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.

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