Viva Diva* #PhDchat (not how NOT to do a PhD)

*apologies for the lack of rhyme, it looks better than it sounds.

A couple of people have asked me to describe my viva experience – either out of curiosity because they are doing doctorates in different parts of the world and therefore don’t have a viva, or because they know they will have to face the viva at some point.

I’m going to rewind a year before I submitted my PhD to tell you about the most reassuring advice I had about my viva. I was at the yearly Society for the Study of Theology (hereafter SST) conference in Nottingham. I hadn’t submitted a paper, like I had at the previous conference the year before in Durham, because I expected to be in Australia by then. So I was determined to make the most out of the conference experience, networking, attending papers, meeting my supervisor, and – for the purposes of the viva – attending the postgraduate meeting chaired by SST president Prof David Brown, coincidentally also my external examiner. His key message was that the examiners are not employed to catch you out. In other words, *you* the student are the expert in the field – your examiners have similar but not exact knowledge. He commented that every possible opportunity is given to students to explain their research and correct their mistakes, and only in the very rarest of cases are students not recommended to pass (with corrections or not). Or, if your supervisor is up to much, you will never submit a PhD that will be failed outright. Following this session, I was much more confident about the viva.

Fortunately, I was confident in my supervisor, knowing that the two previous supervisees (is that even a word?) I knew both passed without corrections. My last year of supervisions had been much more relaxed, happening in coffee shops all over the country, wherever we could catch up at a conference or university, and had been very positive. I’d given three papers on my research during the year and talked to lots of fellow academics about it.

So I definitely went into the viva after a successful and positive academic year. As you may have gathered, I didn’t teach from January to May in 2015, so I was totally focused on the PhD. I was living and breathing it. I submitted in mid-May, and began my new job (in Australia) on 1 June. Nearly 4 months went by before I could have my viva (the first feasible holiday in which the viva could occur). I had to travel back to the UK, as the university rules state that for the viva you must be in the same room as one of your examiners.

I didn’t even begin to revise my work for the viva until the flight home, on which I had the good luck to sit next to a one of these (“Hey, since I have to spend the next 14 hours with you, I’m Leo. Where are you flying? Why are you flying? What are you studying? Wow, are you planning to work all the way back? Etc.”) Cue headphones. In the 33 hours it took to get back to England, I managed to read the whole thing, make a few notes on the standard questions (there are several websites which I collated these from), and generally remember what on earth I was talking about! My viva happened within a few days of arriving. I reread some bits of the PhD again the night before and the morning of the viva (I was struggling with jetlag so was awake at 5am).

As it turned out, most of this ‘preparation’ was unnecessary because I could have answers the questions without the extra work. Of course, it was good to refresh my memory of what I had written, and if made me feel more confident. I took the advice to dress in something smart-casual, jeans, a blouse and a smart jacket, not to mention my favourite Italian suede shoes which students find amusing, to feel comfortable but confident. My examiners were similarly in shirts and jackets. Some of the viva blogs I read before made a big deal out of attire, but I think anything professional and comfortable goes.

My viva was in the morning, so I met my supervisor at her office beforehand, and she walked to the venue with me, organising a return in an hour or so. Throughout, I was feeling the viva was going well, although there were a few tricky questions, due to my lack of clarity in setting out the parameters of the research. The viva lasted for around an hour, and felt mostly like a pleasant conversation between fellow academics.

Post-viva, I was asked to wait outside whilst the examiners discussed the outcome. When I went back to the waiting area, my supervisor was there. I had just began telling her about the questions I was asked when my internal examiner invited me back into the room to congratulate me on passing the PhD without corrections. This was a relief as I wanted to graduate on my return to England in September and there would have been some pressure with any corrections (not that I didn’t get a couple of recommendations for when I publish my thesis).

The next most important question was where to go for lunch to celebrate!! My external examiner, supervisor, and lecturers from the department joined us. Overall, it wasn’t half as gruelling as expected.


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