Breaking down your PhD viva.
February 1, 2018
Written by: Emmanuel G Escobar
There is nothing original by writing about the PhD experience and how to prepare for the viva. If you have submitted your thesis and are waiting for the viva, you might spend a full day reading other people’s experience on blogs and forums. In fact, this article could very well be another generic guide on how to prepare for the viva, that you may or may not read. Reading through other people’s experience and advice may give you that tiny confidence boost that you need. You might already know everything about what to expect on the day. And yet, you are still reading this. I guess one of the first things that we learn on a PhD is to gather as much information from several sources before coming to our own conclusions.
While it is good to talk to others about their viva experience, it can give you a false sense of exposure to it. Most advice is good advice, but is good advice always relevant? The problem with most viva preparation advice is that it is exactly what we expect. That is because it will usually be given by people who have successfully passed their viva and wish others to pass as well. Therefore, it is not surprising that most of these blogs are highly positive in delivery. But I find that these tips are so generic and blatantly obvious that we might forget their real importance. Perhaps these guides are written as a way to comfort the person reading it, rather than breaking down the logic behind the viva. Let’s be honest, have you ever come across advice and think ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to do that’.
Here’s what you aren’t being told, but must know.
1. Write the thesis when you want to write it.
The viva revolves around the thesis, so it is not surprising that the first point on this list includes preparation of the thesis. But let’s explore this statement a bit further. First of all, this statement is often disguised as the ‘write the thesis you want to write’ or ‘write a good thesis’, without falling into the same problem of sounding subjective or even patronising. The best time to produce a well written thesis is when you are motivated to write, which means that the infrequent bursts of spontaneous excitement can create the best flow of ideas. Write in such a way that one starting sentence leads the way into another sentence, and gradually you build your paragraphs. Plans are good if you want to keep schedule, but they can limit your creativity by making you focus on one particular task, at one particular time.
2. Get away from the thesis.
It is a good idea to do this before submitting the thesis, but mere desperation to get it over and done, might prevent you from taking this approach. That’s ok, it works for preparing for the viva as well. A milestone is reached when the thesis is completed, and nothing stops you from celebrating it. I even dare to say that the feeling of accomplishment is greater at the end of writing the thesis than it is at the end of the viva. The last thing you want to do is prolong your time with your thesis. Take a break from it and come back to it, not seeing it as the document that had to be completed but as the representation of your hard work.
3. Don’t read your thesis (but learn from it).
Ok, you can see I’m being provocative, since most people will tell you the exact opposite. I guarantee you that the more you read your thesis, the less likely you will be able to spot mistakes. This can be because of a several factors, but usually caused by tiredness and perhaps a bit of boredom. Let’s face it, it’s not the most exciting activity after writing and editing the entire thing. The idea here is simple, instead of criticising your own work, try to assess how well you can learn from what is written. I’m sure that almost every sentence in any thesis could be elaborated on. Although it might be difficult to appreciate every sentence in a document which contains hundreds of sentences, each individual sentence has the potential to be questioned. While an idea or a description to a method may be clear to you, not everyone is going to see the logic behind it. Test yourself on how much you know.
4. Be daring.
The viva is designed to assess how much you understand about your field and the implications of your research. You are expected to defend your ideas and maybe agree with suggestions given during the viva. But that is not to say that you cannot initiate a debate based on what your results have shown. You don’t have to agree with everything that is said in the viva, sometimes your examiners will only ask a question or debate because that is what scientists do best. This is not the time to feel intimidated.
5. Remember some references.
Well maybe you have started an argument, but don’t have enough supporting evidence. It is always helpful to use relevant evidence to defend any statement that you make in the thesis, but in the viva, it may help pacify your examiners with the comfort that someone else has the same viewpoint or that similar evidence has been published. With that in mind, you might not want to make a statement without knowing who said it or in what context. You should know the key journals related to your work and they could save you if you get yourself in a tricky situation.
6. Don’t treat the thesis as a document that needs to impress examiners.
It is common to treat the thesis as the obstacle to obtaining a PhD and it can also seem as the physical representation of the 4-year research programme. It must impress, isn’t that right? But your PhD thesis is not about impressing examiners or your supervisor. In principle, the thesis is an assessment of how well you can interpret and communicate your knowledge and results. Yes, it will be read and criticised by two or more examiners with more than 20 years of academic experience, but don’t limit yourself into producing a document that will please those who want to assess your competency as an academic. It should be written so that other students or staff members can read it and access the information in case they need to. When defending your thesis, think that it’s a scientific document with the potential to be referenced by anyone.
7. Don’t see it as defending one large document.
You spent a long time organising the thesis into its final form, so why should the preparation for the viva be any different? It’s all about structure of revision at this point. Before you start reviewing your thesis, get three pieces of note paper and on each individual sheet write the chapter number, followed by either introduction, results and discussion (or depending how you structured your thesis). Keep your ideas structured so that you can refer to them with ease later on. Remember to give equal attention to each chapter and force yourself not to skip a particular section, even if you feel comfortable with it.
8. Don’t be scared, anxious or stressed.
Honestly, writing that first sentence at the start of every chapter of the thesis will always be more difficult than your viva. Accept the thesis that you submitted, regardless of the state it was in. When given the opportunity, talk about the parts you are really proud of and the parts you struggled with the most and why. It is better to convince the examiners that you are conscious about your research and its limitations, rather than convincing yourself that you have not done good enough. You should be excited. If you’re not, here’s 5 reasons why you should be.
9. Don’t have a mock viva, apply for jobs instead.
Probably the only place you will be asked about your PhD is when looking for a job and being interviewed for a job may in fact be better than attending a mock viva. A mock viva is scripted in a way and you attend it expecting to be asked very difficult questions about your thesis, thus preparing you for the viva. But it could cause unnecessary worries and stress, particularly when you can’t answer certain questions. On the positive side, it can help you think of areas which you haven’t considered. Otherwise, feeling that you can’t answer what you think is a critical question weeks before the viva might not be the best for your confidence. Either way, it is important that you talk about your project to someone other than your supervisor or close colleague; perhaps there’s something new you haven’t considered.
10. Constantly use I.
This is a not in most science aspects, unless it comes to defending your thesis. Avoid using ‘we’ when describing aspects of your project. It takes away the fact that you did the work. Constant use of 'we' may make it seem like you had more help than you should have gotten. Remember it’s your work, so stand firmly behind it.
Your preparation should ideally start when you are writing the thesis, not earlier and definitely not the night before the viva. Also, the viva is not something you should be afraid of or think that it is going to be a massive leap into unknown territory. If I had to give the viva a value, I would give it no more than 15% of the total value of the PhD programme. That is to say that the viva will fill any gaps that are not clear in the thesis. It should take your knowledge as it stands when you submitted the thesis and stretch it within what is expected from you. Therefore, the best preparation is to have an excellent grasp of everything you wrote in the thesis. When it is time for your viva, all those stories you read online will be forgotten. Just then will you truly appreciate the uniqueness of your viva experience.