I had my PhD viva yesterday. This is where a couple of specialists in related fields to your area of study ask you questions about your thesis, sometimes it’s called an oral exam (but that sounds like a trip to the dentist) or an oral defence (anti-bacterial toothpaste?). It’s about as close to an exam as a PhD person gets. I wasn’t really nervous, because you don’t study something for this long without feeling comfortable with talking about it, but it was a big step in the final stages and there was a sense of excitement around it.
So how did I do? Not bad at all. I’ve got a ‘Pass, but…’ where the ‘but’ means that they would like me to make some changes. As half-expected, they would like me to change my referencing system. I could’ve sworn that I had stuck to the MHRA style guide all the way through, but apparently not. Still, that’s not so bad, it’ll just be really laborious. More demanding will be the literature review section that they want me to add to the end of the introduction chapter. They feel that there are a couple of people whose work should have been mentioned but wasn’t. I need to put a brief discussion of what they’ve said into the thesis and then it’s done! They’ve told me, in very definite terms, not to change any of the later chapters, no matter how tempting it may be to include the new people’s ideas.
What this boils down to is some repetitive work, some reading, and three or four thousand new words to be added in one chunk, none of which should be too difficult at all.
They were very happy with my answers to their questions; they felt that they had given me quite a hard time, but I only really had any trouble with one question.
So, what have I learnt about viva techniques?
Relax. They’re asking you about things that you know about. They’re not trying to trick you.
Take your time. Think about your answers. Sipping at water can be a great diversionary tactic while you let the cogs in your brain process the question.
If they are asking you ‘why didn’t you talk about the work of Suchandsuch?’ it usually means that you’ve got a good argument. If your argument was flawed then they would be asking you about that instead.
Try at all times to talk about what is in your thesis, and why it is there. If you have a difficult question, see if you can argue how you have answered that point in your text; this scores you big points! If there is something obscure but you’ve already addressed it then it helps reveal the depth of your study.
One of my examiners, Roger Luckhurst, made a very good point: a thesis is like a peacock, its purpose is to strut around showing off how many books you’ve read. Okay, perhaps it’s not much like a peacock, but you get the idea. If you can bring in some of the names of people you’ve studied then that’s great.
When asked about what you want to do next (which you probably will be) say that you would like to turn the thesis into a book. You’ll probably be thinking about doing this anyway, but saying this means that the examiners can view any changes that they ask for as being the foundation for a further study. If your thesis were to be the final version of the argument then they would like it to be as good as possible. By saying you want to turn it into a book you can minimise the changes required to complete the PhD.
Don’t give one word/one line answers. It doesn’t help you or your examiners.
Think about the basics before you go in there: what is my thesis about? What are the strengths of my thesis? What are the weaknesses of my thesis? What is new about my thesis? Get answers ready for these questions.
Enjoy it, because it’s unlikely that anyone will ever show the same amount of interest in your thesis ever again!
I really enjoyed my viva, even though it was sometimes quite challenging. Now it’s just the final few things to put in place, and I’m done. Hooray!