Musings on the viva experience

The word ‘viva’, short for ‘viva voce’ meaning oral examination (not the type you have at the dentist) can strike fear into research students. The viva at the end of PhD study is the final reckoning. The research and the thesis have got you to this point. It is here in this exam, in probably no more than two hours, that you will explain, justify and defend your research to experts in your subject area, who will probe, examine and ask awkward questions to ascertain if you really know your stuff. It’s a pressured occasion and it’s right that PhD candidates should feel the pressure, as this is the culmination of several years of study (for part-time PhD students, six to eight years or maybe more) and it is on your performance that the final decision of the examiners will rest. As an examiner and PhD supervisor, I’ve seen PhD candidates rescue their work from what looked beforehand like finishing with an MPhil at best to passing with major revisions, I’ve seen grillings over fine detail, I’ve heard some very odd answers and I’ve seen examiners start with the words, ‘You’ve got your PhD so let’s talk about it and about how to polish it for publication.’ But what of my own experience?

I had no experience of a PhD viva and knew no-one with a PhD to ask them about it. I had read some of a book about how to prepare for a viva, but had put it down because it had assumed that candidates had other PhD students to study alongside and that there were PhD students studying in the same area. This was so far from my own experience as to be completely useless. Instead I did a practice viva over the phone with my Dad, who had read every chapter of my thesis as I wrote it, always returning it with copious notes for improvement. The mock viva seemed to go pretty well, and I was quite pleased, but my Dad didn’t have a PhD either, so he didn’t really know what questions the examiners would ask. I went through the thesis and marked up all the key points in each chapter, stuck sticky notes in so I could find chapter openings and sections on this and that and wrote up my answers to the mock viva questions so I could go over them again.

On the day of the viva my supervisor was pretty cool about it all and so was I. I had arranged to meet a friend for a drink later and the viva seemed like a meeting I had to get through before I could go for the drink. Looking back, I don’t think I was sufficiently aware of the importance of the viva. In the examination room – a small, bright room with lots of natural light – I sat opposite the two examiners with my supervisor at the end of the table, silent, like a lucky gonk. They asked some questions that were simple to answer and in my head I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is easy!’ Then one of them said:

‘On page 67,’ [pause while we all turned to page 67 in our copies of the thesis] ‘you say at the top that there are very few articles available on this particular subject. Well, that just isn’t true, is it?’

I was dumbstruck. ‘Er,’ I said, erudite as ever, ‘I didn’t find many in the literature search.’

‘You weren’t looking in the right journals,’ returned the examiner, smiling like a tiger.

‘I did a very thorough and systematic search and the journals I used are listed in Appendix 2,’ I said lamely.

‘But there’s a key journal missing from your list,’ continued the tiger, ‘and that’s why you haven’t found the appropriate articles.’

So this was it. I was about to fail my PhD viva. But do you know what kept me going? The sure and certain knowledge that I had survived and passed much more terrifying oral exams than this as a languages student.

French O level. German O Level. Russian O Level. French A Level. German A Level. Even a degree in German. Oh yes, I was a sucker for terrifying oral exams. I always dreaded the oral exam as the spoken language was by far my weakest skill. I hated speaking up in class, as I felt everyone was looking at me, smirking at every error of pronunciation, laughing inwardly at every grammar mistake, stifling guffaws at my rubbish accent. By far the most dread-inspiring oral exam was actually not a summative assessment but a simple piece of coursework I did while on my year abroad in Austria as part of my German degree. I was at Salzburg University doing a class on German language and we were required to read a biography of Mozart by Wolfgang Hildesheimer auf Deutsch, natürlich, with no York Notes and no available translation. The homework we had been set was something or other about the book, I can’t remember now, but I’d scored 2=, which meant between a 2 and a 3 (scores went from 1 at the top to 5 at the bottom). Whether I would be given the 2 or the 3 was now dependent on an oral exam with the teacher, Frau Stuppnik-Bazzanella, who we referred to as Frau Sputnik-Barcelona or Frau Sputnik for short. We all loved her because she was a great teacher, was funny, fair and pronounced our names in endearing ways. But no matter how much I loved her as a teacher, the prospect of an individual 1-2-1 oral exam was horrifying. A date was arranged and I duly turned up at the appointed hour, a sacrificial lamb.

‘So,’ she said, in German, ‘tell me about the Hildesheimer book – what was your favourite part?’

I was literally shaking. Favourite part? None of it was my favourite – the whole thing was a slog. It was painfully slow reading, having to look up so many words in an enormous dictionary every few minutes, and I had been forcing myself to read one or two chapters a day so I could get it finished in time for the coursework. Favourite part?

‘The bit about Mozart’s horse,’ I squeaked. Fortunately, this answer was so far from what she expected, Frau Sputnik didn’t seem to notice my faltering German.

‘His horse?’ she said. ‘I don’t remember that bit. Tell me some more about it.’

So, I had to tell her all about Mozart’s horse – he’d bought the horse because he led a very unhealthy lifestyle and his doctor had recommended that he take some exercise. Unfortunately, before he’d had much of a chance to do any riding, he had to sell it to pay off some gambling debts. (I’ll bet you never knew that about Mozart.)

Frau Sputnik laughed and it wasn’t even at my accent – it was at the story of the horse. I smiled cautiously and said I’d thought it was funny, too.

OK,’ she said with laughter in her eyes, ‘ich gebe dir den Zwei.’ (I’ll give you the two.’)

No oral exam could ever come close to the terror of having to discuss Mozart’s horse in German. If I could get through that, I could get through anything. Even a PhD viva. How did the questioning about the missing literature conclude?

‘I’ll have to go back and review that journal to add to the literature,’ I offered.

The tiger’s eyes twinkled and I was reminded of Frau Sputnik’s smile. ‘You don’t need to do that,’ said the examiner, ‘just take that line out. Everything else you say is fine.’


5 thoughts on “Musings on the viva experience

  1. Colin Hanson-New

    Very interesting read and a lesson for all students wishing to undertake a PhD. Never assume that the questions will be easy. Expect the unexpected and try not to get flustered.


    1. Penny

      Very interesting Alison. One of my examiners kept asking the same question over and over again, phrased slightly differently each time, and I kept trying to give an answer to it. Eventually he stopped asking and I didn’t know if I’d finally given the answer he was looking for or if he’d just given up!


      1. It sounds like you beat him into submission with your answers, Penny! I’ve heard examiners ask the same question different ways in vivas and sometimes the student really doesn’t know what is required in terms of an answer, so as an examiner you either have to be very clear or stop persisting, as that just makes the student anxious.


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