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

The Good Viva Video

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See the Doctoral School’s study direct site ‘E-Learning for Researchers’ for a new resource on preparing for your Viva:

For doctoral researchers everywhere, the viva is a daunting challenge,often approached with anxiety and confusion rather than careful preparation. Should candidates relax and hope for the best, panic, or prepare systematically for the big day? This 30 minute video by AngelProductions and Birkbeck, University of London, will help students to understand the viva and handle it well. It is now widely used in universities throughout the UK.

The Good Viva Video will help you understand:

  • What is a viva?
  • How important is it to your degree?
  • How do vivas differ between disciplines?
  • How can you prepare?
  • Should you relax or panic?
  • What are the roles of the internal and external examiners and your supervisor?
  • How are examiners chosen?
  • What questions should you expect?
  • How to use a practice viva
  • Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your thesis
  • What are examiners looking for?
  • Coping with examiners mistakes or aggressive questions
  • Understanding the outcome

If you have any difficulties signing into the site please contact

My viva experience

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Apologies for the radio silence here on the blog, I was taken ill suddenly.  I am now convalescing, and thought I’d post this, as I started writing it just before I became unwell.  My viva was on the 24th September, and people often ask what it was like, so I thought I’d put my thoughts down in case they became useful to others…

Notes on my Viva

Just a note: I found my viva exam to be one of the most positive experiences of my doctorate.  If you’re looking for viva horror stories, you’ll need to go elsewhere, sorry.

Firing up

I had not been nervous really until the actual day of the viva.  Then it started to come on in the morning, building slowly, until early afternoon, when I started to feel drenched in fear.  Immediately before going in at 3pm, it was at its utter worst.  The viva took place in my internal examiners office, and as my Supervisor escorted me from the cafe, I felt I was walking the walk of doom.  I shook hands with my examiners, and sat at the table, in front of a small bottle of water with a plastic cup.

My internal examiner started off apologising for not having arranged tea.  He said that the viva would not be very long, and that it was unusual for a candidate to be told this in advance.  I wasn’t to read anything into this, the fixed duration of the viva being set by the train and plane times arranged for my external examiner.  We had two hours, and we kept up a good pace throughout the exam, and as it was, I felt I could have discussed some topics for longer, though I must say that I didn’t feel rushed or that we missed anything.

First gear

I was still exceedingly nervous at this point, and the first thing I was asked, was to talk for 10 to 15 minutes about the background to how my research came about, the journey that I took, and the highlights along the way.  I can sometimes waffle.  Really waffle.  Sometimes when the handbrake on my mouth is released, and after several metaphorical miles of talking, I can discover to my horror that my brain has been humming away in neutral for the entire journey.  I’m also blessed/cursed with self-awareness, so I *know* I sometimes do this, and I *know* how awful it is to find myself doing it.  So I worry about doing it, and become absurdly vigilant, often stopping mid-sentence and saying things like “ok, I should shut up now”, or “…erm, that didn’t answer your question, did it?”.  Despite all this, and after a very cautious start, I soon got into the rhythm of it, started to trust that my brain was firing on all cylinders, and found myself weaving a fairly coherent and competent narrative around the six experiments that form my thesis.  About 8 minutes in, I finally started to relax.  I realised I *did* know my work very well, that there was an interesting story to be told, and that they story was mine to tell.  And I started to realise that I had an audience of two avid listeners, who were hanging on to everything I said with genuine interest.  This had not happened to me before.

I don’t want to paint an impossibly rosy picture, so know this: that first question was the easiest.  I did not fully relax at any point during the 2 hours I was in there – but I think that must be right.  It is an exam.  The culmination of five years of my life: 3 of active research, and 2 of (on and off) writing.  You cannot relax if you stimulated, excited, alert and interested, and I was all of these.  Also, I was painfully aware that my thesis was not as tied up as it should have been.  For reasons I won’t go into here, I had run up tight against the wire with submission times, and some sections were mere vignettes rather than critical analysis.  I was fairly confident that my experimental methods and results were sound.  But I knew that the introductions and conclusions they were wrapped in were less so, and in some cases almost insubstantial. I was fully expecting what we commonly call “major corrections”, and praying not be offered an MPhil or failed outright.

Full throttle

We progressed through my thesis, stopping here and there so my examiners could question me further.  This wasn’t the page-by-page slow death I had previously imagined, and the questions seemed to fall into three loose categories:

  1. To explore in depth or recap something I had written about
  2. To establish something I had not written about, and perhaps should have
  3. To consider the what-ifs of my research (especially as my conclusions and discussions were not very strong)

This seemingly meandering route through my thesis took me by surprise – a lot of  the sections I had made notes on, and the majority of what I thought were glaring holes in my critiques, methods or research, were skated over or not touched on at all.  A couple of points that I had previously thought quite minor, we explored in great depth, and I found myself doing some proper hard thinking.  There was one particular section that I knew was very thin, and I had been prepared to be grilled on it quite hard.  In the end, I was asked a couple of minor questions, and it was left at that.  It’s only now, with the benefit of hindsight that I can see that I wasn’t pushed on that section because it wasn’t central to my argument.  And the sections I was stretched on, were very central to my argument.  Sounds obvious now, doesn’t it?

Throughout the viva, I felt I was being asked to look at my work from other viewpoints, and it wasn’t always easy.  Some of the questions I had to ask to be rephrased because I didn’t understand them, and a couple I started answering and had to be stopped because I had grasped the wrong end of the stick and proceeded to beat myself over the head with it. In one cringe-inducing instance, my internal examiner had to paraphrase my mangled answer for me, so that the external examiner could understand my response, whilst I sat nodding dumbly.

Most of the time though, it did feel like a discussion, with the questions being prompts.  My examiners posed some interesting ideas that I hadn’t thought of myself, and many of which will be very useful when revisiting my thesis.  Getting another’s perspective on your own research is useful, talking to two interested senior academics about your research is valuable, and having that dialogue with the person who is at least the UK, if not world expert in your field (the external examiner), is priceless.  Perhaps it is because I felt like this – I saw my viva as an opportunity, and not as a trial – that I feel so positive about the experience, and got so much from it.

Rear-view Mirror

I think It helped, too, that there had been a 5-month gap between my thesis submission, and my viva – something that frustrated me a bit at the time.  This isn’t an unusual length of time, but it was enough that I was able to let go of my thesis for a while, and it helped me get a more objective stance on it (though of course you can never be completely objective about an x-thousand-word thesis that took three years to research).  I went and reintegrated myself into other aspects of my life for a while, and when I returned, I certainly found myself being less precious about my research, more open to new ideas, and more accepting of constructive criticism.  Above all, I realised I was ready to “kill my darlings”.  I doubt I would have felt this way in the first three months after submission.  All things need time to mellow, and I’m glad I had the time and space to do so.

Rejoining the highway

Back to the viva… Afterwards, I was asked to leave the room while the examiners decide upon their recommendation to the exam board.  They came to get me shortly afterwards (15 mins or so?) and we returned to the exam room.  The examiners wanted me to know that I had viva’d well – that I had given considered answers, that I had shown a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of my research and thesis, and how it might fit into the overall field.  Then they worked through the first three outcome categories allowed for on the Sussex form shown here:

First 3 viva outcomes at Sussex
First 3 viva outcomes at Sussex

Category a) is rarely awarded.  Both examiners said that they disagreed with the way the outcomes are worded – they could no recommend outcome b) because the amendments permitted under this category are specific, and my thesis needed more revision than that.  But they didn’t agree with category c) either – they felt that there was too great a gap between b) and c), and they both objected  to the use of the word “fail” that applies to category 3.  (As it happens, I believe Sussex is in the process of reviewing the wording on these forms, but the wheels move excruciatingly slowly in HEIs).  So, the recommendation from my examiners was to be outcome 3, but they agreed that I need not sit another viva, and that my internal examiner could approve the corrections.  This all sounds a bit flat when written down, but it was actually very encouraging, and my external said that there was “at least one, if not two papers” to be had from my thesis – and to this point I had thought there was none!  I was also advised that I should take some time to immerse myself back into the literature before diving in to make corrections – and I shall be heeding that advice closely.


Afterwards I felt elated, excited about my work, energised and re-motivated.  I also felt a little intellectually knackered.  You know that feeling your body gets the day after a hard workout when you’re not used to it?  That’s how my brain felt.  Good stuff. 🙂

Questions I remember being asked (as I best remember them, not word-for-word):

  • Could you talk us through the background of how your research came about, and the journey you took, including some of the highlights you encountered along the way?
  • Your literature review on SSS[1] starts with Prof A’s 1981 paper, and work on humans.  I wondered if you’d considered going back to earlier work with animals, such as that of Prof B, as it may be central to some of your later work on learning?
  • There seems to be an absence of dissenting voices in your review – have you come across the argument that SSS does not exist, that the measurements might be a reflection of the wanting / liking dichotomy?  For example from Prof C, or Prof D?
  • The bulk of your research relies upon a single dependent variable.  What is your reasoning behind that, and how might it affect your conclusions?
  • You refer here to phenomena Y, could you expand on this please?
  • On page xx you outline two opposing theories of Z – could you explain a bit more about how the theories contrast?
  • Could you tell me how Flavour-flavour learning works?  Why, for instance, would a novel flavour become more liked after exposure with a sweet taste such as sugar?  And how would that be attributed to flavour, and not to energy learning?
  • You make the assertion of hypothesis H1 here, and it looks like you base that on a single published paper.  Is there any other reason you might expect X to be the case?
  • All your experiments use a fixed portions of food.  What made you decide on this method?  Can you think of any limitations using fixed portions might have had on your results?
  • All your data is collected from VAS (visual analogue scales).  Can you think of any other measures that might have been appropriate to take?
  • Experiment 1 presented some unexpected group differences at baseline – have you any thoughts on why this might be?
  • In Experiment 2, your results show a significant linear contrast, and would probably show a significance for a quadratic contrast too.  But this relies on the way you have ordered your categorical experimental conditions. How was this ordering decided, and was that before or after you collected the data?
  • Experiment 3 is underpowered – could you talk us through how this came about, and why you decided not to use some of the data?
  • The effect you found in Experiment 2 is absent from Experiments 3 and 4 – do you have any thoughts on why this might be the case?
  • You did an additional ANCOVA (analysis of covariance) on the data for experiment 4.  Do you think that conducting a similar analysis on experiments 2 and 3 might reveal some more answers?
  • Did you collect this sort of data from participants at different time points in the experiment?  So you could go back and look at that to see if those data provide more answers?
  • It is interesting that you used materials and methods in experiment 6 that worked well for other researchers, but didn’t provide you with the same effects in your work here.  What are your ideas on reasons for that?
  • How might expectancy effects have interfered with your results in the final two experiments?
    What could be done to improve the design of this experiment?
  • If you were to go back to the beginning of your research, what would you do differently?

[1] phenomenon that is the focus of my research

See Also

What happened after the viva? Dealing with major corrections: Part 1 and Part 2