May 25, 2018, by James Pattison
I was recently asked to speak at The School of Sociology and Social Policy at The University of Nottingham on my experience of the viva. When I started planning what I might say, I tried to think about how I conceptualised the viva prior to undertaking it. The first thing that I wrote down, without even really thinking about it, was this: ‘the viva is a horrifying unknown’. An oral exam, lasting numerous hours, in which you and your thesis are cross-examined by experts is pretty horrifying, and I had certainly never undertaken anything like that in my life! Those who need to be most familiar with the viva process are those with the least experience of it – the vast majority of doctoral researchers only undertake one viva, their first and last, which means that, upon entering into the viva, there is no first-hand experience upon which to draw. In being the exam that determines whether you pass or fail your doctorate, it is of extraordinary importance. Not knowing what it might entail, but knowing that whatever it will entail is really important, was therefore no fun at all. So, in this post, I am going to attempt to write what I wish I had read prior to the viva, so that doctoral researchers, at least some of whom probably feel a similar way about the viva as I did, might be put at ease. The post discusses the viva process sequentially, and in quite mundane terms, hopefully in order to make what is quite a strange and daunting process a bit more familiar and manageable.
Prior to submission
To say that preparation for the viva begins prior to submission of the thesis is in some respects obvious: you need to write the thesis, for it to be submitted, so that it may eventually be examined. However, I am not referring to this, when I say that viva preparation begins prior to thesis submission. For one, there is an ‘intention to submit’ form which you have to submit in order to let the University know that you are soon going to submit your thesis, and on this form you have to include your thesis title and the name of your external examiner. Prior to submitting this form, therefore, you need to ascertain who your external examiner should be, and this is an important part of preparing for the viva prior to submission.
Far before submission, my supervisors and I thought collectively about who might be appropriate as an external examiner for my thesis. Your potential external examiner might fall into various categories: they could be somebody with close empirical interests, somebody with a good methodological or theoretical fit, or a mixture of any of the above.
It was good to have this discussion with my supervisors. The person who I thought was a really good option was heavily rumoured to be completely cantankerous and abrasive, which probably wouldn’t have made for a particularly good viva, so they were not selected. In the end, my supervisors agreed upon someone who was known to be a fair and likeable person, who was a good fit in terms of methodology, and who had interests in some, but probably not all of the substantive themes and theories discussed in my thesis. Knowing who my examiners were going to be helped me visualise the viva; I could at least paint a mental picture of who was going to be in the room, which helped me overcome the feeling that the viva is a mysterious occasion.
After months of working around the clock to get my thesis into a good shape, I reached a point where I could do no more and decided it was finished (which was also convenient because the deadline was imminent). I printed and bound three copies of the thesis, went to student services, said ‘I would like to submit my thesis please’, handed two of the copies over and a digital copy on a USB stick, was given a receipt, and left. There was no fanfare or round of applause. It was, basically, an underwhelming non-event.
After submission, but before the viva
Once I had submitted, I had a gap of almost three months before the viva. I left the thesis alone for about a month. I couldn’t really bare to look at it, having worked on it non-stop in the run-up to submission. Eventually, though, I mustered the strength to return to the thesis, in order to revise. This is how I approached this revision.
I read the thesis, two or three chapters at a time, writing on index cards as I went. I made a summary of each chapter in terms of its content, its themes, its main conclusions, and by the end of this process I had an abstract for each chapter. On separate cards, I also made a note of errors, page numbers referencing parts that I felt were underdeveloped or weak, and parts that I thought were strong.
I also asked a post-doc, who had recently passed their viva (who also happens to be my partner), to question me on the thesis. This was incredibly useful. Whilst I was used to talking about my research, I wasn’t necessarily used to talking about the thesis as a product of my research. These questions ranged from the very basic (what is your thesis about? what do you like about it?) to the particular: how have you conceptualised X in your thesis? Eventually, I got to a stage where I was able to answer such questions in the following way: ‘in chapters 2, 3 and 7 X is discussed in detail. In particular, I lay out my conceptualisation of X in section 2 of chapter 2, and discuss the limitations of this approach in the following section’. In this respect I was really lucky, and I understand that not everyone is close enough to somebody in a similar position for this to be an option. However, what I would suggest is that you could ask someone who is willing to interrogate you in this way, on a friendly level. A mock viva – which I did not undertake – is another common way of gaining practice in speaking about the thesis.
The final thing I would suggest doing in preparation is the following: organise for one of your supervisors to be around on the viva day, because, as the next section will describe, there are parts of the day when there is a bit of hanging around to do, and it is probably best not to be alone.
I remember wondering before the viva ‘what is appropriate dress for such an occasion?’. Someone advised me: wear what makes you feel comfortable. However, I am at my most comfortable in joggers and a vest, and I would imagine that, no matter how liberal the examiners, this attire probably wouldn’t go down too well in the exam room. Someone else advised me to wear a suit, but I don’t really like wearing suits. In my view, they are the antithesis of comfortable. In the end, I opted for a middle ground: I wore a shirt, a blazer, plain trousers and smart-ish shoes. It is a serious occasion, but I don’t think a suit is necessary, at least not in sociology. I also wore a watch, which was useful, as a clock was not comfortably in my field of vision. Overall, my advice would be: wear what makes you feel comfortable, within reason.
On the morning of the viva, I had no appetite, but I forced down a banana—and I am really glad I did, because the viva was quite long and tiring and, without it, I may not have survived—and then made my way to the university. I went to my supervisor’s office beforehand and we had a brief chat. I was extremely nervous, and couldn’t form the most basic of sentences, but meeting with my supervisor helped calm me down and regain the power of speech. About 5 minutes before the viva started, we walked together to the exam room, which was a small seminar room, and parted ways.
What to take in? I took in a copy of my thesis, the index cards I had made whilst revising (bulldog clipped to my thesis), some paper and a pen, and a bottle of water. There was water provided in the room, but I thought it best to be prepared for any eventuality, andended up drinking out of the bottle I had bought anyway. This might be too much information, but I also took a good luck charm with me. In itself, this is fine, but it just so happens that my good luck charm is a jar of my dead cat’s ashes. I kept this jar in my pocket. They put me at ease, as did having the flashcards I had made, which were there ready to draw upon should I have needed them. I didn’t use these cards, though, and the only resources I eventually ended up using were the thesis and the water. I did use the pen and paper to begin with, but these were soon abandoned.
What did the examiners ask me? Unfortunately, I don’t fully remember. The viva is quite tiring, and you’re in the moment, not at liberty to really take it all in, which I think reflects well how viva voce crudely translates into English: live talk. However, what I do remember almost exactly is the opening question: ‘what do you know now, that you didn’t know prior to undertaking this research?’. This exact question probably won’t be asked in your viva, but an opening question, asked mainly to ease you into the exam seems to be quite common. Beyond this, I was asked about the structure of the thesis, a question on ethics, a question on how I had theorised the relationship between various social divisions, and a question on the broader applicability of the theory I had produced. I took time to consider questions before answering, and asked questions back when I wasn’t exactly sure what I was being asked: ‘just to clarify, are you asking this?’. I think doing this is fine, and I am glad that I did, as it allowed me to answer the questions in a better capacity than if I was guessing as to what exactly I was being asked.
The viva definitely became more dialogical as it went on: a meaningful, quite enjoyable conversation, rather than a completely terrifying exam. For this very reason, the end of the viva came as a bit of a surprise. I’d said something about C Wright Mills and my take on The Sociological Imagination (which is slightly odd, as my thesis wasn’t really about C Wright Mills), and the examiner responded with ‘I think that’s a good place to wrap this exam up’. Whilst I was beginning to enjoy this ‘dialogical mode’ viva, I was also extremely relieved to hear these words. Overall, the exam lasted about two hours, and I was feeling tired and drained by this point.
I was then asked to leave the room, so that the examiners could deliberate, and was told that I would be collected in a short while. I had arranged with my supervisor to meet them in their office during this deliberation. I would guess maybe for about 15 minutes, and then one of the examiners came and got us. Both my supervisor and I went into the exam room at this stage. The walk back to the exam room felt like a walk to the gallows, and the nerves that had left me during the latter part of the exam were back with me. The examiners aren’t ‘out to get you’, though, which is something important to remember, and these nerves subsided when I was back in the room. The result was given to me by the external examiner more or less as soon as we all sat down: ‘So, we agree, you’ve passed’. As is now a running theme for this post, I can’t quite remember what I said in response, but I was very happy.
All of us then had a conversation, for approximately another 10 minutes, about what direction I would like to go next. Having your supervisor in the room at this stage is optional, but I was glad they were. They had the energy to sustain the conversation a bit, whereas I was flaking. We mainly discussed publication options. The final thing I remember asking is: ‘so what happens now?’ The response was something like: ‘go and ring your nearest and dearest, and tell them the good news, and then go and celebrate’. So that’s what I did.
Looking back on my viva now, it was not a horrifying experience. It was intense, and took a lot of effort, but it was almost enjoyable at points. It is, of course, easy to say this in hindsight. Ultimately, there will be parts of your viva that do remain unknown until you are in the room. I do hope, though, that this post has helped shed some light on the viva, and helped quash some of your anxieties surrounding it. If it hasn’t, and you still think of the viva as a horrifying unknown, talk to others that have been through the viva, so that you can continue to build up a picture of what yours might be like. Talk to your supervisors too: they are there to make sure you successfully get through this exam. And lastly: good luck!
Please do not hold it against me if you don’t wear a suit and your examiners disapprove of this.
in hindsight, the cat ashes were pushing it – it would have been very awkward if they had been spilt, for instance.
Ed Wright is a post-doctoral researcher, a part-time teacher, and a recovering PhD student. You can follow Ed on Twitter: @edwardjwright1.