Preparing for the PhD Viva (Part II)

Piled higher and deeper.

Re-usable scrap paper… also called “piled higher and deeper.”

Everybody’s viva experience is different. A friend of mine had a horrible time despite passing with minor corrections. The external examiner was very aggressive, and he kept asking her the same question as if waiting for her to make a mistake. Hats off to her for keeping her cool, and answering the questions with assertiveness and stood by her position. But the aggressiveness she encountered during her viva has put her off completely from going into academia. I also know someone who, despite getting major corrections, enjoyed the experience. She appreciated the opportunity to discuss her work in depth with two experts in her field.

So how do you prepare for an unusual situation like the viva? I think there’re still some general “rules” we can follow, as most humanities vivas look for the same thing: can the candidate explain their argument clearly and eloquently? Is the candidate sitting here, in fact the person who wrote the thesis? Does the candidate demonstrate wider knowledge beyond his/her thesis? Can the candidate handle criticism?

The suggestions below are compiled from personal as well as friends’ experiences, my supervisors’ advice, and what I’ve learned from workshops:

1. Read your thesis again. This is a chore, especially when you think you know your thesis inside out and feel like puking every
time you open it. But try to read it again at least once, and make notes on parts that you think can be clarified. I bookmarked   these parts with post-its. Most people wait at least two to three months for their viva, so reading the thesis again is a must to       remind yourself of what you wrote.

2. Prepare index-cards. Let’s say your thesis is about postmodernism and you use Frederic Jameson and Linda Hutcheon’s theories. In the index card, write a few key-words about Jameson and Hutcheon’s arguments and memorize them. This way,     even if you get brain freeze you can still pull out something from the back of your head.

3. Have a mock viva. Even though having a mock viva with your supervisor is never going to be the same as the real viva, it helps to give you a feel of the dynamics in a viva. It’s also very helpful in pre-empting what examiners might ask, especially if you think they’re going to probe on a weakness in your thesis. If your supervisor is not familiar with what a mock viva is, ask him/her to prepare four to five critical questions about your work. This can range from methodology, to thesis structure, to locating your research in the field. The best time to have a mock viva is two weeks before your actual viva. If it’s too soon, you might forget the intensity you feel when answering the questions. If it’s too late, you might rushed into the viva.

4. Don’t be defensive. I’ve heard this again and again, so I call it the golden rule. The wording “oral defense” can be a bit misleading, because the viva actually implies “engagement” with your examiners by defending your critical position. If you become too defensive (i.e. raising your voice towards the examiners), examiners will begin to wonder why you’re not confident towards your own work. If you agree with everything they say, they will also doubt whether you have any critical position at all. It’s a balance of acknowledging the other person’s viewpoint, but also asserting your own.

5. Never say it didn’t fit. Examiners like to hear scholarly answers. Even though the thesis has a word limit, and X theory simply didn’t fit with Y, don’t say “it didn’t fit” or “it just felt right.” Say something like “X talks about Marxism, and this
context is contradictory to Y because of such and such reason. Therefore I did not use X in my thesis.”

6. What are you going to do with the thesis? My examiners didn’t ask me this question, but apparently it does come up. Have an answer ready about how you’d like to revise it into a book: Would you adjust the structure slightly to change the scope?Or add another chapter to make the thesis more comprehensible?

I hope these suggestions have helped a bit. If you’re having your viva soon, best of luck!

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