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The VIVA is your time to shine. The VIVA, alongside your PhD thesis submission, is a major milestone on your way to becoming a ‘doctor of philosophy’. VIVA is short-hand for ‘Viva voce’ (‘by word of mouth’), a.k.a. PhD defense. Provided that you get proper preparation, the right mindset, and favourable circumstances, it can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. This post provides some modest insight to prepare you to shine at the VIVA.
Celebrate! You will defend
The most important piece of advice to pass the VIVA, in my humble opinion, should begin with a celebratory note. If your PhD supervisory team and the Graduate school allowed you to submit the PhD thesis in the first place, that is because there is an overwhelming chance they expect you to pass the VIVA. Getting to thesis submission stage is arguably the hardest haul. But once the thesis is in, it seems most highly likely you will be able to come out of the VIVA with a bright smile on your face, and a combined sense of achievement and relief…
Be more wise, seek advice
In terms of practical advice, start with the resources provided by your university and senior academic staff around you. Just like your thesis, every VIVA is unique. The VIVA being ‘word of mouth’, the process of gathering advice comes first and foremost through personal contact and observation. Your own institution may conduct VIVAs differently than other institutions. There are also important differences between countries, whereby some VIVAs may be behind closed doors (e.g. three people: your external, your internal, and yourself, as it is in the UK), or fully public (e.g. much of mainland Europe). ‘Public’ means: your mother, friends, droppers-by, support staff, school friends, friends of your supervisor, industry leaders and partners, and many other people you perhaps wish had not been invited. Psychologically, you might come to feel very claustrophobic and/or very exposed, but hopefully you will feel just right, no matter the venue and circumstances of the examination.
Newly-examined PhD peers can give a boon of insight. Try to systematically soak in the wisdom vibes from your newly examined PhD mates: the fresher the experience, the more you can learn from them (note: catch them before they party, should they choose to party hard). And attend every relevant public VIVA you can (i.e. if your institutions makes VIVAs public). I benefited from my observation of public VIVAs in Sweden, and chatting to 30+ friends and acquaintances who passed their VIVA in the UK or Sweden. VIVAs are normally constructive, if challenging. Ideally, it will feel like a mature, engaging conversation between keen researchers, a tame rite of passage where the aim is not to traumatise for life but encourage further professional researcher development.
Prepare to prepare
The webosphere and literature abound with VIVA-prep tips and advice.
In a former post on the YA blog, How to prepare for the VIVA, Basak Tanulku shares precious advice about her own experience of successfully preparing and passing the VIVA (in the UK), which helped me a lot. It has proven a very popular post on the blog. If you ever experience nightmares and anxiety as you get closer to the date, just know you haven’t been the only one!
On the creative end, Chrissi Nerantzi suggests different ways in which you can use Lego bricks to defend your thesis. Even the corporate sector can use Legos for group collaboration and team building! So get at it: use every piece of permissible material to help you make your point at the VIVA!
More generally, the University of Leicester suggest four steps: 1) Getting to re-know your thesis; 2) practicing exam responses; 3) thinking about (and knowing) your examiners; 4) using (all) support available. Their grad school website also lists lots of practical, common-sense advice.
Invaluable printed resources include the book Stepping Stones to Achieving your Doctorate: Focusing on your VIVA from the start by Vernon Trafford and Shosh Leshem. I also found the following useful: How to Survive a PhD VIVA: top 17 tips by Rebecca Ratcliffe and the concise advice provided by VITAE body.
Practice makes (just about) perfect. Think: mock VIVAs with your supervisors, research lab and PhD peers. Make yourself a cheat sheet where you summarise all the key parts of your thesis, including sample answers to the most common questions that get asked at VIVAs. You might not be able to take it with you at the VIVA, but it well you revise before. Devise answers that always go back to the thesis, rather than to your own fanciful imagination. You can also prepare answers concerning the weak parts in your thesis. Besides scheduling one or several mock VIVAs, try to impress yourself in the mirror, talk to your smartphone recorder, your pet, or practise sample questions with real people. I also recommend watching the recent Jumanji films again, and practicing the Dr Bravestone smouldering gaze. It won’t fail!
The one thing to know inside out is your sacrosanct Contribution to Knowledge. This is truly the cornerstone of both the thesis and the VIVA. On par with your Contribution is the equally essential Methodology that underpins the whole thesis. It is absolute common sense but vital to imprint in your mind. This includes being able to clearly explain, and justify, how and why you collected, presented and analysed the data the way you did, and how these feed your discussion. Contribution to Knowledge and Methodology are the two pillars of your thesis, and these should shine through during the VIVA. Your research questions, analysis, discussion and conclusions should be crystal-clear and easy to digest. If they are not, these can be improved post-VIVA (e.g. during the corrections phase, as is typical in the UK). Throughout your preparation, know the trees while keeping sight of the forest. If your thesis is sound, knowing how it all coherently holds together as a whole will matter significantly more than knowing every single detail.
Improve the odds
Improving the odds of having an enjoyable VIVA can/should be done throughout the PhD. It is always a good idea to start your PhD with the end in sight (i.e. the VIVA). And to repeatedly remind yourself of that end point, especially if your PhD takes on a life of its own, and takes you to unexpected places, or further still, into uncharted territory.
The more supportive the supervisory team, the better the experience of submitting the thesis, and the greater the chances of having an enjoyable VIVA. Not everyone is blessed with supportive supervisors, though. MIT graduate Dora Farkas identifies nine types of ‘less-than-supportive’ or ‘difficult’ supervisors, and how to deal with them. Beware also of the tyranny of the awesome supervisor. During VIVA prep as for the PhD process as a whole, PhD candidates who feel abandoned or in a disarray would benefit from every bit of help from other experienced academics (e.g. second supervisor, PhD coordinator / line manager), post-docs, and even fellow PhD candidates/ doctors-in-the-making / funkateers. As I have seen this happen repeatedly, one should not allow their disengaged principal supervisor weigh down on their own career, for the VIVA is a major milestone. In any event, your supervisors will remain 99% silent during the VIVA, if they are there at all. The VIVA is about you and your choices reflected in the final submitted thesis, and how humbly and assertively you justify these choices. It is your time to shine!
You can increase your chances of getting a quality examination team in a number of complementary ways, such as: going to plenty of conferences, networking in everyday life and on the webosphere, getting along with your supervisor, and broadly knowing who’s who in your field. Conferences help you learn how to communicate and engage with your peers as well as senior academics, to clarify your ideas, and meet new people. You can learn who’s who by reading extensively and looking up key academics’ profiles, or even trying to collaborate with more experienced researchers. It pays off to be able to (partly) influence the choice of your external and internal examiners. There is often both an official procedure and a de-facto subscript about how examiners get selected. You will benefit from having considerate, mature, engaging and constructively critical examiners. Tedious or meticuluous examiners may examine your thesis page by page. I had 350 pages (including appendices): the VIVA would have taken a whole day! Other examiners may have an axe to grind, or it might be in their academic upbringing to feel obliged to act superior (bless them!). Thankfully both my examiners were very pragmatic and constructively critical, and spared me from such a trial. No matter what the circumstances, prepare to be grateful and take on board all criticism.
Prepare to shine!
Now that most of the odds are on your side, you are ready to leap the final run-up to the VIVA. Likelihood is: you might not be your normal self before and during the VIVA. Get ready for some rough rides before your penultimate opportunity to shine. There again, you may just as well cruise through the whole process… Just prepare as best you can, have good faith, and let go of the rest.
The next blog post will provide some modest insight about how to cope with the last days before the VIVA, and how to shine as bright as you can during the VIVA.
Due acknowledgements to my superstar supervisors, Dr James Charlton, and Pfr Ruth Dalton, as well as to Pfr Paul Greenhalgh, for many of the advice and tips mentioned in this blog. Neither a positive VIVA experience, nor this blog post, would have been possible without their continuous support.