Tag Archives: viva

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.