A viva is a scary thing. One doesn’t really know what to expect going into it. I don’t think there is one ‘perfect’ way to have a viva. Though there are certain things that can make the situation more…bearable. So, allow me to share some lessons learnt from my viva experience.
The viva itself
There are really two, unequal factors that decide what kind of viva you will have. The first is how prepared you are – this is the easy part. The second are your examiners – this is the tricky part.
So, what does preparing for your viva mean? For me, this was basically reminding myself of the objectives, main points/arguments and findings of my research. I also found it useful to read through some ‘common’ viva questions to see how well I could answer them.
Leading up to the event, confirm the format of the viva, such as whether you will need to make a presentation, so you can prepare this in advance. Go scope out the room and see what you will need. Also think about what would put you at ease, e.g. having your supervisor(s) there (or not) or someone from your research group, this is entirely up to you.
After you have done all these preparations, get a good night’s rest the day before the viva and try not to stress about it. There’s really little more you can do at this point. On the day of the viva, arrive a bit early and set up whatever you may need. Bring anything that you may find helpful, e.g. your prototypes, additional results, etc. I also found it useful to bring a copy of my thesis and a pen and some paper to jot down some notes. Lastly, do your best and try to have fun. Or at least, stay calm.
Well before the viva, have a frank conversation with your supervisor(s) to discuss possible examiners. Bare in mind your area of research and findings and try getting examiners that will add value to the process. You have a say as to who you want your examiners to be, so voice any concerns or preferences you might have. Disclaimer: it can be hard finding an examiner that is versed in your area of research; in this case, go for an experienced examiner. The reality of a viva is that your examiners really have ‘all the power’.
You might be lucky and get great examiners who ask interesting questions and open new potential for your research – enjoy it. Or you might luck out and get examiners who nit-pick over seemingly futile points and really don’t understand your work or its value – this is a tough one. If the latter is the case, maintain your calm and confidence, you did the work and know what you are talking about.
Either way, state your case during your viva. This is the time to showcase all the hard work you have done. Answer questions with confidence and don’t be afraid to ask them to clarify questions where you don’t understand. There will undoubtedly be moments when your examiners say things you don’t agree with, or they might seem to miss the point of your research almost entirely (believe me, it happens). If this happens, clearly communicate your points and the value of your research.
Going into my PhD I thought that doing the research would be the ‘hard’ part. Well, I was mistaken. The research part has its challenging moments and can be rather stressful, though it is also the interesting part as one is actively doing something. This is not really the case when writing up or doing corrections. At times it just felt like a repetitive, mundane task.
The viva comes after years of hard work, long hours and, sometimes, also the point where funding is running dangerously low (if you’re fortunate enough to still have some). So, by the time the corrections come around, you are just tired and want nothing more than to just be done with all of it. This is what makes doing them a touch…irritating.
What worked for me was taking a break. I took a week ‘off’ after my viva and did nothing work related during this time. Instead, I used the week to catch up on some sleep, spend time with friends and just relax for a bit. This meant that I started the next week feeling more refreshed than I had been in a while.
Getting back to work, I looked through the notes I had taken during the viva. I looked through the official corrections list and noted down when I wanted to finish specific corrections. This allowed me to work steadily and thoroughly through the corrections, whilst also giving myself some downtime from the tediousness of the task.
The corrections list
When working through the corrections, I made sure to respond to each requested correction as I completed it, no matter how small. I noted down the requested alteration, what correction I had made and on which page number it was located. This helped safeguard that I completed all the requested corrections and that I properly noted them down for cross-checking later.
I also set aside some time to read through the sections to which I had made corrections to ensure that they still ‘flowed’ and made sense in context. I later also cross-checked my corrections page numbers to make sure that everything was indeed where I said it was. There was a correction or two I did not do because it didn’t make sense with regards to my research. I noted these down and explained my reasoning in the corrections list.
Yes, the viva is a daunting experience. Though rest assured that your supervision team wouldn’t support you going into it if they genuinely thought you weren’t ready. You have done the work, you will be fine. As a solace, remember that a lot of people have survived their vivas; so, there is no reason why you won’t.