“I Will Survive” (The Viva): Part Two

While my last post focused on viva survival from the perspective of preparation, in this post I deal with my experience of the event itself.  As I mentioned in my earlier entry, every viva is unique.  So while I anticipate this personal account might not be of much use to others, I think it’s important to share our stories – as Dr Nathan Ryder encourages in his “Viva Survivor” podcast series – about the examination in order to debunk some of the myths that surround the whole experience.

My viva took place at 10am on a Monday morning, which, for me, was ideal.  I am a morning person.  I work better in the mornings than in the afternoon/evenings.  I’m most productive and alert in the morning.  And I was also extremely nervous on the day of the examination, so knowing that it would be taking place first thing was definitely a plus for me.  In terms of nerves, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so nervous.  Prior to the viva I had been fortunate enough to have been interviewed for a few academic jobs, which had stirred similar feelings of anxiety.  However, the interview feels like less of an unknown, given that there is a host of material online about how to approach academic interviews, the sorts of questions you might be asked and so on.  The viva felt like much more of a mystery to me.

Arriving at the room where my viva was to be held, I was immediately put at ease by my examiners who encouraged me to take a drink of water and get myself organised.  I really was fortunate to have such warm and kind examiners.  Some candidates are told immediately whether they have been successful or not to help put them at ease; this wasn’t the case for myself.  However, after a couple of questions from the examiners, I suddenly realised that my nerves had completely dissipated.  Here I was getting to talk at length about my work with experts in my field who were interested in my research!  Several people had said to me that I would “maybe even enjoy the viva” beforehand – a comment that I scoffed at, thinking there was no way that would be possible.  But I actually genuinely did enjoy it.

I think the most enjoyable aspect of the whole experience was learning what the examiners had found the most interesting/original aspect of my research.  Spending so much time on a project like the PhD, I think you can become blind to its strengths, originality, its potential.  I already had ideas going into the viva about what I wanted to do with the project going forward, with regard to publication and so on.  And although my examiners were in agreement with my instinct in terms of how my thesis might best be transformed into a publication project, their perspectives about which aspect of the thesis was the strongest and most original completely contradicted mine!  In fact, what I thought was my weakest chapter was the strongest from their point of view!  Another aspect of the viva I found particularly stimulating was the questions they posed and the way those questions made me think about my work.  They challenged my frameworks and forced me to define my position.  While that might sound intimidating, it absolutely wasn’t.  Rather, it has added a further dimension to my work.

In terms of how the viva was structured (from what I remember!), my examiners began by asking a couple of so-called “settler” questions about my motivations and why I chose my topic.  These types of questions are supposed to, as their name suggests, settle you in, make you feel at ease – they are often used in interviews too – but I usually find them the most difficult to answer!  Following these questions, they asked me more specifically about the case studies I’d selected for analysis before turning in more detail to the three main body chapters that comprise my thesis.  We spent time discussing each of the chapters in turn.  They asked me questions about my theoretical frameworks, about relevant secondary material and offered advice about how I might want to refocus if reworking the research for publication.  The discussion (again, from what I remember!) was very fluid and relaxed and I’m so grateful for all the advice they gave me about how I might want to develop the existing research.  Indeed, the final part of the viva involved a discussion about recurring topics and themes that span the three main body chapters of the thesis that may well form the focus of some articles (when I get round to some more article-writing!).

After the main discussion, the examiners asked me to leave the room so that they could discuss their reactions to my performance and decide on the outcome.  I disappeared out onto the stairwell with my iPad and tried to distract myself with Twitter (though I’m pretty sure I didn’t take anything in!).  My internal examiner came to fetch me and they informed me that I had been successful!  They gave me minor corrections and three months to complete them, urging me to get them done as quickly as possible as they didn’t think it should take me that long.  Following this, they gave me the chance to ask them questions – which I did, having prepared a list of questions prior to the viva (actually, that’s something I should have put in my previous post…!).  I wanted to ask about how best to proceed with publication – which we had already covered, to a certain extent, in our previous discussion – and about strategies for obtaining an academic job in terms of what I should focus on in the short term.  My supervisor had given me the excellent advice beforehand that the viva is an opportunity for the candidate to ask questions too and it was her who said I should prepare a list of questions that I wanted to ask.  This was really useful advice and I recommend those about to sit their viva that they do this too!

So there you have it.  That was my viva experience.  Like I said, the viva is a highly unique and personal experience so this may not serve anyone.  But I thought it was important to put my story out there, for those who might be interested!  In my third and final post about the viva (to follow shortly!), I’m going to list the bibliography of resources I used, the list of questions I came up with to ask myself as practice questions, a handy checklist of equipment you might need and my final hints and tips, in the hope that it might prove useful for those yet to face the dreaded viva!

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