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Sue Lynn Mah shares her experience preparing for and passing her PhD viva in her article. In the week leading up to the big day, she re-read her thesis, had a mock viva with her supervisor, practiced explaining her work to people outside of her field, and printed out a physical copy of her thesis. Her tips for viva success include picking out your outfit in advance and practicing your elevator pitch.

March 16th 2022. This is definitely one of the most significant dates of my life. It is the day I passed my PhD with minor corrections!

While a lot has happened in the past four and a half years leading to this day (*cough pandemic*), I must say that the week before my viva was certainly the most stressful period of my PhD.

When the date was confirmed, I was told by my supervisor to start preparing about a week before the actual big scary viva. And yes, I really called it that. If anyone knows me, they’ll know that I’m an anxious person and that waiting two months for the viva would be unbearable. Thankfully, when the date was confirmed I was already employed, so my mind was pre-occupied. In the weeks leading up to my viva however, I could feel my stress levels slowly creeping up; I knew that I had to finish all of my projects at work before my annual leave to go “full-blast” on my viva preparation.

In the evenings, I would google ‘how to prepare for PhD viva’ and search for ‘common questions asked in a PhD viva’. Although this might seem rather trivial, it did help my anxiety levels as it allowed me to plan what to expect for the viva itself. And then it came to the actual week before the “big day”.

Seven Days Remaining - Starting point

“Over-googling” can have a negative influence; it meant that I was unsure on where was best to start. However, following my supervisor’s advice, I started with the most basic step which was to re-read my thesis. I submitted this in early December, so it had been a few months since I’d looked at it. Re-reading it was definitely eye-opening and I had forgotten how much fun I’d had writing certain sections. The process had also left me mortified by the typos, grammatical mistakes, and formatting issues I missed before submitting. While I was bothered by these minor issues, I reminded myself that I should focus on refreshing my memory of the content so that I could start preparing for the potential questions that my examiners might ask.

Six Days Remaining - Mock Viva

​On this day, I had a mock viva with my supervisor where he explained how a viva typically begins with the examiners asking a warm-up question such as “tell us about your PhD” or “why is your research important”. Sounds easy enough right? But honestly, it was a bit disastrous. For the first question, I went on for about 10 minutes talking about my PhD and didn’t really talk about what I did and what I had found. I answered the second question better. From this, my supervisor encouraged me to remain calm and not over-complicate my answers.

Four Days Remaining - Practising and more practising

​​Following the feedback I had received from the mock viva, I decided to change the long ten minute ‘spiel’ into a 3-minute elevator pitch for strangers. I practiced this repeatedly with someone who was an outsider to the field. After getting more feedback, I practiced again with another friend whose field of research was similar to mine. The tips I researched online repeatedly told me to practice constantly. This was the most beneficial piece of advice I received; practicing with someone outside of my field helped me to simplify explaining my rationales, while practicing with someone from my field provided me with fresh insight into explaining my results.

Two Days Remaining - Final preparations

​​Until this point, I was preparing with a PDF version of my thesis when I was given another handy tip; have a physical copy of important sections and chapters indexed so that I could access them easily during the viva. I also found it useful to be able to flick to the page my examiners were on immediately during the viva, so it was a good idea to print out and bind the version that was sent to the examiners. Side note: this indexing was useful for doing my corrections later!

Now I’d like to give an unusual piece of advice, but one which I found really helpful: pick out what you are going to wear! This means you will have one less thing to worry about on the day itself. I went to my friend’s house in the evening, and it was nice to have a relaxing dinner together where I was not thinking about the viva.

The Day of The Viva

My memory of the actual viva is something of a blur! I met my external examiner first which was a little awkward because I had never interacted with her before (aside from liking and retweeting some of her tweets). My internal examiner and chairperson then entered the meeting, and after brief introductions, I was told that I had passed, and my first reaction was disbelief! Before I had the chance to register what I had just been told, the viva had officially started. The questions I was initially asked were the ones I had expected, (for instance, “tell us about your PhD”) before they proceeded to ask more in-depth questions (such as, “explain your findings in greater detail”, “why did you adopt this analysis technique?”, and “why did you interpret your data this way?”)

Approximately three hours later, my viva was over and I was exhausted. When I recounted the meeting in my head, I did not believe I had answered the questions well. It felt as though I had gone down the rabbit hole a couple of times and my examiners had to pull me out of it. I was panicking that I had performed poorly despite being told I had passed at the beginning; my self-doubt was creeping in. They told me afterwards that I had done well, and that it was a spirited viva.

At the post-viva dinner, my internal examiner told me that it was normal to feel like my brain had been poked and prodded and, in a way, it was like a rite of passage.I was given three months to complete my corrections. As I am writing this article, I still have a couple more corrections to go. Some are easy fixes, and some are a little bit more tedious.

Conclusion

Overall, I’d say that the week leading up to my viva was indeed stressful and while I wouldn’t say that my preparation is applicable to everyone, it is okay to feel scared or nervous. And actually, I would say that it is even totally normal to feel excited because you have worked really hard to come to this point. To those who are reading this article and will have to do their viva either in the near or far future, I sincerely wish you all the best!

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