The viva voce, or the defense, is the final hurdle in becoming a doctor (of philosophy of course). It is also often the most feared part of completing a PhD, fueled by horror stories of evil examiners and 8 hour long exams. I drove myself crazy by reading stories of failed vivas on the internet, and convinced myself of my impending doom. But after having what I can only describe as a relatively pleasant experience, I want to let people know that viva’s aren’t always a hellish experience, as well as sharing my tips for making the best of it.
I should start off by mentioning that my PhD wasn’t smooth sailing. Lots of things went wrong and I had many months of negative results, and because of this I convinced myself I was going to fail. However, I ended up rather enjoying my viva and am sure it is in no small part due to some great advice I received. I want to pass this advice on, so here are my top tips for getting through, and maybe even enjoying, your viva.
1) Calm down and breathe. Working yourself up is only going to make things worse, by stopping you sleeping and making you ill. Find a way to relax, be it yoga, running, meditation or video games; but find something to help you stay calm.
2) Do something fun. Don’t spend all your time revising. You still need to have fun, or you’ll wear yourself down before the exam. You want to be fresh on the day, so go out and have some fun (maybe with those friends you’ve neglected over the last months/ years).
3) Believe in yourself. You have spent the last few years reading about, writing about and doing your project. You are the expert; you know your stuff, remember that.
4) Go in with a good attitude. Don’t see the examiners as evil torturers who get kicks out of making you suffer. They want you to pass. However, if you go in thinking that they want you to fail you’ll not only be more scared, you’ll also be more defensive, which isn’t always a good thing. Instead try to think of your examiners as people who are really interested in what you have done and who understand all the problems and pitfalls associated with research.
5) Look presentable. Years of lab work may have your wardrobe looking a little worse for wear and your idea of smart as wearing a T-shirt without any stains or holes, but you should try to make a proper effort to dress smart on your viva day. Firstly, looking good will help your self-esteem, making you feel more confident. Secondly, it shows the examining committee that you are serious about your PhD and the viva, which of course you are, and you want them to know that too.
6) Read your thesis. While you have spent the last several years doing your research and the last however long writing it up, you want to make sure it is fresh in your mind. This is especially true if you have had a long gap between submitting your thesis and the exam. You don’t have to read it once a day every day until your viva, just make sure you go over it a few times before the exam.
7) Know the rules. Every institution is different; for some you have just two examiners, others you also have a convenor. In some institutions you might need to prepare a talk to present before the viva (this was the case for me, and I found it great preparation for the exam). You need to make sure you know what your institution does to ensure you are prepared. One important thing to find out is if you are allowed to bring a copy of your thesis into the exam, and if so, whether you can annotate it.
8) Make a list of your own corrections. Unless you are perfect, or had your thesis professionally proof read, your thesis is likely to contain many mistakes. After reading it over so many times you often see what you think should be written, instead of what actually is written. Before your exam, take another look over your thesis (preferably after some time away from it, so you’re more fresh). Find all the mistakes, write them down and take them in to your exam. The examiners will be impressed that you did it, and you’ll be less phased by mistakes they highlight. Plus, you could save yourself some time and correct them before the viva, meaning less time spent on corrections afterwards.
9) Make plans to celebrate. Or get a friend to organize something if you’re too busy or nervous. I was so scared of failing I didn’t want to organize anything, but when it was all over and I had passed I was so glad to have a night out organized by my friends, especially after so many Saturday nights doing lab work or writing.
10) Try to enjoy it. I know it may seem absurd, but this is the moment all the blood sweat and tears has been leading up to. Enjoy your moment in the spotlight. I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed my viva; I was finally able to get it all off my chest. All the big flaws that I was convinced my examiners would point out were barely touched on, and I got to discuss my thoughts and theories with people who were interested and gave me new perspectives and ideas.
So that’s my advice. What are your top tips for surviving the viva?
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