Demystifying the Viva – The Staff Perspective

When I started my PhD in 2018, two more experienced students (who are now Dr Somia Imran and Dr Temitayo Odewusi) organized a brilliant workshop on Viva preparation.

It was my first year, but I was curious how the process of finishing three to four years of work would look like. Most of the PhD journey is ‘learning by doing’, but it is also a unique opportunity to share and exchange knowledge. I felt uplifted after the workshop. The intimidating prospect of an oral examination had become more transparent, and thereby less intimidating. As a PhD student, I always feel like I am acting within a liminal space: not quite a student, but also not a “real” researcher, or at least not employed as such. Initially, the Viva represented my initiation, simultaneously an ending (of the student status) and a new beginning (of hopefully being employed for what I am trained to do).

My perspective has changed slightly since I have started conducting these interviews. First of all, my focus shifted from trying to perform well in order to prove I am a researcher, to looking for opportunities to improve, even if that means that colleagues I look up to see my weaknesses. Which brings me to my second realisation: the PhD is meant to allow you to make mistakes! Being in this liminal space means that you can try out new skills, learn new methods, and get some feedback from peers and more experienced researchers. The Viva may be our initiation, but this is only part of the truth. All the challenges, struggles, frustration, successes, discussions, and insights we have accumulated through years of hard work and trial-and-error will walk with us through that door when we are finally ready to prove that we are experts—of our own theses.

You are not doing a sales pitch; you are not selling a product! It is not about a slick performance! It is about a discussion where you are filling in the gaps.

This quote is what I took home from my interview with Dr Fiona Cuthill, a senior lecturer in Nursing studies who came to Edinburgh University six years ago. Until now, she has supervised four students to completion and is currently supervising two more students who will have their Viva this summer. Fiona has been an internal examiner, external examiner, and non-examining chair, and has previously shared her insights on Viva preparation when she volunteered to speak at the Viva workshop I attended in 2018.

Here is what you need to know if you are in a hurry:

 

  • Before submission:
    • Set yourself deadlines, especially when it comes to the final draft!
    • The key person in the Viva is the external examiner
      • Keep that in mind when writing your thesis

 

  • After submission:
    • Practice explaining your research to a non-academic friend or family member (or at least someone, who isn’t working in your field of research)
    • Present your research in clear and simple words
    • Example questions that are worth preparing for are…
      • “Can you tell us about your research?”
      • “What triggered your interest in this subject?”
      • “Why is this an area that is worthy of study?”
      • “What are the main bodies of literature that would indicate that this [your research] is important?”
      • “What is new in your research?”
      • “If you could redo your research, how would you do it differently, if you could do it again?”
    • Both the internal and external examiner write a report independently from each other before they discuss it together for the first time
      • There is no discussion between supervisors and examiners about your thesis or Viva

 

  • During the Viva:
    • Everyone is nervous during the Viva! Don’t rush into answering questions, take a breath and allow yourself some time to think about your answer
    • Communicate with your examiners and the non-examining chair if you need to have a break!
      • The non-examining chair is a neutral person in the room and they will make sure that you are treated fairly during the Viva
    • The purpose of the Viva is to prove that your thesis is your own piece of work and to show that you can communicate it clearly
    • Your presentation skills don’t matter! The Viva doesn’t focus on your performance
    • You really can change examiners’ opinions during the oral examination!
      • The oral examination is not just a repeat of the written work

 


If you are interested, here is the full interview:

 

I: We are always told that our thesis does not need to be perfect and I was just wondering if you had any advice on how you know when a student is ready to submit their thesis?

F: So, I think this comes with experience. I think it is really important that students go with their supervisors’ advice when they get near the end. Particularly the final draft, because that can be the first time that supervisors actually have read the whole thing. You can read chapters, but they are a bit separate and then [with the final draft,] it is all together. As a supervisor, I mean it is a bit vague and it is also discipline-specific, but there are core elements [that need to be achieved]: a really good and up to date, current literature review, a strong justification for the topic, why it is important in terms of the literature, robust methodology, really clear indication on how you came about your findings and what your analysis was and then obviously your discussion in terms of literature theory. I mean, it isn’t objective, there is definitely a subjectivity to it. […] There are PhDs that you feel just get over the mark and then there are PhDs that are outstanding and excellent and sort of everything in between [laughs].

I: Have you had to deal with students’ perfectionism before, and if so, how have you handled that?

F: I think, having a deadline is really good. Because, if you are a perfectionist and if you don’t have a strict deadline, you will just keep going on forever. It will never ever be good enough. So, I find to put deadlines in place, to see submitted work, that helps both students who are perfectionist and also maybe weaker students. You pick up on any weaknesses early on, looking at written work and also, for students who are perfectionist, you make them submit, so they have to just say that it’s over. So, during supervision I tend to have a deadline every month for students to submit their written work, depending on what stage they are at. That is reviewed and then you can pick up either weaker students, who need extra support with the writing or, at the other end of the scale, the perfectionist students who won’t submit because they are terrified it is not perfect.

I: What would you recommend students to do in order to prepare for their Viva? Once they have submitted the thesis?

F: I think having a practice Viva is good! You never know the questions, but there are some, sort of, set questions or similar questions that do come up. So, I think that is good. Quite often supervisors will do that, it doesn’t have to be a full mock Viva, but certainly some questions. And if supervisors do that, they tend to pick up on the areas that they know you are weakest on, because they know you well. But I think it is also good to test it out with somebody who isn’t an academic and actually isn’t in your subject area. So that you can actually explain what your research is about. In really clear and simple terms as well.

I: And you mentioned a few questions that ‘usually’ come up, do you have an example for one or two of these questions?

F: So, usually the first question is supposed to put you at ease: “Can you tell us about your research?”, “What triggered your interest in this subject?” —things like that. And then it can be done in different ways. I mean, often it depends on how strong or weak the thesis is… Sometimes, examiners like to go through each section, chapter by chapter. Other times, they are quite satisfied with certain sections and really want to explore theory with the candidate, or really want to explore methodology. So, it does depend. But there are certain questions that do come up, as you go along. One of the big ones is: “Why is this an area that is worthy of study?” and “What are the main bodies of literature that would indicate that this is important?”. Obviously: “What is new in your research?” and to really be clear on that. And I think there are also some questions about: “If you could redo your research, how would you do it differently if you could do it again?” and there is this recognition that you are learning by doing with a PhD as well. It never ever runs exactly to plan! And that might be about you yourself, or external factors or a combination of both.

I: You mentioned a mock Viva as well, or a practice Viva… Is that something the student has to organize or is this something supervisors would usually organize?

F: As far as I know, I don’t know what happens across all the disciplines in the school, so I can really only talk about my experience. In my experience, you would usually ask the student if they would like a mock Viva […]. Usually, students say ‘yes’. It also just gives that opportunity to test how you are in the moment, how nervous you get and whether you can really answer those questions. And also, just that feeling of ‘everyone is nervous’, so… take a breath and you don’t have to gallop into answers. I think it just gives you this experience of how you function under pressure. Because it is a stressful environment, you can’t take that away. You can minimize it, but you can’t take it away. I think it is also important for students to understand the process. To understand what happens to their thesis. The thesis goes to the internal and the external examiner, they read it thoroughly and they write quite a detailed report, independent of each other. That goes to college and then it is only just before the Viva that the other examiner sees that report. And prior to the oral examination, the Viva, the two examiners will have had quite a thorough discussion about what they agree about or disagree about. What they really want to explore and what they are happy with. So, I think it is useful for students to know what is being discussed between the examiners. But actually, the reports are done separately to each other and independent of each other, they don’t discuss that at all. And also, that there is absolutely no discussion between supervisors and the examiners. That’s a wall of silence and is really protected. So, the supervisors never speak to the examiners and it is a really independent piece of work from both of the examiners. But it is usually the half an hour before the Viva that the examiners meet, and they discuss issues. Because one examiner might have picked up certain things, the other examiner other things…It also depends on their discipline and why they are there, one might be [more interested in] methodology, one might be [more interested in] theory. Also, what things they are not clear about that they really want the student to explore in the Viva.

I: And how do you feel about a presentation in the Viva?

F: Usually, we give that as an option for students. So, if students want a presentation…Mostly they don’t, because I think it could be too much stress. Usually, it would be a five to ten minutes summary of their research, orally at the beginning. But you know, that is more to demonstrate that you really understand [your research] and that it is your research. Because your examiners have read all 80,000 words in great detail. You are not really doing this for information, this is more to show that you can summarize your research in a clear and concise and an articulate way.

I: Yeah and I also heard [in a previous interview] that you shouldn’t have a presentation if that presentation just ‘repeats’ what is in the thesis?

F: Yes, you’ve got to remember that the examiners have read [your thesis]. This is not like a normal presentation to an audience that doesn’t know [your work]. Your examiners are probably the only people that will read every word of that thesis, and really know it word for word. So, it is not about ‘explaining’. Part of your Viva is demonstrating that it is your research, you carried it out, you know it well and also, you can communicate it in a clear way to other people.

I: And how long would you say does a Viva take on average?

F: It very much depends. In my experience…theses that are weaker take much longer, because you want to explore many more factors. But on the other hand, sometimes ones that are very good can also take longer, because the examiners want to really tease out a particular theoretical perspective or really look at something in-depth or they are just interested in it as well. So, I think it usually is about an hour and a half, that is probably the quickest, and then up to three or four hours. I think it very much depends, but the important thing [to remember] is that it takes the time it takes for you to be thoroughly examined.

I: Usually, would there be a break in between?

F: Yes, I mean in our school it is really good, in the School of Health in Social Science. There is always a non-examining chair, so there is always an impartial person there. And he/she is there to ensure the candidate is happy and comfortable, that everything is done fairly, that there is no bullying, neither of the examiners is overly aggressive or anything like that. And also, to keep an eye on the time, to give the candidate an opportunity to have a break. The examiners can get caught up in the topic and the non-examining chair, their job is to check if the candidate is getting a bit muddled or slightly distressed or clearly just needs a break, just to offer them that. You know, to have five minutes, to have a drink, to go to the bathroom or whatever. Just to collect their thoughts. So, the non-examining chair’s job is to just regulate the whole process on behalf of the university, but also on behalf of the candidate as well. Just to ensure that they are comfortable. And the candidate is told at the beginning, if they need a break, if they want to stop or anything like that, just say it!

I: And how many people would usually be in the room during the Viva?

F: So usually it is the non-examining chair, the internal examiner, the external examiner and the candidate. So, four is the minimum. Quite often, the student would like to have their supervisors to attend. One or two…That is up to the student and the supervisor. Some students don’t want their supervisors in, they find it too nerve-racking, some do. But the supervisor is only there in an observational capacity, they sit behind the candidate, so they can’t suggest anything by eye movement and the candidate can’t usually see them. They just sit in a corner silently. All they are there for is to reassure the candidate and particularly to just listen to it. And to give feedback to the candidate afterwards. Because quite often, you know, it is nerve-racking! You are so busy doing it and speaking, you can’t really remember what they said. And so, usually, supervisors would take some notes and support the candidate, but completely in an observation capacity.

I: How are students, at the end, informed about the results of the Viva?

F: So, what happens is, after the discussions the student goes out and that can be any time, from half an hour to maybe an hour. And usually the supervisor will go with them. They might have a cup of tea or something [laughs]. And then [the examiners] just have their mobile number. And they are asked how they want to be informed. If they want to be emailed or phoned. Usually, people are just phoned on their mobile. The examiners discuss and come to a conclusion on what grade that is gonna be. And also, if there are amendments, what those would be. And then the candidate is invited back in. Usually with their supervisors there, they are told their outcome. And they also have an opportunity to discuss any amendments that they might be asked about. Then they [the students] receive that in written form later as well.

I: And the grades are related to the corrections?

F: Yes, that is all available on the school website!

I: And is there anything in particular you would say students need to know about the process, other than what you have already told me?

F: They need to know, that you really can change examiners’ opinions in the oral examination. The oral examination is not just a repeat of the written work. You can’t possibly put everything in your written work, everything you have done over three or four years. The Viva is the opportunity for examiners to say: “Well, you said this, but I don’t fully understand this. Can you explain this further?”. Or: “This happened, but you didn’t explain why you did this”. It really is an opportunity for candidates to defend their thesis, to fill in the gaps, about anything that hasn’t been said. It really is valuable. As an examiner, you can read a thesis and think “Well… sort of okay”, but once you speak to the candidate you realize that they really know the topic, they really understand the research, but there was so much [to discuss] and they could only put in a certain amount or their research had to be changed because of external events and that’s what completely shaped it, but they just didn’t include that in the actual thesis. Because your thesis obviously becomes a public document as well, so it is a balance between what you put into your thesis and what you leave out. So, I think the important thing is that the Viva is not just about orally explaining what you have written in 80,000 words. It really is a separate thing. It is a chance for the examiners to fill in the gaps, to ask you about the things that are unsaid, that you didn’t put in, that are maybe not quite clear in the actual written format. And [it is important] for students to understand that they can really persuade [the examiners], not in a “I disagree with you” way, but in a “I am going to explain why I did not put this in” or “I am going to explain why that happens” kind of way. It can make a big difference.

I: And just in general, is there anything you would recommend students to think about, even if their Viva is still three, two or one year away? Anything that students can already prepare or work on?

F: Not really, not for the Viva. But I think for the thesis, everything that students write, they should think: “How would this read for an external examiner?”. I mean the key person is the external examiner. They are the person that you have to convince. They are the most influential person in a Viva. Because… the internal examiner wants the student to pass. The external, I guess, is the more objective [examiner], they are the most objective person there. So, I think, at every stage of writing your thesis, make sure that you are writing in a way that is understandable and clear for the external examiner.

I: And are there any key skills for (if there is something like) a successful PhD? Or a successful Viva?

F: Well, these are two very different things. […] People can be great researchers but fall apart under the pressure of an oral examination or a Viva and vice versa. I mean, […] finding [an oral exam] difficult, that wouldn’t fail you. […] A PhD prepares you for a certain set of skills, but it doesn’t give you all the skills that you need. You can get brilliant researchers who are writing amazing papers, but who are absolutely terrible at public speaking. Or are really terrible in one-on-one conversation and vice versa. […] I think, some people find it easier than others. When you are being examined in your first language, then it is easier than if you are being examined in your second language or third language for some student [laughs]. It is a stressful situation.

I: I think it is really reassuring to know that it is an examination, an important examination, but that it does not define who you are as a researcher.

F: Yeah, it is just one part of the whole experience of doing a PhD. […] Your Viva doesn’t test how good you are at working under stress or at oral discussion. All it is to do is to really check that you did the research yourself, filling in the gaps for the bits that are not clear in your written work, and just to explore some of the other aspects of your work that are maybe not that clear or need further explanation. It is not really designed to develop skills in you. It is really just there to give you an extra opportunity to defend your thesis. If you are very stuttery and hesitant and not really good at face-to-face [exams], that wouldn’t make or break a Viva. It is not about how good you are at the performance! […] It is not like you are doing a presentation and you are marked on your presentation skills. They don’t matter!

I: Yes, your Viva is literally a defence of your thesis.

F: Yeah, but not a defence in the sense of arguing with your examiners. [It is a defence] in terms of explaining things that [are not included in your thesis], given you can’t write everything down you have been working on throughout those three or four years. And the examiners will pick up things, because they are fresh eyes that your supervisors won’t have. They ask questions that you might not have thought about and so that is all really helpful! And it might be that you are asked to add those [comments] into your thesis, or it might be that those are just things that you think about for your next piece of research.

I: Is there anything important that we didn’t talk about today?

F: No, that’s it really [laughs]. […] [Looking back at previous events for Viva preparation] made me realize how opaque the Viva really is… If you do it all the time, as an examiner, you forget what a strange thing it is. There is scope for this question-and-answer format, because you can’t really put down what happens when. Because [Vivas] are quite different and it also depends on the kinds of research, the methodology that you use… Some are more discursive, other are not, they are more systematic. And it depends on the examiners as well. Some will want to go through every section of every chapter systematically and others want to focus on theory and discuss that. It is quite a subjective process, although there are elements that are the same. […] And I think for me, I remember this kind of light bulb moment [when I was a student], thinking: “All right, so the examiners have read this and already sent in a report on how good or bad or indifferent they think it is, independently. And now they are meeting to discuss it, together”. […] Understanding the process really helped me to go into the Viva. But I think, as well, you can’t take away the anxiety of a Viva. It is a hugely anxiety-inducing process. To say it isn’t, is disingenuous. It is just being able to manage that anxiety and to manage that under pressure. But it is also not a performance. You are not doing a sales pitch; you are not selling a product! It is not about a slick performance! It is about a discussion where you are filling in the gaps. So, if you are like “ahm, ah, oh…” that doesn’t matter! You are not marked on that at all!

I: Thank you very much! This has definitely helped me, so I hope it will help other PhDs too!


 

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