PhD complete!

Pre-viva nerves and post-viva tips!

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I am writing this with 2 days to go until my viva…! But in all likelihood will post this after the verdict and probably only if it’s a good one!! ***Spoiler alert: I passed!***

Past viva experiences

I submitted my thesis way back in April, and since day one of my PhD have been highly anxious about the final hurdle – the viva. I have had a number of vivas during my undergraduate degree – for 3rd and 4th year projects and a literature project, most of which I came out (almost) in tears, over-analysing the questions I stumbled on, but actually did really well in all of them. During my PhD, at the end of my first year, I also had a viva based on my first year report. This was with my supervisor at the time and a research fellow from my group as the second examiner. We went through chapter by chapter and discussed the content as well as next steps and how to improve. There was a lot of room for improvement, and I rewrote some parts of the report.

Whilst my previous viva experiences have, in general, been positive, I cannot help but dread my PhD viva. Yes, I am relatively confident with my research and results but it is the unknown that scares me most. There is a level of background knowledge required but I am unsure how each of my examiners interpret this level and also which points stand out most to them. That aspect of the unknown is what I fear most. Something I consider trivial knowledge may be something which sparks a discussion, or something which I had not even considered or theory I haven’t revisited they may deem essential.

Viva preparation

In the 16 weeks (!!!) since submission I have had some down-time, taking 2 weeks off post-submission to recover, earlier this month I spent a week on a sunny beach holiday, lazing pool-side with plenty of food and drink, and have spent the past two weeks, since the date was confirmed, frantically scrutinising every minute detail of my thesis. In between, a month or so after submission I reread the thesis chapter by chapter, annotated and marked with post-its but I spent most of my time on other research projects, updating websites and writing a paper. I do feel that I have put in a lot of time preparing for my viva, revising and making my thesis useful and easy to navigate on the day.

In my final writing month, I also attended ‘Viva survivor‘, a viva preparation workshop, which gave me more insight about what to expect on the day and talking with other PhD students in the same situation was reassuring. Nathan Ryder who runs the workshop, also runs a podcast, interviewing people about their viva experience and other related viva worries. Finally, after the workshop I bought one of his two ebooks, ‘Fail Your Viva – Twelve Steps To Failing Your PhD’ and cannot recommend this enough. One night last week when I was having a major stress but couldn’t focus on the thesis itself, I reread the book over about an hour and it washed away my worries and gave me some final tips for the final prep!

With only a few hours of work I can squeeze in today, and a full final day tomorrow, I should get on! I will finalise this post post-viva.

Post-viva

I passed!!!! It was a long morning waiting for the viva itself and almost four hours of discussion and the verdict was pass with minor corrections! Phew!

I was very anxious and nervous (petrified) on the day but I knew that I had done everything I could to prepare. Again, I highly recommend attending a workshop, talking to other people who have been through the viva experience in your field and reading up as much as possible to know what to expect!  Also talking through your research with other students, postdocs, your supervisor, friends, family, or anyone that will listen really, is invaluable. Here are a few tips I feel, in hindsight, are most useful:

  1. Focus on what you have written!
    I spent a lot of time re-reading background material as I was unsure what would be asked but, as expected, most discussions are about points you have written and your results! Try to re-read your thesis with fresh eyes, from the perspective of your examiners! Have you explained a term? What is the main point of this section? Is it clear?
  2. Don’t panic!
    I intended to write down each question and note useful points before answering during the viva however after a few minutes, I didn’t keep this up. At times when I needed a second to think, I took a sip of water, consulted my notes, or re-read the point being referred to before answering.
  3. Move on!
    Do not dwell on points you may have stumbled on! During a short break half-way through, I started to reflect on the viva so far and started to worry. This was not useful!! There was still a lot to get through, the focus should be on the current discussion!

Finally, now the viva is over, I have scheduled some time to relax (in between corrections!) with lots of summer plans before starting the next new adventure in Germany!