Thursday, 23 May 2013

The PhD Viva: a thing of nightmares? Some reflections from a recently viva-ed PhD student

Posted by Grant Gibson

Having recently been through the PhD viva process, I thought it might be interesting to share some of my experiences.

Ever since starting my PhD, the viva had been something to fear. Initially it’s little more than a vague, inchoate fear on the distant horizon, slowly growing as I analyse my data, begin writing up, and eventually submit my final draft. Then, a week after submission I get my viva date; suddenly it’s not so distant at all! At four weeks away the viva is all I can think about. A week to go and just thinking about the viva brings me out in a cold sweat. Friends and colleagues are supportive, telling me 'you'll be fine’. 

Add caption"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham;
But on my mind are the horror stories; the 6 hour viva in which the student is ripped apart page by painful page; the examiner with a score to settle against you, your supervisors and your department; or the poor soul who had to resubmit and worst of all be re-viva-ed. I dutifully prepare, asking myself 'what are the strengths and weaknesses of my work', but many of the fears remain. 

Finally, the day arrives and I’m sat outside the meeting room, trying to outwardly look calm but quivering like jelly inside. Then the internal examiner calls me and in I walk, ready to face my doom...

Maybe I'm being melodramatic, but I'm sure this story will be familiar to anyone who has undergone or is waiting for their viva. Undoubtedly a certain amount of anxiety is to be expected, after all the viva is an important event in the life of any postgraduate. But having been through the process I wonder, do these fears really reflect the reality of the viva? And more importantly, why do we do this to ourselves, collectively torturing ourselves like this? Has the viva taken on a mythic quality, making us like children, scared of the bogeyman hiding under the bed? Are the stories we all hear about the viva a rite of passage, a collective myth, or an extension of our very real anxieties about the PhD process? 

Perhaps you can only truly know what a viva is like by going through it, but in truth, far from an interrogation a good viva should be one of the few chances you'll ever get for you and your work to truly take central stage.

So did the horror stories come true? Of course not. My viva was very different to what I expected and much closer to what those who have gone through the process said it would be. Both of my examiners were enthusiastic about my work and genuinely wanted me to do well. Sure I was challenged; this is a PhD after all. But neither tried to trip me up or catch me out. And I found I had the confidence in my work to answer any tricky questions. 

My viva lasted an hour (not six!) and in the end I came through remarkably unscathed. Dare I say it, in a strange way I actually enjoyed it! I guess the moral of my story should be that no matter how much you might worry about your viva, it will almost certainly be nowhere near as bad as you think. So try not to let pre-viva anxiety get the better of you, you never know, you might even enjoy it!

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