As my previous two blogs focused on preparing a PhD thesis, it seems logical to advance to the PhD viva. If there’s one thing I learnt from asking numerous people what their viva was like, is that vivas (vivae?) differ vastly from one to the other. So with that in mind let me describe my personal story and resulting emotions elucidated in the run up to, during, and following the big day!
Upon completion of my thesis I immediately printed, bound, and submitted them to the graduate school. All 5 copies at >300 pages per thesis. Having dragged them around Newcastle upon Tyne trying to find a place capable of binding such large documents, finally submitting them was a huge weight of my back. Literally. But that was it, there was no real sense of achievement just another, albeit relatively big, box ticked. I know this stage is only a necessity to get the cogs turning toward the viva, but even so a firework or two would have been nice.
The availability of my external examiner wasn’t great and as a result I would have to wait around 3 month before my viva. This also meant I would not be finished before Christmas as I had hoped. Nonetheless I was able to put the looming viva day to the back of my mind and focus on other matters of life for much of the build-up. But there comes a time, a time which I suspect happens to many people for many things, when all of a sudden the once seemingly distant date of something is approaching uncomfortably quickly. This occurred for me about 2 weeks before the viva, which coincided with job interviews and deadlines for fellowship applications. I did bits of reading around the subject, mostly focusing on my external examiner’s papers, at weeks 2-1 before in the time I had between interview and application preparation. Then in the final week before I kept my diary largely free. My viva was on a Friday – through personal choice, based purely on Friday being a better night for a party than the other dates. In the main I was able to focus the majority of my attention on all things viva from the Monday onwards. This is probably the first time I really went inside my brain and asked myself “what do you not know?”. As my PhD progressed from day 1 until this penultimate stage I could easily answer “what do I know?”. But “what do I NOT know” is a daunting question and one which would keep me awake at night.
I felt I understood the work in my thesis well; I had after all lived it for the best part of three years. I thus opted to focus my reading on subjects around my research rather than directly relating to my work. It wasn’t completely irrelevant and was more an attempt for me to put my results in a wider context – particularly the context of the research interests of my examiners. Ultimately I was asked little about much of what I read in this time but I don’t regret this approach and I learnt a great deal of useful information and developed a range of further studies I think would be important. I also refreshed myself with my thesis work by having a relatively quick read through it. In all I find it pretty funny that I could be literally surrounded by publications and still spend a vast amount of time on Wikipedia, the very source of knowledge prohibited to mere undergrads. Whether academics admit it or not, everyone uses Wikipedia for fast and dirty information, which I feel is fine when you know a topic.
The viva itself was an enjoyable process. It’s not often you will get the opportunity to discuss your research in such a manner. My viva was over in little over 2.5 hours which is probably on the quick side. My general guesstimate would be a viva typically lasts around 3.5 – 4 hours. Every viva will be different so I have avoided discussing the exact style of questions here, but if you would like some more specific information please leave a comment.
As far as advice goes, I can tell you what everyone is told – you will be fine and try not to stress too much about it – but I know the likelihood is you will always worry. I had 7 publications going into my viva, the last getting accepted on the morning of the viva itself (nice omen surely), but I still worried. So I won’t say don’t worry, but in worrying it is important not to concentrate on what you don’t know but appreciate what you do know.