I enjoyed my Viva by @weeladybird1981March 5th, 2012 | Posted by in Viva Stories
Last week I had my PhD viva. I still can’t believe it’s over; I can’t believe I’ve come through it and joined the ranks of the ‘viva survivors’. Most of all, I can’t believe I can truthfully say the following words: I enjoyed it. Who’d have thought that could happen?!
In the weeks before my viva, numerous people told me to enjoy it. I smiled doubtfully and said I would try to. The viva had been something I’d tried not to think about during the three years of doing my PhD. The mention of the word ‘viva’ gave me butterflies so I adopted my tried and tested approach to such scenarios – the good old head in the sand tactic. Fingers-in-ears-la-la-la-no-viva-thoughts-here-la-la-la. I considered the viva something I would deal with in the VERY FAR AWAY distant future and so got on with the job of writing the PhD. Before I knew it, though, I had submitted my thesis. It was the end of November 2011. My viva was to be held at some point in February 2012. I decided not to focus on it until I’d had a break for a few weeks (alternative interpretation: fingers-in-ears-la-la-la…).
In January, however, I knew it was time to face up to the viva. Having gotten horrendously nervous about presentations and interviews in the past, I realised that, more than anything, I needed to seriously work on keeping calm. Blocking out the thoughts of the viva and then having panic stations in the days leading up to it was an approach I knew I had to avoid. I wrenched my head out of the sand and visited my old friend Google. I scoured the internet for information on vivas: criteria the examiners would be assessing me on, other people’s experiences and advice, questions and themes that were likely to come up. I sourced acres of information, devoured it hungrily, and then whittled it down into a document of questions that – according to other people’s experiences and advice – it seemed vital to be able to answer. My supervisor agreed that the list was useful, but urged me to remember that most questions I would be asked would be very specific to my PhD.
I re-read my thesis and prepared answers to the questions and themes in the document I had compiled, focusing in particular on having strong arguments regarding the study’s contribution to knowledge and potential limitations. I also familiarised myself with my examiners’ work in order to get an idea of the ways in which they were likely to approach my thesis and therefore viva. More than anything, however, I worked hard at not allowing myself to freak out at the thoughts of the viva situation. From early January, I engaged in breathing and visualisation exercises. I stopped focusing on the viva as a potentially negative experience in which I would be grilled and humiliated, and started to think of it as the day I would earn my academic stripes. A friend (an experienced academic) emailed me a few days before the viva and wrote, “You know more about your study than anyone and this is the time to let it shine”. I kept those words in my head. I also realised in the day or two before the viva that, not only did I know my study, but I really cared about it. I cared about the topic and I cared about trying to make a difference in the area. I decided I would go into the viva and speak from the heart.
At 9.50am last Monday, I walked into the room where my viva was due to start at 10am. I took a deep breath and put my bag down on one of the leather and wooden chairs at the top of the polished wooden table. I looked up at the ornate 17th century ceiling, and congratulated myself on having had the good sense to have visited the room the week before in order not to be overawed by it. (Note to organisers of PhD vivas: how about not picking the fanciest and therefore most intimidating room in the world as the location for an experience people are likely to get desperately stressed about?)
While I waited for the examiners and chair to arrive, I walked around the room taking deep breaths. I still felt very calm (I can’t emphasise enough how totally unlike me it was to be this calm – the breathing and visualisation exercises really paid off). I stood at the top of the table, looked around the room and told myself it was a privilege to have had the opportunity to do a PhD – and therefore a privilege to be able to do a viva. I reminded myself to speak from the heart.
Shortly after 10am, the examiners and chair arrived. From the moment I met them, they made me feel comfortable and at ease. I cannot put into words how thankful I am to them for this. As soon as they came into the room, they expressed amazement at how fancy it was and asked me what they could do to make it more comfortable for me; they offered to move the table and chairs around if I wanted, and asked where I wanted them to sit.
When we sat down, my external examiner told me she and my internal examiner did not want me to think of the situation as an interrogation. She said they wanted to ask me some questions in order to clarify certain details, and because of their own interest in my thesis. Both examiners told me from the start that they’d enjoyed the thesis and found it interesting. They – and the chair – could not have done more to make me feel confident and comfortable. While I was asked some challenging questions, I felt relaxed enough to take my time answering and to ask for clarification when I needed it. I found that the situation felt more like a discussion of my work with people who were genuinely interested in it, rather than the terrifying, humiliating cross-examination I had for years envisaged it would be. I even inadvertently put my internal examiner on the spot at one point by asking him to define exactly what he meant by a certain term he used. Much hilarity ensued, as he struggled to give an answer, I struggled to apologise, and the external examiner and chair rolled around laughing. In fact, there were numerous occasions of laughter during the viva (another was when I produced the teddy bear I had used during interviews with children as part of my fieldwork – I bet I’m the first person to have brought a teddy to a PhD viva).
When the examiners reached the end of their questions and the chair asked me to leave the room, I was amazed to find that the viva had lasted two and a half hours. I had completely lost track of time and thought only about half an hour had passed! As I felt that the viva had gone well, especially since the examiners had been complimentary about my thesis, the wait outside the room wasn’t too agonising. When they called me back in, I was delighted to find that I had passed with minor corrections. The examiners congratulated me with warm smiles. I tried to express how thankful I was for the way in which they and the chair had put me at ease with the situation (though I got a bit choked up and ended up muttering an emotional “Thank you so much…” before breaking off mid-sentence).
I still can’t believe what a positive and enjoyable (yes, really) experience my viva was. I hope sharing my story has reassured other people who are preparing for their vivas. Try to remember my friend’s advice and think of it as your chance to shine.
*@weeladybird1981’s viva took place at a university inScotlandin February 2012. Her PhD focused on physical education at preschools.