When I first handed in my doctoral thesis, I was very confident about passing the viva voce exam. As had been suggested by some supportive piece of literature I picked up during my studies, before deciding to hand in I had asked my supervisor outright, ‘Will it pass?’ and he had said yes. I trusted his judgement. I felt sure it was a strong piece of work.
Then the weeks went by. Then the months. Although university guidelines suggest a viva date is set within eight weeks of hand-in, there are no hard and fast rules. A lot depends on the external examiner’s availability. By the time six months had gone by, I was a lot less confident. So were the people who enquired after the result, when I answered I hadn’t yet been given a date for my viva. Like a pregnancy, the longer it goes on, the more nervous people get on your behalf. And the more horror stories they tell you. I started to get properly nervous.
I told myself I still had every reason to be confident. The novel that made up just over half of my thesis had secured a very good book deal in the interim, and a large part of the critical component had also been published as articles in the journals Rethinking History and Critical Survey, and an academic book about Christopher Marlowe. On the other hand, I knew a novelist who, even with a book deal from Bloomsbury in her pocket, was asked to make bizarre and unreasonable “corrections” that she couldn’t bring herself to make. And my subject matter, the Shakespeare authorship question, couldn’t be more contentious or unpopular in academia. As if intent on ramping up my own anxiety, I googled ‘fail PhD viva’. I really don’t recommend it.
Finally I got a date, nine and and half months after hand-in; I had four weeks to prepare. I went to a ‘Viva preparation’ session run by the university and asked questions. I met with my supervisor a week before, and asked more. Here is what I gleaned.
- Very rarely will the outcome of a doctorate depend on your ‘performance’ at viva. The examiners have already decided whether it is strong enough to pass or likely to fail.
- Failure is rare, and pretty much unheard of if you have a good supervisor. A supervisor worth their salt would not encourage you to submit something that was likely to fail, as it would damage their reputation.
- One of the primary purposes of the viva voce exam is to make sure that you are the author of the submitted material. The examiners will test that you know your subject thoroughly in order to verify that.
- You know your subject thoroughly! You probably know a great deal more about it than your examiners do. You don’t need to ‘revise’ something that has presumably gripped you obsessively for a number of years.
- Hopefully you discussed suitable examiners with your supervisor before they were appointed, and have chosen as well as you could. You have not chosen drooling Rottweillers. Remind yourself of this.
- Preparation 1: familiarise yourself with your examiners’ work – it need not be excessive – I spent a day on each. Notice where your approaches/opinions coincide and where they differ.
- Preparation 2: read your thesis from cover to cover, pencil in hand, and note any errors, typos, things you now feel are unclear, things you would rather say differently. My pregnancy-sized delay actually made this part easier: it helps to get a bit of distance from your work.
- Preparation 3: imagine what the examiners are most likely to ask you and how you would answer them. I spent the majority of my preparation time on this bit. And of course nothing I imagined came up.
- Preparation 4: visualise the viva running smoothly, and a successful outcome. Visualise (and hear) yourself being congratulated with the word ‘Doctor’ in front of your name. Spend as much time on this as you need to feel calm and relaxed about it, and repeat as often as necessary!
- The viva is an excellent chance to discuss your work in depth with two experienced academics. Enjoy it!
More advice: be kind to yourself the night before, get enough sleep (play something soothing on headphones if necessary; meditation tracks worked for me). Get there early enough to sit quietly by yourself with a suitable beverage and concentrate on knowing that within two hours, it will be over, and statistically, it will probably be a pass.
I had an interesting experience when I was having my pre-viva coffee. I had my mp3 player on ‘shuffle’ and just as I sat down for coffee, one of the 3000-or-so tracks that *never* plays – a track I strongly associate with my mother – started up. Mum died nine years ago and passed up her own doctoral chances to get married to my father; I knew she would have been gunning for me. A few tears spiked, but I headed towards the allotted room feeling the spirit of my mother right there with me.
An hour later I was out, having passed with minor corrections. The examiners immediately expressed their admiration for the novel-in-verse… which we wouldn’t be discussing – although at the end I found myself having to defend calling it a novel, which surprised me. Discussion was reserved for their reservations about the critical commentary; both of which I found to be valid and agreed to incorporate in the form of corrections.
In the case of the issue raised by the external examiner, I had already come to the same conclusions myself (on re-reading). What the internal examiner brought was a very valuable different perspective; I had made generalisations about literary biography which are only really valid to those working with subjects from the sixteenth and seventeenth century – a period in which my supervisor is equally absorbed – so neither of us had noticed that my arguments could not be applied to literary biographers as a whole. It was a significant oversight; one I’m very glad to have the opportunity to correct before my thesis is filed at Sussex and The British Library.
In short, the viva offered a valuable chance to gain extra perspectives on my work and refine it further, and receive some very enjoyable praise in the process. If you are reading this as a doctoral candidate, I hope you find your own experience similarly enlightening.
See also: My Viva Experience