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Surviving the Viva: a first hand doctoral experience

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Viva Nerves

‘Fear’ by Meredith_Farmer (Flickr)

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.

Viva Preparation

‘Not Human’ by fragmented (Flickr)

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!

Viva Day

Anxiety by jjjohn (Flickr)

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

Staying in Acedemia? the “what next?” question

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Sophie Bisset (doctoral researcher in History) assesses the question of what comes after the doctorate,

At the recent “preparing for your final year” seminar, group discussion quickly turned to the issue of whether to stay in academia once we finish our PhDs. This is the same question that I have been agonising over myself in the past few months and so I decided to write this blog to share (and help clarify) my own response to this issue. In truth, we all know that there is good reason to feel anxious about the “what next?” question: we will finish our PhDs at a time when there are increasingly more applicants for increasingly fewer academic positions, as well as massive changes on the horizon for Higher Education as a result of new government proposals. But if the future looks daunting then one thing is for sure, it is worth asking what’s right for me in all this?

Well, when faced with this question, I did what all good PhD students do and I downed my research sticks in order to spend a few hours searching the web for interesting and useful sites. To my mind, the best and the most terrifying is An Academic Career: Have You Got What It Takes?. The website as a whole has loads of valuable information on the reality of pursuing an academic career but this particular section encourages you to be honest with yourself about the demands of academic life. When I read it, it was quite a shock to see so many of my own fears put up there in black and white and answered with such candour. The personal experiences videos that sit alongside these candid truths soften the edges of this reality check by making the hurdles seem manageable. In addition to this site, there are also a number of good university run PhD careers blogs: Manchester, Queen Mary’s and Salford, as well as a collection of audio recordings of people sharing their own experiences on the realities of the “what next?” question on Beyond the PhD.

Having had a good think about the question of what’s right for me, I wanted to know how many of my predecessors had successfully pursued academic careers within my own discipline of history, rather than relying solely on word of mouth gossip. Luckily for me, Vitae conducted some research into what PhD students from the years 2003-2007 did after they finished their theses (What do Researchers Do?). In history, 27% entered a UK Higher Education lecturing role. This seemed quite low to me, but Vitae reassures me that this is in fact higher than the average across all disciplines taken together (14%). A further 14% of History post-PhDers found employment in the more general sounding category of research staff in UK Higher Education (below the all disciple average of 23%). So using these stats as a rule of thumb, less than half of us (historians or otherwise) are likely to take up some kind of research role within Higher Education. The good news is that even if you don’t stay in academia, you are less likely to end up unemployed than first-degree and master’s degree graduates (only 3.1% across all disciplines compared to 5.6% and 3.7% respectively).

The trouble with the stats is that they don’t tell us how many wanted to stay in academia, rather than just how many did stay in academia. Nonetheless, it makes having a non-academic Plan B seem like a jolly good idea! According to Vitae, the most popular alternative to an academic career among History post-Phders is teaching. This is something that I personally find quite appealing, but generally speaking the trouble with making a Plan B is that it is such a personal thing that web surfing quickly becomes a bit of a search for a needle in a haystack. Despite seeming all-powerful, Google cannot write an algorithm to help me discover what I should do with my life! So at this point in my little journey into the “what next?” question I abandoned new technology and headed off for a good old-fashioned one to one session with Catherine Reynolds at the Careers and Employability Centre. Catherine and her colleague Jane Riley specialise in helping lost and lonely researchers get some perspective on the “what next?” question. In the hour or so that I spent talking to Catherine, a whole mixture of my various career ideas, fears and hopes tumbled out but by the end of our session I felt like I had some new avenues to explore. Just talking about what I wanted to do with someone who knew a lot about the practicalities of the real world, a.k.a. the process of getting a job, helped me refine my thinking and a few days after our sessions I realised that my own feeling about the question of whether or not to stay in academia had shifted considerably.

Setting aside my own decision about whether academia was the place where I wanted to end up or not, one surprising thing that came out of my own experience of giving some time to thinking about the “what next?” question just as I am beginning to write up my thesis is how it changed my feelings about the thesis itself. Lurking in the back of my mind had always been the belief that the thesis – as much as I loved it for itself – was essentially a means to an end and that end was an academic career. But thinking about whether I would want an academic career, or would realistically succeed in pursuing it, I came to see my thesis as having an intrinsic value of its own. Even if I don’t end up in academia and even if the only people who read my thesis aside from me and my supervisor are my two examiners, I am beginning my write-up knowing that the process of doing a thesis has taught me a whole host of valuable things about myself, about history and about life that will inform and shape my professional career wherever I end up.