Monthly Archives: November 2013

Preparing for the PhD Viva: What Goes on Inside the Room (Part I)

The other day someone came across my blog with the search term “PhD viva questions.” I realized even though I’ve whined and moaned about the viva, I haven’t written about the viva itself. So I thought I’d write a post about what the actual viva was like, and how I prepared for it. Despite getting major corrections, my examiners said I gave an “impressive viva performance,” so I feel confident that at least I prepared for it the “right way.” I hope this helps just in case you’re panicking before your viva. If you’re not panicking, great and keep it up! Believe in your argument and just think about how to explain it effectively. I will write about how I had mock vivas with my supervisors and prepared index cards in Part II.

In the UK, a viva (viva voce), or “oral defense,” is typically examined by one internal and one external examiner. Internal means an academic from your department, external means an academic from another university. Sometimes there’s an additional academic acting as chair person, but this person does not participate in the decision making of awarding the student the PhD. Humanities vivas can be as short as one hour, or last as long as two hours. Unlike the US, vivas in the UK are not open to the public, hence leading to speculations about “what goes on inside the room.” Externals are usually the ones who evaluate the student’s work and make the final decision.

In my case the internal also acted as chair person. Before the viva started he said it was going to last from forty-five minutes to one hour. First they asked me to explain what the main argument of my thesis was, then they took turns in asking me questions. The internal asked me about my thesis title, and why I used the concept of “trauma” when film studies is trying to move away from it. My external asked me about my methodology, how I selected the films for my case studies, how I surveyed my literature, and finally, why I didn’t I talk about concepts “X” and “Y” since they have become prominent in my area of research.

What gave me a bad feeling was a question towards the end of the viva. My internal asked me, “between concept A and B, pick one to explain its relationship to transnationalism.” If the viva is a chance for the student to explain his/her argument, isn’t the examiner supposed to ask the student to elaborate, rather than presenting the question as a multiple choice? I felt a bit insulted when he asked the question this way, but still gave what I thought was a satisfying answer.

After they finished their questions, my internal asked me to leave the room so they could discuss the result. When I came out I looked at my watch, and realized that exactly forty-five minutes had passed. My bad inkling deepened because a friend who got major corrections two years ago (but who passed after re-submission a year later) also had a very short viva.

When I was asked to go back to the room (I waited five minutes at most) and I sat down, my internal delivered the verdict that even though it was a very impressive viva performance, the thesis was not of a PhD quality yet. Therefore I would need to revise the thesis with major corrections. I was very upset and almost in tears, but I still summoned up the energy to ask whether there was a conceptual problem with my thesis. I wanted to get a clear idea of what was wrong with the thesis when their viva questions were still fresh in my head. My external provided the explanation that there were too many things on the table, so my argument wasn’t explicit enough.

Now I know my viva was very short because my examiners had already made up their minds about my thesis before going in to the viva. I’ve learned that the viva is important, but the thesis weights more than anything. It felt like the examiners were using my answers to match with or reassess what they’d read in my thesis. In my case, they felt I gave better answers in person than the thesis itself, hence the need for major corrections to match what I said in the viva.

Since examiners are confirming what they think about the thesis through the viva, it seems unlikely that what you say is going to worsen their opinion of your thesis, even if they think it needs more work. I can generalize that if you’ve written a good thesis, getting brain freeze or tongue tied is not going to strip the degree that you deserve away from you.

I think I’ve gained a more positive perspective since the viva, and I’m glad I can write about it now without getting angry or depressed. I can even joke about it a little. A viva is really quite an unusual situation: it’s a combination of a job interview and an oral exam. One of my supervisors told me that because of this particular scenario, preparation is key. Good preparation will help maximize the knowledge you already know. I’ll write about this preparation in the next post.

It’s a cliche, I know, but repeating “keep calm and carry on” to yourself does help sometimes.

EADF photos and video released!

The photos and video for this year’s EADF (European Aerial Dance Festival) have been released! I’ve been looking forward to these and was happy to find they’ve finally uploaded them. Browsing through the photos reminded me of what a great week it was. The weather was unusually warm even for July-August in Southeast England, so it finally felt like a proper summer. The workshop also helped dispel my post-viva trauma blues. I did the workshop with a couple of friends. We train together on a regular basis so it was great fun to do the workshop together.

The EADF is a week-long aerial workshop that takes place in Brighton, UK in the beautiful Brighton Dome every August. These classes include counter-weight, static trapeze, corde lisse, silks, and harness. I haven’t tried the counter-weight or the harness classes yet because I don’t have the equipment to practice with afterwards, but I’ve heard they’re a lot of fun.

When I did the beginners/improvers corde lisse workshop last year, I already had one year of aerial experience, but I still found it very challenging. I’d never trained for five days consecutively, so by Wednesday my muscles were incredibly sore and tight. It was the first time I dreaded doing aerial. I felt weak in the air and I was afraid I’d lose grip. Luckily my friend Michael was in the same class so he kept spotting me.

This year I decided to go for the beginner/improvers dance trapeze and intermediate/advanced corde lisse workshop. It was still very tough, but I managed to keep up. Since they scheduled the corde lisse workshop over the weekend, by the time we started the corde lisse class I’d already done five days of trapeze. I didn’t realize how tired my body was until Saturday. I know this is a piece of cake for circus students, but it’s the first time in my life that I’ve done physical training for a whole week and managed to survive. I did get injured and I had to go for a couple of sports massage sessions afterwards, but it was a huge improvement from last year so I was very proud of myself.

If you’ve been doing aerial for a while and are thinking of adding new vocabulary to your routine, learning technique from a different teacher, or wonder what it’s like to train intensely, I’d recommend trying the EADF. The teachers are patient, generous, and know how to teach.

Besides, it’s Brighton and the seaside in the summer, what can go wrong?

When You Start Hating your Thesis…

Things have been a bit hectic lately. I was busy revising my thesis introduction. I had supervision today and it went well. My supervisors are happy with the direction the revision is going. I’m relieved as well because even though I felt I was doing all the right things, I wasn’t confident that they made sense.

Even though I’m making the same argument in my thesis, I’ve pretty much had to rewrite the introduction. This involved a painstakingly process of brainstorming, rewriting my abstract, asking myself what are research questions are, what is my methodology, what my critical intervention in the field is, and stripping down concepts that are related to my argument, but not directly relevant to my core project.

Through this rewriting process I realized that my argument wasn’t clear enough in my previous thesis version. Not that my examiners are right–they were mean and harsh in the viva report so I retain my right to be childish about this–but I can see that although my argument was clear in my head, it wasn’t articulated as crystal clear as it should be. I think this is why apart from having to overcome the emotional setback of major corrections, I had trouble rewriting the introduction.

Recently I re-read “Authoring a Ph.D.” (Patrick Dunleavy 2003). I found in horror that I’d ended up doing everything he suggested not to do in a thesis. This realization comes in retrospect, because when I was writing-up last year I thought I was ticking all the boxes. The worst realization came from this sentence:

Students often imagine that readers will closely scrutinize their small critical comments and discussions in early chapters and ascribe them a far more importance than they actually will (p.58). 

It was a horror to read this because I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that my examiners would notice the conceptual connections I was making… Of course they didn’t. Because examiners are busy people. They probably only have time to read your whole thesis once, and read your introduction and conclusion one to two more times. That’s it. If they can’t grasp the argument in the first few pages, they’ll probably start having doubts about what the thesis is trying to say. I’m learning this the hard way.

Throughout the rewriting process I felt like a dog chasing its own tail. Sadly I know there is more of this to come. There was a point where I couldn’t separate my Methodology section from my Thesis Structure, so I began to procrastinate a bit. I told myself that I needed more time to sort out these structural issues. I’d missed my first deadline of sending the revised Introduction to my supervisors. They gave me a push by asking me to send them what I’ve got. I give them credit for being on my case.

I’m psychologically preparing myself to do the same for my Chapter 1 as well. I have a deadline by mid-January to revise Chapter 1.

When I submitted my thesis earlier this year, I was tired of my thesis, but didn’t hate it.

Now I’m literally sick and tired of it. A friend told me it means I’m on the right path.