We’re particularly delighted to feature a blog post from our own Chair (or Fearless Leader, take your pick), Nora Williams. Nora recently completed her PhD at the University of Exeter on the intersections between print and performance of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling — you can find out more here — and now she extols her wisdom on making the most of your viva experience…
5:30am. My fratboy of an upstairs neighbour is blending something, or Hoovering. I can never quite tell. Normally I’m not awake at this time to hear his shenanigans, or I’m able to shut them out fairly quickly. Today, it’s T-4.5 hours until my viva, and I’m wide awake on the other side of two vivid dreams: one in which it went well, and one in which it was a disaster. Guess which one is on replay?
Spoiler alert: it did go well! It was a great conversation, and I learned a lot. I got some great compliments, and some difficult questions, and some tough but fair criticism. I passed with minor corrections, which means I now have three months in which to address my examiners’ comments. Phew!
In this blog post, I’m offering my five top tips to survive and thrive in viva week.
- Think Big Picture
In re-reading my thesis for the first time, I got stuck in all of the detail. I misspelled W.B. Worthen’s name! They’re going to murder me! (They didn’t.) That reference is to the wrong page number! What’ll I do? (Fix it in corrections.) In my mock viva, however, my supervisors focused much more on the “meta” questions, as one of them put it. What are your research questions? What is your contribution to knowledge? Who are the key theorists you’re in dialogue with? What’s the most important thing you’ve done here? It’s hard to convince yourself of this when all you can see is the typo in your table of contents (true story), but the examiners care much more about the big stuff than they do about the little mistakes.
That doesn’t mean they won’t ask you about the details or that you shouldn’t present your thesis in the best possible condition. Rather, it’s a reminder that what’s really important in the room, on the day, is the quality of your research and your arguments—not the typos.
- Nothing Means Anything
The best advice I got from my mock viva came from my second supervisor and became my mantra in the week leading up to the viva: “nothing means anything”. If they keep you waiting forty minutes between viva and corrections/result, it doesn’t mean anything. They could be writing up the report. Or talking about old times. Or having a toilet break. Equally, if they call you back in really quickly, it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe they have kids to pick up from school, or trains to catch. If they ask you the same question six times, they could be probing for more detail, or they could be unhappy with your answer, or they could be looking for the publishing pitch—you just don’t know. My examiners asked for my supervisor to be present in the second half, when they were going through the corrections, so I thought for sure I had failed. I hadn’t; there was no correlation at all between my supervisor’s presence and the outcome of the viva. They just wanted to make sure I got all the info I needed—and sure enough, her notes are much more detailed than mine!
The mantra doesn’t stop you reading into every single detail of the day, but for me it became a kind of security blanket to default to. Say it with me now: nothing. means. anything.
- Be Kind to Yourself
I was really lucky in that my department offers a one-off seminar about viva prep for final-year PhD students (if your department has one, you should go!). One of the things that they really emphasised in that seminar was to look after yourself in the run up to the viva. So with 24 hours left to go, I gave myself strict instructions to work a full day and nothing more. I did roughly 9-5 prep, with a lunch break, and then cut myself off. I went home, cooked a comfort-food dinner, and FaceTimed with some of my best friends and my mom. I watched Gossip Girl on Netflix and tidied my bedroom. I made sure that all the clothes I wanted to wear and all the things I wanted to bring were ready to go. I tried to have a normal bedtime. I drank a lot of herbal tea with things like camomile and lavender and lime flower in it.
Preparing for a viva isn’t like cramming for an exam. You already know your material inside out and backwards. For this brief moment in time, you are the world-leading expert on your subject. Trust the work you’ve been doing for the past three or more years and let your brain have a break before the big day. Prep like you mean it, and then give yourself a rest.
- Lean on Your Support System
Ultimately, you’re the one who has to walk into that room and answer the questions, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need a little help getting to the door. If at all possible, I really recommend bringing along someone you trust to a) give you a hug before you walk into the room, b) look after anything you don’t want to bring with you, and c) be a friendly face in the space between the viva proper and the discussion about corrections that follows. I brought my flatmate, who was an absolute star and a support network unto herself. It was so reassuring to have someone to talk to during the waiting period, and to have someone to celebrate with immediately upon leaving the room with good news. Had things gone the other way, I would have really appreciated having her there as a shoulder to cry on, too.
Oh yeah, and have at least one someone ready to go the pub with you whatever the outcome!
- Try to Enjoy It!
This is one of those things that lots of people said to me ahead of my viva, and also one of those things I didn’t think was possible until I was doing it. The day will go by in a blur and you’ll have so many thoughts and feelings and ups and downs as events unfold. Try to take a step back every now and then and appreciate what a fantastic opportunity the viva is: people at the top of their game and at the top of your field have spent a great deal of time looking at and thinking about your work. And now they want to talk to you about it!
Bonus tip: big picture questions checklist
These come from notes taken during that viva prep seminar I mentioned earlier, and they were a really handy tool for me, particularly on the last prep day, when I needed an anchor to keep me focused:
- What sparked my personal interest in this research topic?
- What gap am I addressing in my research? What is my contribution to knowledge?
- What is the value of my research to the field(s)?
- What are my central research questions?
- What is my methodology? How did it develop?
- What is my central argument?
- What have I deliberately left out?
- What are my findings?
- What are my most important literary sources?
- What are key terms that I might need to clarify?
- Which areas of my work are part of ongoing debates?
- Why did I choose these case studies?
- What are my conclusions?
- How do I see this work developing? Where am I going next?
If you can answer these questions, then you’re going to be just fine! Good luck!
What advice would you give to PhD students on the process of completing your thesis? If you’d like to share your advice on the NRN blog, please email Emer and Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your ideas!