Tag Archives: academia

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!

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.

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.

The Ph.D. Fairy Tale


Ah, Ph.D. fairy tale land.

(Photo credit: Josh Giovo under Creative Commons.)

I’m beginning to come to terms with the post-viva and major corrections trauma. I can finally look at the first few pages of the report and not feel completely weighted down by the examiners’ comments. I know I have to go through the cry-hate/curse-accept-do cycle several times again until I resubmit next year, but at least I’m not running away from it.

I ranted about my disillusion with academia and how sick and tired I was of my thesis to a friend. She kindly listened then said,

“You don’t want to your thesis to stay the way it is. Once it’s printed and bound, it will stay in the library forever and ever.”

“Forever and ever?” I laughed and was amused at how she stressed these words. She forgot to add that now theses are digitalized, so your thesis also stays in “the cloud” forever and ever.

“Yes! You passed! You didn’t fail. I know people who’ve failed, but you passed. Think of the corrections as a gift. It’s a chance to revise your thesis and make it the way you want it to be. Once it’s in the library you can’t change it.”

This conversation made me think about the rosy image I once had of academia, and hence the title of this post. A long, long time ago, I thought that after getting a Ph.D. I’d be able to use the degree to find a job and have an academic career. I would publish important work, live comfortably, and surely live happily ever after.

But midway through the Ph.D. I realized the fairy tale picture I painted for myself was deeply misguided by expectations of what academia was supposed to be. I thought of it as a place where I could escape the mundaneness of the office-cubicle. I really enjoyed going to conferences, presenting my work, and networking with academic whose names are printed on the must-read books in my field. These activities made me feel important, as if I was doing something meaningful in contrast to adding up numbers on an excel-sheet, or making promotional powerpoint slides about a company product I wouldn’t buy.

I forgot that all the conference and networking opportunities became possible because of the tuition I was paying and my affiliation to my university. Without the research student status, I wouldn’t have time or funding to go to these conferences.

Without my research student status, I wouldn’t I have access to journal articles either. Research material is accessible only to a group of people. Once you lose affiliation to a university, you can no longer read the full-text of a journal article unless you pay for the subscription yourself. Restricted access to these research materials means that research is not free (but rather expensive), and this contradicts the concept of public good that academia advertises itself to stand for. Doing a Ph.D. is like buying a very expensive ticket for entry to an elite club.

Now I know academia is bureaucracy itself. Another friend described it accurately, “Every time I speak to an academic I feel I’m speaking around their ego balloon. I try to get it out of the way but it keeps bouncing back.”

Accepting the Ph.D. for what it is, as being part of a capitalist-consumption system is strangely helping me maintain a healthier attitude towards my corrections. Once you see academia as a bureaucratic system as any other, you can read the rules of the game much more clearly. Since there’s no fairy tale land waiting for me after the Ph.D., I’m concentrating on what I have to and can do now, rather than fantasizing about a better life after the Ph.D..

Why I Decided to do a Ph.D.

I had a meeting with one of my supervisors last week.  She asked me to read the Introduction and Chapter 1 of my thesis, and mark the places where I can insert the passages that the examiners want me to make according to the first page of the viva report.  I can start rewriting straight away, but she encouraged me not to, and suggested that after marking the places where new passages need to be inserted will I know what to delete.

I think this was a good suggestion, because I planned an overhaul for the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Conclusion, and this would probably have made the rewriting process more overwhelming than it needs to be. She said I wrote a good thesis, so while it is important to do EXACTLY what the examiners have asked me to do, I also need to show faith in my work and not overdo the corrections.

I appreciated this meeting as it helped me put the correction process into perspective.  Although I’m still hurt and feeling antagonistic towards the examiners and the viva report, I am more ready to move forwards than I was a couple of weeks back.  If I do exactly what the examiners have asked me to do, there is no reason I wouldn’t get the Ph.D.

But what if my corrections aren’t good enough?  My examiners said I articulated my argument very well in the viva. Shouldn’t this prove that I know the issues and debates in my field, and that I am capable of doing research?  If they’ve already heard what my thesis is about, will my corrections really satisfy them the second time?  The unknown factor of having my six years of work lie in the hands of two academics who didn’t pass me the first time worries me.  I’m one of those people who tend to lose appetite when they’re anxious, so I have to remind myself to eat enough, especially since I need the energy for aerial.

But apart from the viva report and having to pay full-time tuition, the hardest thing to combat is the feeling of being abandoned and worthlessness. There is a lot of valuable and accessible information out there about how to lead a Ph.D. life or how to write a thesis, but very little on how to pick yourself up from major corrections. It is understandable though. Nobody likes to remember failure, consequently not much has been written about what to do if you fall into the unfortunate category of major corrections.

Unfortunate category of major corrections...

Fallen to the darkness of major corrections…

The lack of information makes me feel I have done something wrong and shameful.  I was confident that I was making a critical intervention in my field, and that my work is original.  I believed in what I wrote.  However, now it seems that presentation and writing technicalities are more important than the argument itself.  Even though it’s quite late in the process, I’m wondering why I decided to do a Ph.D. at all.

I guess I’m asking myself this question over and over again to convince myself that I need to stick with the correction process.  Before the Ph.D., I had three years of working experience as a marketing assistant at a technological company, and later as an assistant editor in a publishing company.  I could do my job well, but felt I wasn’t putting in enough effort.  I hated the monotonous schedule of being stuck in an office nine-to-six Monday to Friday.  I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting in an office for the next five years.

This is when I began to contemplate at the possibility of doing a Ph.D.  An academic job would be hard, but at least I wouldn’t be stuck indoors every day of the week.  The winter and summer holidays also provide working flexibility envied by other office jobs.  I did my master’s degree on American and English literature, and after graduating I had vowed to never, ever go into academia again.  Yet I overruled my own decision, and here I am.

So my reasons for doing a Ph.D. were quite practical.  I was always interested in visual culture and identity issues, so I made the transition from literature to film.  Having a three year break from academia, I needed time to adjust to being a student again.  At the beginning everything I read made sense.  I panicked that others had already written what I wanted to say, and that there would be no originality in my research.  I remember it was in one of our first year meetings when one of my supervisors said that I need to look at my cultural context metacritically, and I wondered what she meant by “metacritical.”

It wasn’t until my third year that I began to grasp my own argument, and be able to hear my critical voice amongst others.  My thesis criticizes discourses of nationalism and analyzes how identity is projected in historical films.  I thought my research was really filling a gap seldom discussed in my field, and should also be communicated to the public.  This is when I felt I was ready to teach.

I think my reasons for doing a Ph.D. have come from being highly practical, to highly idealistic, to cynical, and now I’m trying to find the balance between these approaches.  I don’t have the answer to whether doing a Ph.D. is worth it yet, especially considering the bleak prospect of the current academic job market.  I think this blogpost from Right Scholarship has put it sadly but incredibly well, “… perhaps [university] shouldn’t have been touted for so long as the key to happiness, prosperity and the betterment of society.”  Is it too late to look back?

I made a choice several years ago, so I need to finish what I’ve started.