Friday, June 22, 2012

PhD viva

This post is for the wonderful people of #PhDchat :-) You have kept me sane, I just want to offer this blog post in return in the hope that it helps other PhD students develop confidence in their work as they prepare for the viva.

Firstly, I was terrified. It didn't matter now many people told me that they had confidence that "you'll be fine", it made little difference. Knowing that I had such wonderful support did help, a lot, but I have become very aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my own thesis.

I did a number of things to prepare for the vivia -

- 2 independent critical readers from the Open University read my thesis and offered written comments. 

While it made me nervous to have others look at it, they were extremely constructive and I found that the comments really helped to improve the thesis. So, I urge you to talk with your supervisors about asking at least one independent academic to do this for you, it is painful but extremely worthwhile.

- mock viva (after submitting my thesis, 2 weeks before the real viva)

The two critical readers then gave me a formal mock viva. I felt extremely underprepared (following a month of marking undergraduate assignments). I marked every chapter with a sicky-out post-it so that I could at least navigate the thesis, and read the thing in preparation. I also read the central studies that informed my research and design of the methodology.

I arrived in Milton Keynes the night before. Relaxed by Willen Lake at dusk and just read and re-read a few core papers. Above all I was worried about 2 things:

  1. That they would ask me about a field, area of research I'd not covered at all. 
  2. My memory would fail me and I'd struggle to answer questions because of it. 
Neither of these things happened by the way. 

The mock viva was 2 hours long, and they asked 40 questions. I know this because my amazing supervisor (Prof Karen Littleton) wrote down every question and my response. 

Here is a summary of what happened:
  • general question about what led me to research my topic (I talked about my professional interests, I was advised to talk more about the theoretical reasons... gaps in prior knowledge).
  • explained that they would work through the thesis chapter by chapter. 
  • Literature chapter (ch2) - asked to talk about the key studies that influence my work. Asked to outline gaps in sociocultural research of collaboration. 
  • Methodology chapter - Asked to describe the core concepts, and explain the process of developing my methodology. They were genuinely interested and sometimes genuinely confused by something that I'd not made clear enough in my work. 
  • Findings chapters - They asked me to summarise each chapter and the core take home points. 
There were other questions so I'll put a full list in a separate blog post. 
Occasionally they broke out of viva mode to suggest how I might answer a question differently, and even how I might show confidence in presenting my answers. I was being too cautious and too modest. 

It was both stimulating and really enjoyable! Of course that depends on who you do this with but I strongly urge you to give it a go. It gave me such a lot of confidence. I could see areas of weakness in my defence and I knew what I needed to do in preparation for the viva. 

Feedback summary: 
  • to really own my research, and be confident about the contribution that it is making
  • that I could take papers into the viva with me. For example, I couldn't discuss the strengths or weaknesses of my methodology, I just stalled. I decided to write this out on one page and I took it to the actual viva. As it happens I didn't need to really refer to it. 
Preparation for the viva

Following the mock I decided to summarise each chapter - just the core points. I used mnemonics to help me. In the viva I sketched out the mnemonics while answering their questions, this helped me to slow down and think, and also feel confident that I wasn't missing anything I felt to be important. The examiners described my thesis defence as 'robust', I think this may have been the reason.  

The following things also happened in the actual viva
  • I took in a mug of mint tea
  • Tried to appear calm but panicked for about 10 minutes (just as my supervisors said I would) 
  • The external examiner opened with the following sentences 'I think that we both agree that this work is worthy of a PhD.'...then shortly after this 'We also agree that it is worthy of a PhD with minor corrections'. 
I think at this point he may have been expecting me to look happy, relieved, something, anything other than terrified... I'm not sure it has sunk in yet but he was trying to help me to relax. The viva would focus on what those corrections were going to be. 
  • I stopped attempting to drink the smelly tea because my hand was shaking too much!
  • The examiners went through the thesis chapter by chapter - here are the broad questions they asked (my supervisor Prof Dorothy Miell wrote it all down for me):
(I've paraphrased some questions as it was more conversational that this indicates)
  1. What attracted you to this area of work?
  2. A more pressing question about the situation of undergraduate collaborative creativity. 
  3. Is multi-disciplinarity a distinctive new area? (pressing to see if I'd identified a gap I think)
  4. Have I experience in designing these types of courses... (topic relevant to my thesis, to learn about the relationship between my research and my professional context I think)
  5. Summarise 2-3 key points (from the literature review) and know they informed the research questions. 
  6. How did particular ideas (relating to improvisation in collaboration) inform the research questions. 
  7. Where did the multi-disciplinary aspect come from? How do they collaborate without shared practice?
  8. Methodology chapter - there was a lot of theoretical material included, this made it quite tricky to follow. Could you summarise the pragmatic details of what you actually did. 
  9. question about when choices were made
  10. Question about how I decided what and when to record, how much etc. 
  11. How did I distill data down?
  12. Did I consider other ways of coding? What that have revealed something else?
  13. What type of discourse analysis was used?
  14. More specific questions relating to what I was interested in, not interested in. 
  15. Pragmatic questions about analysis - how easy was it to analyse sequences when I wasn't present?
  16. Did I consider (asking participants to check, help with interpretation of analysis)?
  17. What are the main take home messages for chapters 4-6 (main body of my thesis)?
I was asked several questions about these chapters, there was an emphasis on understanding the intellectual narrative and structuring of them because that wasn't clear enough in my particular thesis. Obviously, every viva is likely to be extremely different but perhaps you can see that there is quite a systematic approach here. 

We got into a really interesting discussion about the parts of the thesis that interested the examiners. 

My suggestion to you therefore, is definitely to know how to summarise the key points for each chapter, be able to summarise the key contribution of your work and read your thesis before the viva. I found it much easier to talk about my findings because I'm naturally excited about that part of them. Finally the last question: Imagine you're on the Today Programme, please could you summarise why this research is important and what you found. 

I was asked to leave the room for about 10 minutes and when I returned, with 2 of my supervisors, they gave me the result: 'Excellent defence, robust, articulate. Great Job. Awarded pending one or two minor changes.' 

Now I'm telling you all of this because the week before I had an incredibly dim view of my work despite lots of corrections, encouragement and the confidence of my supervisors. I had to believe in it to defend it and fortunately on the morning of the viva I decided that it really wasn't so bad. You may feel that your work is fantastic, or you may not, I suggest that you have to believe in it. All of the hard work has been done before the viva, and you really really do know it much better than anyone else. I know, these are just words. I never imagined this result though, up to the very last day I was anticipating the worst... well I'm being honest at least. 

Oh, afterwards, I slept. A lot. 

Supervisors, Examiners and an extremely relieved Dr E Dobson in the middle 


  1. Charlotte CareyFriday, June 22, 2012

    Great post - this is so useful. My supervisor is hoping I'll have my viva in the Autumn term of this year and at the moment I feel nowhere near ready...

    Your experience has been a real inspiration, thanks for sharing.

  2. Congratulations Dr. Dobson! *cheers

  3. Hi Charlotte, I'm delighted that you have found this motivating :-) To be honest, I didn't feel ready to submit when I did and kept working hard to the last moment. It was a little like a runaway train however I'm so so glad I submitted when I did. Nothing is ever perfect. Somehow we manage, you'll do it and I'll be reading your viva blog in the Autumn too! x

  4. Thanks for the post Liz, readiness is such a difficult concept. Your questions and responses help me think yes i can do this. Congratulations also!

  5. Hi Ailsa, Yes indeed. I'm delighted that this blog has helped you, and thanks for posting your comment. That makes it worthwhile. :-) Very best wishes with your PhD and your viva. Maybe other graduands will post their experiences too. There is a degree of unpredictability to the viva, but also a lot that can be anticipated and prepared for.