Guest author: Basak Tanulku
In this piece, I want to provide tips about what to do before, during and after your viva. The viva examination can be regarded as the last step in a long journey to finish the PhD thesis. Everything starts with your submission of two hard copies and a CD copy of your thesis to the department of your university which collects the finished PhDs for viva examinations. While I was waiting for a call from the examiners to decide on the date for the viva, I received an email from my supervisor who warned me that both examiners did not receive copies of my thesis. He suggested me to check with the University House about what happened to it. Since I had read this email at night, I felt totally helpless until the morning. After spending a night without sleep, I went to the University House early in the morning to ask whether they sent my thesis to the examiners. However, everything seemed normal for the staff there. A couple of days later, the examiners received my thesis due to a delay in the postal service. So, please check the status of your thesis regularly with the relevant officers until it reaches to examiners.
After I submitted my thesis, I kept myself busy until the viva. First of all, I started to keep working on my thesis by reading, repeating and presenting it to myself when I was alone in the office. Keep practicing your thesis is always good which prepares you to be examined in front of examiners. As recommended by a staff member at the department, I also started working on the concepts I used throughout my thesis to be able to connect different subjects with each other. Besides working on the thesis, there were other things I did during this period. For example, I wrote papers based on my thesis and submitted them to several journals. Although I was rejected from most of them, this provided me with the opportunity to practice with my thesis while waiting. Meanwhile, I also applied to several conferences which helped me to write shorter pieces about my thesis. I also worked part-time, so that I could earn a little money and keep myself busy with different things. I also read extra material which would help me during the viva. For this, I printed the latest articles on my subject field from the internet.
However, everything was not as smooth as I explained so far. Before the viva, when I started to feel nervous, thanks to my friends at the department and especially my officemates who were always supportive, I again became more comfortable. The social atmosphere in the department deserves more than a sentence here. Not only before the viva, but as a student who used the office space a lot, I always found the department as a stimulating place where I saw a constant flow of ideas, debates and communication. As a PhD student at the stage of writing up who did not have access to an office space, I was able to work in the department, since my officemates allowed me to get in their office spaces when they were not in. However, when the date of the viva approached, I started to have nightmares. So please do not feel alone if you are having nightmares before the viva or any situation which will change your life forever!
A week or so before the viva, I started to read suggestions on the internet about what to do and not to do during a viva. My supervisor decided to do a mock viva to prepare me for the big day. One thing he suggested was to stay calm during the viva. He added that one mistake done by students during the viva is to defend their thesis too much. Instead, he suggested that I should not try to answer every question during the viva, as there would certainly be questions which I could not answer. He also added that the examiners would also assess a student’s ability to deal with different types of questions, particularly how h/she reacts when facing with an unexpected question. This is the psychological aspect of the viva. So, besides showing your academic skills, please be careful about how you promote yourself i.e. how you react to unexpected questions. We also decided to tape record everything during the viva, which I find similar to a “trail record”. My supervisor also suggested that if I get too stressed during the viva, I could ask the examiners to take a break. Another tip is to bring some food and water for the viva.
Despite these preparations, I was nervous when the day arrived: on the one hand, I was trying to seem “normal” by talking to everyone in the department as if it was an “ordinary” day. On the other hand, without lunch and a proper sleep, I felt anxious about the approaching meeting. The viva started at 2 o’clock and lasted for 2 hours. The examiners were well-known names in their areas: while the external was a very prominent name in my area, the internal was an expert on the subjects that complement those of the external. After a brief introduction they asked me if I would like to do a presentation, and since I wanted to begin to the viva as soon as possible, I asked them to receive questions. The first few minutes were good to become familiar with the “psychological climate”. Surprisingly, I felt cool and calm, which might also be related to the lack of energy because I didn’t have lunch! However, when I started to answer questions, I started to feel quite confident in myself. When I received a question I waited a couple of seconds and then answered. There were questions from each chapter of the thesis. They asked me how I became familiar with the topic, why I decided to come to Lancaster University, how I got access into the field, the research questions and the case studies. Then there were tougher questions related to the data and its analysis as well as general questions on Turkey’s social and political climate. After two hours, they told me to leave the room and wait for the outcome for almost half an hour. Then they came and told me “You passed with minor amendments”. I went to my supervisor’s office and told him that I passed the viva. Before I take a short break, I decided to correct the thesis according to the amendments, especially regarding the grammar and mistakes in references. After a short break, I finished all amendments before the deadline and submitted the thesis to my supervisor. Anyway, this was my personal journey into the viva and some tips which I hope would be useful for the new PhD candidates.
Another version of this piece was published in the Sociologist Newsletter (Lancaster University)
The author: Basak Tanulku is an independent researcher from Istanbul, Turkey. She obtained her PhD degree in Sociology, Lancaster University (the UK, between the years 2004-2010). For her research, she did a field work in two gated communities in Istanbul and examined four main subjects: urban restructuring and gated communities’ political and social relations with other urban actors, social relations between gated communities and wider urban communities, the experience of domestic space and problems arising inside the housing units and gated communities overall, and the formation of security and insecurity in everyday life. Her main research areas are urban studies, socio-spatial fragmentation, gated communities and similar housing patterns, cities and consumer culture, urban and regional planning, urban transformation and more particularly, Turkish cities.