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!

Advertisements

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.

Conditioning for a Stronger Aerial Body

My silks teacher was ill on Tuesday, so I booked in for an aerial conditioning class instead.

I’m used to conditioning at the beginning of a class when I’ve still got energy. This involves two to three sets of exercise, such as beating and sit-crunches on the trapeze bar, or pencil-pike on the silks. But this Tuesday was the first time I’ve done an hour-and-fifteen minutes class just pure conditioning. I tried going through the fifteen or so exercises on rope that were on the exercise sheet, but most of the times I couldn’t hold on for as long as required, like a single arm and toe hang for 30 secs.. Other times I could only get through one set instead of two sets of exercise. In the middle of panting, bewilderment, and staring blankly at the ropes I asked myself why I was doing this.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one with the same question. Towards the end of the class a girl said to me, “Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself?? I could’ve stayed at home in this rainy weather…”

Well, I already bought my train ticket so I HAD to come… Basically I’d gone all the way to London for self-inflicted torture.

But of course I know why we do conditioning. We do conditioning so we can execute more cool stuff in the air, to stay in the air for longer, and to enjoy that temporary moment of freedom. It’s the feeling of being at awe with ourselves (kind of narcissistic) that makes us go back for more.

But conditioning is pretty boring. It’s repetitive and I find it more self-defeating than learning a new move because there isn’t a reward in itself, like a pretty pose or a flashy move. But as with many boring things, it’s necessary. The repetition of conditioning helps strengthen the muscles and build muscle memory, and that’s the reward on the long run. When you’re stronger, you feel more confident and it reduces the chances of injuries or panicking in the air when you end up in a funny wrap. You train the muscles when you learn new moves, but when you’re stronger it makes the process of learning new moves easier.

I'd love to rig a trapeze under the tree one day.

I’d love to rig my own trapeze under the tree one day.

(Photo Credit: Martin Thomas under Creative Commons.)

The exercise that made the biggest difference for me was beating on the trapeze. By this I mean hanging on the trapeze bar in long arms, drawing my shoulder blades down, and beating with straight legs to the bar for a couple of times. My teacher told me that I don’t need to think too much about swinging my legs forward, but concentrate on swinging back, as the momentum will bring my legs to the bar. It’s important to try to keep your body in a straight line with an open chest, knees and ankles together side by side. (Please note that this is one way of beating. I’ve heard of another one called “flat beating” which I’m not very familiar with.)

I felt very anxious and nervous the first couple of times I tried beating because I was scared of losing my grip (plus it was really hard to swing my legs to the bar!). But when I got used to it I found that it really works the muscle group under the arm near the shoulder blade. Gradually I was able to hold myself longer with more stability in the air. Now that I can enjoy swinging beating has become one of my favourite conditioning exercises.

What do you do for a stronger aerial body?