Salma’s PhD Viva Experience – Part I

Curious about viva? We certainly are, and our amazing contributor Salma offered to share her recent experience. So, take a deep breath or two, and check out the first part of her story…

I had pondered about the viva day many times during the PhD process, and mostly in terms of ‘I will probably be asked about this in the viva’, and the dreaded thought ‘imagine I don’t pass the viva’. But I had always reassured myself that even if in the nightmarish situation I did not pass the viva, I had benefited hugely from the PhD experience: learning how to do research; publishing two journal papers; and meeting a huge array of the most wonderful people, in person and online.

I submitted my PhD thesis in the middle of December 2016, although I had a full complete copy ready by the end of August 2016. As soon as I submitted my thesis, I took a short Christmas break and in Jan 2017 went straight into placement with the public health team at Hackney City Council. I finished with the team in March 2017, and decided it was time to start preparing for the viva. I have written about the 13 steps I took to prepare for the viva in detail here, so I will not go into that here.

The wonderful people in the WMG research degrees office (Julia and Jason) had confirmed the viva date and organised the day, including arranging lunch and the pre-viva coffee and pastries. They sent me a reminder email a week before too. My viva was scheduled to start at 10.30am in Arden House at the University of Warwick. Lunch was scheduled at 12:30pm, and my supervisor and I were both hopeful that my viva would be complete by that time.

As I live in London, I was kindly offered accommodation for the night before the viva in Arden House (on campus) by the WMG research degrees office, which I decided to decline, as I knew I’d be much more relaxed in my own bed, with my own pillow (I have a thing about pillows), and next to my husband. And I am so glad I stayed at home. I didn’t sleep very well that night (woke up a few times), but to be honest, that is to be expected given that the viva is a big deal. I eventually woke around 5:30, prayed, had a shower and got ready to go. I couldn’t fathom the thought of breakfast so decided to catch something on the way, which I did, but I couldn’t eat, so I gave up on food, and drank some juice instead.

I arrived at the venue at 9.30am and was directed to the room of the viva. The room was quite warm so my supervisor had opened up the windows. The tables were already set up, but I decided to push my table closer to the examiners so it wouldn’t feel like a panel was assessing me, and it also meant I wouldn’t need to speak louder than I would naturally. I then placed my thesis and all the other things I needed on the table and checked my ‘checklist’ again (see here). I waited for about 20 minutes with my supervisor, she commented on how calm I looked (and surprisingly I felt really calm!). I think my supervisor looked more nervous than me.

At Warwick, it is recommended that each viva has an examination advisor (in addition to the examiners), whose role is to chair the viva and maintain a record of the viva, but not examine in anyway. I had chosen someone who had previously conducted a viva upgrade for me and was really lovely and friendly, and my supervisor agreed she would be a good choice. The advisor arrived around 30 minutes before the exam, and it was lovely to see a friendly face. She went down to look for my examiners, and came back up to tell us that the examiners wanted to meet for around 10-15 minutes before the exam, so we should go down, and she will come and get me when the examiners are ready for me.

We proceeded downstairs and bumped into the examiners on the stairs! We said hellos and went our own way. Around 10-15 min later the examination adviser arrived to fetch me, and we went up the room. I greeted the examiners, and was asked first to present the presentation I had prepared (see here for further details), but was told to keep it to 10 minutes, which was fine as it was around 9 minutes long. After I presented, one of the first things the examiners said was something along the lines of that although the thesis appeared to be very long when it was delivered to them (around 350 pages), they found it was really clear, well-structured and very easy to read, and they seemed very happy about that. So this was hugely reassuring, and I remember thinking they can’t fail me now, and by this point, I didn’t feel nervous at all. And I am glad I didn’t because we had some really interesting discussions after this. It also helped a lot that my external examiner (who I had never met before) was very friendly and smiled a lot!

The examiner then asked me a few questions on some of the things I had mentioned in the presentation. For example, I had discussed motivations for conducting the research, but they wanted to know more about why specifically I looked at attitudes towards online patient feedback, rather than the utility of online patient feedback, especially given my motivations, which was a fair point (I suppose they were asking me to justify the scope of my research). They also asked me about what I would advise the NHS now based on the results of my research. They then moved onto going through the thesis and asking questions, and made a point of telling me that if they didn’t ask a question that didn’t mean they hadn’t read it, just that it was all fine.

I was asked for clarification on which parts of the thesis, if any, were not mine followed by straight in to my second literature review chapter, where they asked me how I had searched for the literature and I explained what I had done, and they suggested I include that in the thesis. The next few questions were about how specifically I had recruited my participants for one of my studies, and during that discussion I mentioned how I specifically recruited people from different demographic background, and they suggested I should include that in the thesis too.

The next few questions were not about what I had included but rather what I hadn’t included and the choices I had made, which wasn’t a problem, as I knew why I hadn’t included certain things, or if I had, and they were in a different place of the thesis, I directed them towards it. If they made a suggestion that I thought was a fair point, I said quite quickly that I was happy to correct that (but there weren’t many – in the end I was given 8 corrections to make). There was however one point that I remember defending – which was that one of the examiners raised the point that he felt that perhaps in one of my chapters, separating the results and discussion may make it easier to read. I disagreed, as it was a very large chapter and findings, and explained my reasoning for using that approach.

I remember referring to some of my participants’ specific comments during the viva, and I hadn’t thought that I would remember in the viva that type of detail, but thankfully I did, and clearly my lovely participants had left a huge impression on me. The viva really felt like a discussion rather than an exam, although they did ask me some difficult questions. There were was one point which was towards the end of the viva where I was asked how I came up with this one figure calculation, and I had to ask for the question to be repeated, and asked if it was OK if I took my phone out to work out the calculation. To my utter embarrassment, the decimal point was in the wrong place (0.036 instead of 0.36), and I was so embarrassed and a bit mortified, and I apologised. The examiners very quickly reassured me that it wasn’t a problem, as it could be easily corrected and that is why there are examiners, to check the research is correct. I was just really glad this was very strategically raised towards the end of the viva, and not at the beginning.

To be continued… 🙂

Salma Patel has just successfully passed her PhD in digital health at the University of Warwick. She is also an associate lecturer at The Open University and a postgraduate mentor at the University of Warwick. Salma is passionate about public health, the NHS and research methods and  has a background in computing, web design, education, librarianship and management. She blogs on her own website and others, and you can follow her on Twitter.

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