This post is written by Karen McAulay, Librarian extrodinaire who has some sage advice for those facing PhD completion seminars and Vivas in the coming months
Watching Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks facing the UK’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee, surrounded by media hounds and with the world’s TV cameras scrutinising every breath, I couldn’t help reflecting that a doctoral viva voce (or defense) is really very civilised by comparison.
When I attended my viva, there was me, my supervisor, two examiners (one internal, who hadn’t worked with me before, and one external), and the professor chairing the viva. Now, I appreciate that it’s different in other countries. I understand that in the USA, you conduct your defense publicly – ooh, that sounds scary, whatever the size of the audience! Whereas, until recently, the very distances involved in Australia meant that a viva wasn’t really very practicable and you are more likely to be asked to present to faculty.
But if you’ve got a viva voce or oral defense on the horizon, the fundamental purpose of this final hurdle is to get that thesis accepted, even if you have some revisions to do after the viva (or defense, or submission) itself. These people want you to pass! You’d like to think that they aren’t generally trying to trip you up, and that their comments and suggestions will be helpful and positive. There certainly won’t be any intruders or custard pies, no flashing cameras, and no reporters.
So, how should you prepare for your big day? Let me tell you what I did.
It goes without saying that you’ll know your thesis inside out. Why not mark key points that you might want to refer to, with those little translucent coloured removable markers?
You’ll also need to ensure that you can cite key authorities to which you’ve referred in your text. I spent a few hours in the days before my viva, just checking that my key authorities hadn’t published anything pertinent since I last referred to them! (Write something without my knowing? How dare they?!)
You know who your examiners will be, so spend a bit of time finding out about their output, too. It does no harm to read their latest published papers or conference abstracts – even if it doesn’t have any obvious links with your own work – just to get an idea of what makes them tick. If an eminent academic has a particular bee in their bonnet, you can at least prepare yourself for any niggles they might have about your own approach!
Read over your introduction and conclusion particularly carefully. Okay, you’ve written and submitted your thesis, but you should try to look at it dispassionately, so that you can at least have a stab at answering the question, “In retrospect, is there anything you’d have done differently?”
If you can find colleagues to give you a mock viva, or if, like me, you’re lucky enough to have colleagues who actually offer to do it, accept with alacrity! Ask them to pose tricky questions, because what you want to end up with is a little list of tricky questions along with some prepared answers! There’s no need to memorise them until you’re word-perfect – the very fact of having thought through these questions will mean you’re more prepared for what your “real” examiners might throw at you.
Finally, try to make sure you have a good night’s sleep before your big day. Keep the bottle of wine for the night after the viva! My “mock viva” friends reminded me that a viva is actually a unique opportunity when you and your opinions will be centre-stage, offering you the chance to discuss what interests you most, in depth, with knowledgeable senior academics. If you can convince yourself this is a rare privilege, you’re more likely to go into it with a positive frame of mind – looking forward to it rather than dreading it. Personally, I’d rather go through my viva again than visit the dentist!
I found loads of useful tips in Rowena Murray’s book, How to Survive Your Viva (Open University Press, 2009), 2nd edition. It’s also available as an e-book, so you can access it via your University Library or buy it for your Kindle.
So – if you’re approaching submission time and a viva voce or oral defense is part of the examination process, then good luck from me and everyone else reading The Thesis Whisperer. We’re all rooting for you! Let us know how you get on.