What happened in my PhD viva – a tale of nerves

So, the first post of Clutter. What shall I write about? Something cheery? That would be ideal. But I’d instead like to write about my PhD viva. ‘Viva’ is actually an antonym for ‘cheery’, in case you didn’t know (note: untrue, but feels like it should be true).

My PhD viva took place in January of this year (2017), so is still pretty fresh on my mind, no matter how hard I try to forget. A viva, just like the PhD itself, is a very unique and individual experience. Some people have a great time talking through their work, and some people don’t enjoy it quite as much. Guess which category I fit into?

There are several stages to a viva – not just the actual thing, but in the weeks and months before and after – handing in your thesis, preparing for your viva, the viva itself, and digesting everything afterwards. Let me take you through them in turn, and how they played out for me.

Prep

I was told that once you hand-in, you need to think about your viva. So I thought about it, a lot. But I had no idea how to actually prepare.

Ideally, setting up a mock viva would have been helpful, but that’s quite hard to fit in when you go straight into a full-time, non-academic job, like I did. I had to give a ’20 minute’ presentation (more on this later) to my examiners at the beginning of mine, so in preparing that I did at least have a proper look over all my work. I also read through my thesis cover to cover, and produced an ‘errata sheet’ of typos and incorrect grammar and minor mistakes to hand in to my examiners at the beginning of my viva. I thought it would demonstrate how thorough I was being, and give me something simple to work on when I started my corrections.

However producing this took a while longer than I thought, and though it was useful, in hindsight there was probably some more useful preparation I could be doing (though quite what I have no idea). I couldn’t do much more than this with my full-time job, and I needed to get a job straight away because, well, I have to pay my rent, so that was that.

Viva

Cue viva day. So nervous. More nervous than any job interview. This is the culmination of four years of my life – judgement day.

Get out laptop. Figure out how to use ridiculous university AV kit while examiners sit there. (I am more than capable of setting up my own laptop with AV kit but if you insist on using strange non-standard gear, the least you could do is send a technician to help during a frankly incredibly stressful situation. Rant over.)

Begin my ’20 minute’ presentation.

“Can I stop you there?”

I think You CAN, but I’d rather you didn’t.

What I say is “Yes, of course!” Big smile. Feel sick.

Then commences an agonisingly long round of questions, another slide of my presentation, and more questions. Repeat cycle. This goes on for an hour. After this, I am exhausted.

Now, I am not great at long meetings. During my PhD itself I requested with my supervisor that we limit meetings to an hour tops, and ideally 30 minutes. It’s just the way my brain works – at about half an hour I meet my maximum capacity for being able to digest new information and questions and produce coherent answers. For this reason I always have a notebook to write down things discussed in the meeting, so if need be I can refer to it and think about them later. Even during a casual chat about something work-related I have to do this or I forget things – Matt will vouch for after seeing all the scribbles written during our pub-based meetings.

So knowing that after this very intense 60+ minutes of standing up presenting and defending my work I would sit down and be questioned further was a bit difficult to deal with. The presentation was supposed to be a brief overview of my work, something to put me in a confident position from which to continue the rest of the viva, but in fact with the questioning it drained so much out of me that I think I performed quite poorly afterwards. In hindsight it was naive of me to think I wouldn’t get stopped for questions throughout my talk, but as this isn’t standard practice for a UK PhD viva I hadn’t really anticipated having to give a presentation at all.

In the end, my viva was just under 4 hours long. My examiners were reasonable, we had a good chat about things, some things I answered well and some things I didn’t. I was totally exhausted, and in hindsight probably not all that well prepared. I got sent out of the room while they discussed an outcome, and was waiting for an agonisingly long time. What can you do in that situation? I paced the freezing cold corridors and drank a lot of water. I eventually got called back in, discussed outcomes with my examiners. I didn’t fail – hurrah! But I have a reasonable amount of amendments – luckily mostly writing based, which is a lot easier to fit in around a full-time job and a life than collecting more or extensively reanalysing data. And I also have quite a while to do them in, which again is pretty handy.

Aftermath

I texted my mum, called a friend who’d also had a rough viva, had a little cry and then went home to drink whisky with my long-suffering boyfriend.

The next day I updated social media that I had indeed survived my viva and hadn’t fallen into a pit of despair, and got loads of lovely congratulatory messages from people calling me Doctor and promptly felt like a complete impostor (I have since learnt that this is also a normal reaction – a shitty, but seemingly normal one).

In the following couple of weeks I waited for my corrections; read my corrections; had a panic attack; got a migraine; and then calmed down.

And that’s about the stage I’ve got to now. It has been a fair few weeks since my viva, but I haven’t done much about my corrections just yet. I was given a reasonable time to do them in, so I am taking advantage of that and giving myself a little downtime. The PhD was a very stressful experience for me, and so was the viva – I think I deserve a few weeks away from it. Now, of course, is crunch time – that time off has given me (some) renewed enthusiasm for getting this thing done, and so that is what I shall be doing.

I’d like conclude by saying that although I didn’t especially enjoy my viva, this is certainly not the case for everyone. Your experience depends on many many things, and vary widely by examiner – remember that they may also be having a bad day and try not to take comments too personally. All badness aside, it is a very thorough way of making sure you and your work are worthy of a PhD. I know that my thesis will be infinitely better because of it.

4 Comments for “What happened in my PhD viva – a tale of nerves”

Naomi Boxall

says:

Girl!! My first panic attack was in the middle of the night while procrastinating about the 7 typo/grammatical bloody amendments needed prior to leather binding.It took me 9 weeks, I think, to finally have them done. I sat up in bed at 4am one morning, feeling oh-so-peculiar, then realised what was causing the problem, picked up the laptop and sorted them. This article brought it allllll back. Thanks??!

You’ll forget it eventually. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. No. You won’t. But you’ll Ave everything else that follows it. NOTHING else is so awful.

says:

Ahh, this sounds familiar! Sorry to bring back the bad memories…! I do agree, everything scary that has happened since my viva has been approached with an attitude of “well this can’t be as bad as my viva” – it has made me more confident, in a strange way. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

lewismackenzie

says:

Vivas are scary things! During my viva day, my average heart rate was 130 bpm (thanks fitbit)! Even in the pub afterwards my heart-rate was just as high!

A couple of days later I was on the train with my laptop and hand-written thesis corrections in my rucksack. Half way through the train journey I released that if someone stole my rucksack from the luggage rack, then all trace of the hand-written corrections would be lost forever. This was incredibly anxiety inducing, and I kept glancing over my shoulder back to the luggage rack. Fortunately a couple of nice people took pity on me and let me swap seats so that I could see the luggage rack. I got home with the corrections and everything is fine. Now I use the 3 submitted copies of my thesis to prop up my laptop on my desk!

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