The viva can bring out our worst doubts about our PhD dissertations and about ourselves, making us question the worth of our work and ourselves as researchers. Jenny Mak offers some responses to ease these worries in a constructive way.
If you ask a PhD student which part of doing a PhD they find most stressful, the viva would probably be right up there, for various reasons. I’ve listed some of them below, which you might be able to identify with, whether you’re doing your PhD in the UK (which I’m most familiar with and writing mainly from this perspective), or in other countries such as the USA, Canada, and even Australia (where the viva isn’t usually required but is implemented by some universities):
(In the UK, the viva is usually conducted behind closed doors by at least two examiners. This is different from some countries, such as the USA and Canada, and across institutions, where the viva can be public events where you present a lecture on your research to your examiners and advisory committee, followed by a discussion with the panel.)
- It’s an oral examination (‘viva voce’ is Latin for ‘by live voice’), meaning that we’ll need to be able to defend our research in a clear and empathic way to our examiners, of whom at least one is an expert in your research topic. But we might not feel as confident communicating complex ideas verbally, which requires different skills.
- There’s a sense of mystery about the viva, which isn’t helped by the different stories we hear and varying advice we get from our supervisors and peers. This suggests the viva is a unique and subjective experience with no guaranteed outcome, and that it’s not entirely contingent on the amount of preparation you do beforehand, which might cause anxiety for some.
- The viva carries a lot of ‘weight’ as an exam that is short (usually ranging a few hours) but in which you seem to be given this one shot to defend work that you’ve laboured over for more than three years. This adds pressure onto us, to be able to ‘perform’ on the spot.
I’ve given the three reasons above as examples of how the viva can bring out our worst insecurities. Talking to fellow PhDs and drawing from personal experience, I find that these insecurities tend to take the form of self-doubting statements that we tell ourselves as we prepare for the viva, sometimes up to the day itself. This post offers responses to some of these questions, in the hope that they can perhaps help to shift our mindset about the viva and ease these inner insecurities.
Statement #1: I don’t know enough about everything in my field.
Response: You don’t need to know everything in your field. Your only job for the viva is to know your own thesis very well, like the back of your hand. So when you’re coming up with potential questions that your examiners might ask you during your viva prep, make sure these questions are geared towards testing your knowledge of your thesis specifically.
Statement #2: My examiners are experts. They will see through me.
Response: No, you are the expert in your speciality. Your examiners are experts in their specialities. You’ve spent over three years working on this thesis. You’ve taken your PhD project down different paths, tested them out, and made various decisions along the way to produce this thesis in the form that it’s in now. You know why you’ve made those decisions. In the viva, state these decisions clearly when asked and justify these decisions confidently when challenged.
Statement #3: I’ve not done enough for this thesis. It lacks X, Y, and Z.
Response: You’ve done enough for this thesis, to submit it for examination at this moment. There’s no perfect thesis. Your supervisors have given you the go-ahead to submit, which means they think it’s likely to pass, so trust them. It might also help to ask yourself: does adding the extra research you’re thinking of make a significant difference to your thesis? Does this extra material need to be in this thesis? Your examiners will ultimately be the judges of this, but the viva allows them to have a conversation with you, to hear and understand your motivations behind the choices you made to include/exclude material—so don’t make presumptions about them. Focus your energies on knowing your thesis inside out instead.
Love it or hate it, the viva is an integral part of your PhD. ‘Loving’ the viva can be hard. But seeing it as a constructive experience with the help of these responses—as the one chance to talk about your research project as a whole, to senior academics in your field who are rooting for you even as they’re pushing you to prove that you’ve earned your stripes—will perhaps allow you to appreciate all the hard work you’ve put in for your thesis: something we don’t often give ourselves credit for.
How was your viva experience? Were there aspects that you were worried about? What are some tips you can share about preparing for the viva, psychologically and otherwise? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at email@example.com, or leave a comment below.
Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at the embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training. You can find her on Twitter.