I was inspired to write this after spying a tweet by Dr Nathan Ryder, the author of How to Fail Your Viva asking if anyone had written a blog about surviving their viva recently.
Having had a fresh look at the Viva Survivor site (which I highly recommend), it got me thinking about surviving my viva. Most viva guides focus on preparing for your viva. Most are useful and freely accessible. But, my most stressful, confused and unprepared times came during or after my viva and not before it, and this is precisely what there is the least advice about.
So, here are some things I’d like to share which I think might help before, during, and after your viva.
Find out what your University expects of your examiners:
At the University of Manchester there isn’t too much information readily available (although Mathematics provides an excellent page of information).
Personally I would have found it much more reassuring had I known that my examiners had a “Pre-Viva Report Form” to fill out before the viva and “Joint Report Form” to fill out after, both of which asked specific questions. Based on what I’ve found it’s up to individual supervisors how much they tell each student. So ask your supervisor about what they do when they are examining a thesis.
This is much like telling an undergraduate student to read and understand the mark-scheme before they submit an essay, but it is not something which I thought to do and I wish I had.
Make a list of “worry words”:
I actually started doing this near the beginning of my PhD. I am a quick but not very accurate typist and I frequently mistype words in a way that brains and spell-checkers don’t spot. Here are some of my most common ones…
Minster instead of Minister
ears instead of years
hem instead of them
moths instead of months
and the all-time, all-weather champion which everyone claims to have seen once in their lives…
pubic instead of public
This all does seem ridiculous, but in my final check before submission I found six moths and four Minsters that I’d never noticed on seven whole read-throughs, so… Ctrl F is your friend.
P.S. Be very wary of the tempting “Find and Replace All” button. Stories abound of friends attempting to quickly ensure that their hem’s turned to them’s left them with tthemes and tthematics. Go carefully.
Accept that your thesis is not perfect:
I know you think it’s not perfect already. But accepting that it is not perfect, and that it CAN BE imperfect BUT STILL PASS, will make your life easier. I also know that although you perceive this advice as logical, you probably don’t think it applies to your thesis…
Accept that your thesis is not perfect (this bears repetition):
The last thing I expected was for anyone to challenge the basic historical facts (i.e. dates) in my work. After all, by the time you come to a viva, you supposedly know more about your topic than anyone else. Most probably you do. However typos and other embarrassing mistakes slip in to one draft, then aren’t checked in another, and eventually end up in the final thing. You’re a human there’ll be silly mistakes. Accept it.
Keep a sense of proportion:
My examiners focused on small errors, and I left the room at the end thinking that if I couldn’t even get dates right, then it wasn’t good news. Now I’m out of my viva head-space, I’ve realised that this was good news for two reasons:
1: it meant that I won’t look like an idiot when it’s put in the library and someone with access to Wikipedia reads it
2: it meant they hadn’t found something bigger and badder to complain about – like my central argument.
If they do pick at something bigger or badder, part of the viva process is to test how you respond. Do you admit an error, or do you defend your work? A lot of this depends on the context, and remember that you’ve probably only put 50% of your knowledge about and around the subject into the thesis. Take a deep breath. Take time to think. Remember that…
Your examiners don’t want to fail you:
The two (or three) people in that room didn’t read your thesis with the same critical eye as your supervisor. Your supervisor is trying to make you produce the best possible thesis. Your examiners are not trying to do that. They are trying to justify their assessment of your work.
They might have odd questions, but there’s usually a reason for it:
A “what if?” question in my viva really threw me, particularly as I knew the person asking it didn’t see much historical value to counterfactual questions.
However, all my examiners were looking for was evidence which would allow them to tick a box on the form to say that it was my own work and not someone else’s – my answer was proof that I’d done research in the area and could apply it.
Use the opportunity to find out what they enjoyed:
You’ve just spent many years writing a thing – ask them what they thought the best bits were. They’re an academic audience – if you plan to carry on writing for academic audiences, it’s a good captive and honest audience for finding out where your writing really shone.
I was lucky in my viva that I had someone working on topics very similar to mine. Sometimes in answers we’d get a bit off topic, and start picking each other’s brains. It was kind of fun. I know this sounds improbable to those of you who haven’t had a viva yet, but it was fun.
Even if your examiners aren’t experts in the specific field you’ve written about you can still enjoy speaking to people who have read your whole thesis and are interested in your research and your opinion without being paid (your supervisor) or obliged to be interested (blood relatives/partners/PhD friends/your supervisor). That’s something special. Enjoy that.
You should stop worrying about your viva. Your viva is something you can do. You got a PhD place, and (possibly) PhD funding based on the fact that you know how to talk and write about your topic. You’ve given talks at conferences. Answered questions. Attempted to explain your research to friends and family members who don’t understand any of your subject specific vernacular. You have friends and family members who avoid you drunk because they really do know a lot about your research (and don’t want to know any more).
You can talk about your thesis.
You know your thesis.
So don’t worry about that.
Think instead about what comes after your viva.
Corrections… Or, Remember that they didn’t fail you:
No one who passed their PhD more than a year ago will remember or admit (I’m not sure which of these it is) that doing corrections is hard. However, a lot of my friends have passed their PhDs recently too, and a lot them admitted that they found it hard to motivate themselves to do corrections.
The PhD process is so full of “you’ve nearly finished” moments that I thought I’d be able to handle corrections easily. Until the very end panic of submission I’d tried to treat my PhD funding like it was a wage for a job, keeping 9-5 hours (OK, OK , 10-6 hours), taking time for lunch, and having weekends (sometimes), and I thought that I’d be able to take corrections into my stride with business-like ease.
However, nothing really prepared me for the fact that, having passed the viva, (even with corrections) you kind of feel like it’s finally over. Coming to terms with the fact that you have some amount of work to do can be hard, and I’d failed to prepare for this conflict of emotions in any way, shape, or form.
Keeping a sense of proportion is harder after the viva than before it.
I found it really hard to keep a sense of scale. I saw each correction as a little failure, an admission of guilt, and it was hard to accept that I’d got those specific things (in some cases, very) wrong. I decided that my corrections were a secret code for “make it good”, and not “do these forty specific things”.
Given all the time between submitting and having my viva, I had of course found many other things wrong with my thesis which weren’t in my report at all, so instead of just doing the corrections I hid in my room for ages “making my thesis better” (this is in quotes because I was essentially tearing it down and starting again).
I got close to the ridiculously long deadline without even touching the actual corrections because I had bigger fish to fry.
Don’t do that!
Instead it is absolutely vital to remember that you only need to make the corrections you have been TOLD to make! (Along with any glaring errors you spot along the way of spelling, grammar, or obvious ommission).
Get someone who isn’t you to read your corrections and then chat with you about what you’re going to do to make the changes.
Discuss with them how long you think it will take.
Set a deadline and meet it (as much as anyone with such advanced academentia as you can).
Time for corrections is time to do what you’ve been asked to do and ONLY that. DO NOT use that time to make your thesis perfect because you need to…
Accept that your thesis will never be perfect.
No thesis is perfect, but yours will probably still pass. If you want any proof of that, then just go to BL ETHOS, download a thesis, and see what else passes.
Even after all that time doing anything but the corrections I was meant to be doing, my final submission still has an error in the abstract.
One that means a sentence makes no sense (no I’m not going to tell you what it is).
No one noticed except one friend who still isn’t sure what my thesis is about, and you know what – the letter telling me that I was now a Doctor means that I DON’T CARE!