A Survivor’s Guide to the Viva
Yes readers, it has happened: I have passed my viva! This very last “exam” concluding a grand total of 24 years of education, that I have been worried about for the last 3 years or so, has happened. Overall, it did not go at all as I expected, and not only because it happened during a worldwide pandemic, online, in my living room (barefoot). I was expecting to be a bit stressed over the few days before the viva, while actually I went from being a complete and total wreck for 6 days to absolute calm for the last 24 hours before the viva. I was expecting the viva to be, as many friends put it, “not enjoyable, but ‘fine’”, while actually I had a brilliant time. Not all vivas are as nice, and unfortunately, several factors for a successful viva are probably out of the student’s hands (i.e. difficulties with supervisors throughout a PhD, communication breakdowns etc), however, there are a few things one can do to prepare. The following list compiles the tips from my friends and colleagues from the lab, Maggi, Rachael, Catherine and Alyssa (who kindly took the time to give me their advice, and who even managed to calm me down during the worst of the viva prep, detailed at the end of this post). Thank you a 100 times to each of you!
Recipe for a good viva prep
- Forget about your thesis
If you have the time, forget about the whole PhD thing. You really just need 1 week or less (depending on your availabilities) to prepare just before the thesis, no need to get started too early. I started gathering tips from friends and lab-mates about 3 or 4 weeks before the viva as I needed to feel like I was doing something to prepare, but really, that was not necessary. Also, when I eventually re-read the thesis, I literally amazed myself at all the ideas that were in there and that I had completely forgotten!
- Read your thesis
Read your thesis back to back if you can, highlighting / signposting (with colour-coded sticky notes), or if like me your viva is online and you didn’t print the thesis (because you care about the planet), add comments to any section you may want to find quickly during the viva (chapters, important tables, main hypotheses/RQ, main implications for your findings…). DO NOT mark-up everything, as you would get lost in an avalanche of sticky notes.
- Choose your examiners wisely and know their work
The viva experience depends A LOT on the examiners, and different examiners would give you different vivas for a same thesis. Examiners have questions and ideas that were closely linked with their own field of expertise and specific interests. To anticipate these questions, have a look at their latest (relevant) papers (you probably already know all the older ones), ongoing studies, favourite methods/models/theories, then you can figure out how to address these points. Based on their expertise, they might ask you why you chose method X instead of Y, or things you would have done differently. Don’t try and defend your thesis to the death! They are just coming to your work from their perspective, and want to assess how you evaluate your own work as well as constructive criticism.
- Prepare talking about your thesis
You have all the knowledge you need, but if you haven’t been to many conferences or haven’t been forced to give regular presentations at lab meetings, you’re probably not used to TALKING about your work, clearly and concisely (especially complex analyses or results). If (like me) you don’t know where to start, have a look at this post from Stuff About Unis (+ related Viva Hell post) a colleague sent me. I went through these questions the day before the viva, after having spent 5 days anxiously reading the thesis and recent papers. Answering them aloud and writing down notes, I quickly realised I could answer every single one of them in a blink, and I suddenly felt completely prepared and relaxed! There are many other really useful lists and databases of questions to help you think more globally about your work, and I recommend you have a look at these pages friends sent me: this Viva Survivors post (+ related posts) and the PhD Voice Viva Question Repository. These might seem general but 1) they will help you see your PhD as one whole piece rather than a collection of chapters and studies, and as a training journey rather than an assignment to complete, 2) actually your viva will probably involve such questions, especially at the start. Finally, remember that answering the question “did you consider this method” with “actually no, I haven’t” is fine.
- Prepare questions for your examiners
Based on my own experience and what friends and colleagues said, it is completely okay to ask questions to your examiners, generally at the end. Maybe you would like their opinion on an aspect of your thesis, so prepare a question in case it doesn’t come up in the discussion. You could also ask them advice to publish your findings efficiently. I asked, for example, how I could give more impact to my results, outside of academic publications, and they gave me loads of ideas!
- Prepare for the “admin” side of the viva
If your viva is online, try and have a pre-viva call with your examiners to make sure everybody knows how to use the platform (i.e. Teams, Collaborate, Zoom), and there is a backup plan if somebody has an internet problem. I’m really glad I had this practice call a week before the viva, as on the day I felt better for having met them already. Also think about what you’ll need on the day (WATER. LOADS OF IT), or your outfit, or how you will let your friends know you are FINALLY DONE. My fabulous flatmate spent ages helping me organise our houseplants to have a stunning plant background for my viva!
- Remember you’ve already done the job
All my friends and colleagues who’ve had a viva repeated “You’ve already done the work, just read your thesis”, and I didn’t fully trust them. I have to admit they were right. I’m now convinced that my viva experience and outcome were due 1% to the prep I did the week before the viva, and 99% to the work I did during the entire PhD. I had already thought 10 times about my research strategy, methods, and analysis plan during the PhD. I had already thought about the meaning and implications of my results for hours during the write-up, inside and out. Literally all I had to do was re-read the thesis to remind myself of it all. Remember that if you have done the work, you have been preparing for the viva for 3+ years!
My (pre-)viva story
As I said, I really only started working on the viva a week before the dreaded event, Wednesday 1st to Wednesday 8th. From Wednesday 1st 8 am til Monday 6th 11.59pm, I was a complete wreck: I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I spent my time on the verge of tears or fully crying in front of my laptop, talking to basically nobody but my flatmate (and completely forgetting I was meant to be working on my actual job). I kept on obsessing over that one detail in the thesis, thinking “if they ask me why I did X and not Y, I just don’t have an answer. I should have done Y. There’s no valid reason for not doing Y. There are going to ask me to do Y and they’ll be right, and that will count as Major Corrections. But I’ve worked so much! I don’t deserve this!” (of course, nobody “deserves” major corrections after having worked so hard, this outcome generally stems from poor supervision, and it’s generally not the student’s fault at all! But my pre-viva brain was very self-centred). I obsessed over this question over and over, which dramatically impacted my productivity.
And then, on Tuesday morning, I suddenly felt “fine”. A bit stressed, of course, but overall completely calm and ready for the viva. I went through that list of questions, and realised I could answer everything, which relaxed me even more. I expected to get more anxious by the evening, or the morning of, but not even. I was just suddenly looking forward to it, which was totally unexpected! The viva lasted 3 hours, which felt like 1. I genuinely had a excellent experience and actually enjoyed the viva, which is greatly due to the fact I had brilliant examiners and supervisors. Fun fact, the dreaded question did not come up, and I got no corrections. I may have overreacted a bit during the viva prep…