The PhD viva: My experience

Let’s start with a massive disclaimer. The events depicted in this blog post are entirely true. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely because those people really exist/ed. My viva went really well. Yours may not...

Nervous? I wasn’t actually. I’d spent three years living my thesis and if I wasn’t in a position to defend it then I probably didn’t deserve a doctorate anyway. But everyone’s viva, as with everyone’s PhD, is different. I thought I’d give you some insight into my experience – the kind of questions I was asked and what it entailed.

  • How long was the viva? – Approximately three hours, although we chose not to have a break.
  • Who examined you? – An internal examiner (someone from my department) and an external examiner (someone from outside the University) – my supervisor and co-supervisor were not present in the viva.
  • What was the first question you were asked? – If I started the PhD over, with what I know now, would I do anything different? (this is a classic viva question, or so I’m told)
  • What was the hardest question you were asked? – Something technical about the relationship between biological and chemical oxygen demand (bear in mind I’m a fluvial geomorphologist)
  • Were there any questions you couldn’t answer? – Yes, but nothing fundamental. You should know your topic. The conversation may become tangential, but that’s the only time you might feel lost.
  • What should I do to prepare? – Depends on who you are. I didn’t do enough preparation (having a full-time job) but managed to get through with a combination of knowledge, confidence, a demonstrably decent thesis and a non-combative attitude. Certainly read over the thesis the night/day before. Knowing the weaknesses of the manuscript helps – no nasty surprises.
  • What happens next? – In my case, I have to make minor corrections. If anything, this is perhaps worse than the viva itself, particularly if you’re busy and will struggle to find the time to do the work. Rarely, people pass with no corrections, although I don’t know anyone who’s done this. Oh and publish papers; I have to do that too at some stage.
  • Any more advice? – The viva is an opportunity to show what you’re made of. It is the platform for you to go, ‘here I am, and the work I have done changes the landscape’. It is a marker. Enjoy it because it may be the last time your thesis will see the light of day before spending years sitting on a dusty shelf in a library somewhere.

And remember, if you’ve got to the stage where your supervisor thinks you’re ready to submit and defend your thesis, then you probably are!

If you have any more questions I will be happy to field them on the blog, or via my Twitter: @Cattleinrivers

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