“Demystifying the Viva”: Some Reflections on my Experience

So I thought it was about time to get into gear and follow up with some of my “to-do” blogs that have been on my list. Yesterday, I spoke at the Faculty of Science and Technology PGR event entitled “The Viva Experience”, alongside a mix of other academics from across the Faculty. The idea was to dilute some of the mysteries surrounding the viva experience and to (hopefully) get the message across that every viva experience is very different in relation to its format and tone, but aspects such as the length are by no means indicative necessarily of a “good” or a “bad” thesis. One friend, for example, had a 4 hour+ viva, but this was because they were having such a good time that her external missed her train home!  Of course, there are anomalies on both sides of this coin, but the point is that each experience has unique qualities.

Just to provide a little context, my PhD is in Human Geography and my department is the Lancaster Environment Centre, which sits in a Science and Technology Faculty. I would describe my research areas (sex work, liminal spaces, social exclusion and deviance in urban environments particularly) as rather anomalous in my department and therefore the viva defence (having had to half justify my position as a geographer many times) was something I felt quite ready for. But this did not mean that I was not still nervous about it, especially as I had an external examiner from a sociology background, and a geographer as my internal. Having had no direct discussions with sociology from my University, my concerns were that the approach I took theoretically might not be typical and thus I might stray into difficulty.

Thankfully, these concerns were unfounded.  This leads me on to the message of the blog, and what I feel was one of the main messages of yesterday’s session: expect the unexpected.  I can wholeheartedly say that, bar 2 or 3 questions, I was not having conversations about the material I predicted would be queried. Similarly, the police-style interrogation, sweat-pouring and weeping prediction was also thankfully incorrect.  I will never forget one comment that a friend of mine said just after her viva: “I actually enjoyed it!”. I felt simultaneously ecstatic for her, but also a tiny piece of hatred, and dread for me as I “knew that mine wouldn’t be like that”.  But I can honestly say, once the first 5-10 minutes of nervous, palm-sweating stuttering were over, that I began to see what she meant.

I thought I would use the rest of this blog post to describe my own viva experience (both pre-, during and post-!); with post- mainly culminating in the nearest bar!

Period just before the viva (March)

I asked EVERYBODY for advice regarding how to prepare, or at least anybody who wasn’t tired of me talking about the viva/PhD by this point. I received mixed comments really – which again correlates with the “every viva is different” message – but the techniques that I found the most useful were as follows:

Mock viva (March – one month before viva)

This technique is somewhat controversial, as many people advise against having one due to it being potentially off-putting. However, I had a very experienced main PhD supervisor who had conducted many a viva in a variety of disciplines and, indeed, had a plethora of research students with very different topics. I therefore thought that having a practise would help – and it did massively.

We did this in a semi-formal manner (so I was dressed in normal clothes and in my own office), but he had a list of questions and I had the floor to answer them without much interruption. It really gave me the confidence to speak freely about my work, which I hadn’t done for a few weeks, and also broke some of the ice regarding the fear of answering questions with no preparation. Having not begun my “proper” preparation for the real thing at this point, it also made me realise that I did know my thesis!

A list of questions provided by the lovely Natalie Hammond (@nataliejane)

Natalie kindly (after some Tweeting) emailed me a list of questions that she wrote as a form of preparation for the viva. The most useful I found were the ones relating to being able to summarise the main contributions to the theory/research field that my thesis provided, and the strengths and weaknesses of each chapter. Similarly, being able to summarise the main findings of my thesis in a few sentences was a very therapeutic exercise; I tried to fit this onto a post-it note. I also did a one-minute oral presentation to the Society and Environment research group at Lancaster University summarising my main findings, and I found this very helpful.

Reading it (April – week before viva)

Upon first reading, I noticed ALL of the typing errors/repetition/things-I-wish-I-hadn’t-said stuff. I also noticed that not only did I like the word “homogeneous” too much, but I also couldn’t spell it. All I can say is stick with it, as the second and third readings make you begin to think “actually, I have made some valid contributions” and “I could defend this section well”, as well as (more) constructively notice the aspects that you may need to work on post-viva. Upon advice from @am_gormally, I also stuck some post-it notes on my copy to identify where each chapter began, and any common areas I felt needed improvement, so that if I needed to flick through it during the viva, then I could find these easily.

I then had a final meeting (2 days before) with my other two supervisors, who also asked me a few questions about my thesis. The main one I needed to brush up on was “what is the theoretical contribution that your thesis has made to the research field?”. On first attempt at this question, I answered it too much from a logistical/empirical perspective rather than theoretical and therefore I realised I needed to be clearer when preparing this answer. This question did come up in the real thing!

Viva (11 am, April)

On the morning of the viva, I went to work to be able to find the venue (important, as I had never been before – it is usually done in a room slightly out of the way in your department), to get to know the space a little, and to have a read through of the thesis and my comments one more time. My supervisors met with my examiners half an hour beforehand and took them to the room, and I went along at 11.

Upon entering the room, my examiners had a set of notes that they had seemingly made together in their meeting beforehand, alongside the copies of my thesis with post-it notes dotted around. Despite my impending feeling of “they hate it, I’ve failed”, after leaving my viva and reading them, there was a mix of positives and questions, so do NOT make assumptions about these! Both of them stood up, introduced themselves and shook my hand, and then my internal began to explain what was going to happen. This was basically that their job was to discuss my research with me, and ask a series of questions about it, before giving me the opportunity to do the same at the end. They would then stop the session, ask me to leave, before inviting me back in with their decision after some time had passed. During the viva, the external and the internal asked around the same number of questions, but at times one dominated over the other depending on the nature of the topic being discussed (methods and structure questions came mainly from my internal, whereas theory/policy/research contribution questions were mainly from my external).

I had heard many stories about the first part of the viva where they “lead you in with a question such as ‘why did you select this controversial topic?’” or “what did you find the most enjoyable aspect?’”. Mine began with a focus on my research questions, asking why I had framed my thesis around these and why I had selected this particular structure for them. Although, on initial hearing, I felt this was rather a “go for the jugular” question after the tales about the fluffy start, this actually became an overview of the thesis structure and so I had provided a skeletal outline without being overly-conscious of it. This gave me confidence and broke the ice a little.

I will not include reference to all of the questions asked, but I thought it might be helpful for those who are particularly nervous about the process for me to provide a few examples of the sorts of themes that were centred upon. Here they are:

  • Be able to justify (if you have done a series of literature chapters) why you included the material that you did and did not, and how you have ordered these chapters. To provide an example, I did not include an overly-comprehensive discussion of the history of prostitution and why stigma/exclusion is still evident today (this section was short), and so I had to explain this absence
  • Be able to comfortably defend every aspect of your methodological selection, including, for example: how you ensured ethical procedures were met, and to what extent these were successful; how you recruited participants/conducted observations and to what extent you were involved in this selection (snowball versus random for example); how did you use that rogue questionnaire that you have dropped in to the methodological chapter but not used any data from (!); if there is anything you could have done to improve this or alter it for future research purposes – was there anything you were disappointed about?  I also included much reference to my positionality and therefore I spent some time exploring the implications of this in my design and implementation
  • Be able to identify the major theoretical contributions to the research field, as well as empirical/policy implications if relevant.  I was given advice, after my response, about policies to refer to that I hadn’t done so already
  • Be able, if you have selected a specific case study (mine was Blackpool), to discuss the wider implications of the findings in this case study.  Why, as Blackpool is rather a unique place, are your findings relatable to the wider context?
  • How did you deal with anomalies in the findings?
  • How has the PhD changed you? This came up indirectly in the form of a discussion about one of my main arguments; breaking down homogeneous – there it is again! – categorisations of sex work, and indeed community reactions to it, and me being asked to state how I had done this.  This led me to discuss how I entered this research process (as an ex-resident of Blackpool) with very different views about the parlours and community perceptions of them, and these were massively changed as part of the process.
  • What’s next? This actually came up in the post-viva discussion, but I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss potential research avenues and publication ideas with the examiners.

 

One note I would like to raise: the examiners remained very indifferent in relation to body language; there were times when they would smile and nod, but generally they were just attentive with plenty of eye contact and listening carefully, with occasional follow-up questions. No identifiable messages were sent by their facial expressions. Having had very encouraging and smiley PhD supervisors, I was a little perturbed by this in the early stages of the viva, but don’t read into this! They have to remain this way.

Once all questions had been asked, they told me that was the end of this part of the viva, and asked if I could wait along the end of the corridor while they had a discussion. My supervisors met me and quizzed me about it while I waited, but generally my overall feeling was that I had answered questions as well as I could and there was nothing that I was completely stumped on, despite my surprise at some.

After about twenty minutes of palm-sweating and excessive water-drinking, they called me back in and I sat down. Within the first 30 seconds, they said that they were very happy with the work I had done, that it was of a publishable standard, and that they would be awarding my doctorate subject to minor corrections. I’m 100% sure I zoned out with relief and delight at this point, so I am unable to tell you much more about the conversation; aside from they gave me much opportunity to ask them any questions, and for me to expand on anything further I hadn’t had chance to in the earlier session. They congratulated me, came out and chatted with my supervisors and then said that the report of my corrections would be sent to me within the next couple of weeks.

Post –viva: Bar, home, and then back to the pub again!

My corrections arrived a couple of weeks later, and this was a document that included their general opinion of the thesis and its strengths and areas for improvement, before a detailed list of typos/places for amendment.

The logistics of this process will obviously vary by department and institution (as was discussed in the viva talk) – some departments for example will expect a presentation by the candidate to begin with, so this is definitely something to check.

My final message of this rather lengthy blog post is that, referring back to my friend’s comment, I really enjoyed being given the floor to talk about what has basically been the focus of the last (and best) few years of my life. My family have the best intentions and hopefully published work will be read by somebody (!), but I know that it will be a rarity for anyone to comprehensively read the thesis in that much detail. Try not to see the viva, therefore, as a hurdle to overcome, but an opportunity to have the floor for discussion with academics you really admire, and to gain valuable advice for future research ventures.

I really hope this helps! If anybody would like to chat with me about anything I have said, please feel free to contact me.

 

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