Jump forward twenty years and superheroes are everywhere. The biggest movies are about superheroes, saving the day in two to three hours of screen time – they’re not universally liked but they’re much, much more popular than when me and my few friends were reading about them.

Popular culture changes over time. Nevermind the popular: culture changes. It’s steered by people, by time, by events, and hopefully – but sadly not always – for the good.

 

Over the last decade I’ve seen that the culture around the viva is changing. More and more candidates feel less and less worried. Still nervous, but not overly concerned.

The viva is less unknown, it’s more common for people to have an idea of what to expect, more common for candidates to take steps to really get ready.

The culture around the viva in the UK is slowly changing for the good. If you’re not seeing it for yourself then take a few steps to finding out more. Ask a few friends about their vivas. Check the regulations. See what expectations are valid and what you can do to be ready.

Like superheroes, vivas aren’t universally liked – but you can be ready to save the day when it comes to your two to three hours of screen time.

Made To Measure

Your viva is a unique exam, tailored just for you and your thesis. No-one else will have this one-of-a-kind experience.

But like made to measure clothes, there are patterns. There are ways that things are done. Jacket sleeves stop at a certain point so the jacket fits well. A skirt would be no good if it wasn’t stitched properly. Vivas are unique for the individual candidate, but there are expectations for what they should be like.

Find out about regulations and expectations for the viva, so that when yours comes around you can be sure it fits you well.

The Unmysterious Viva

The viva experience might be sometimes unclear, but it’s not mysterious.

There’s a variety of experiences, but a clear range of common expectations.

There’s structure from regulations, academic practice and norms from departmental procedures.

Every viva is necessarily unique, but it’s simple enough to find a useful set of expectations to work towards.

Learn a little to take away any idea that your viva is a mysterious event in your future.