The final viva voce examination

Under the spotlight

Under the spotlight

As a follow on to the workshop on writing up the thesis, I ran a session on the final examination process for the research degree at UWE.

What I try to do with these sessions is two-fold:-

  1. Knowledge is power – much of the process is organised by others but if the doctoral candidate knows who is supposed to be doing what and when it makes it easier for them to keep things on track (i.e. nudge their supervisors..)
  2. Reduce anxiety – there is a lot of uncertainty around the viva, most people will never have had experience of an oral examination so I try and say as much as I can about how it will be conducted

The workshop slides I used are below and the first half sets out how it is done at UWE (it may be slightly different at other HEIs) with the second half being dominated with as much advice as I could muster about preparing for and surviving (!) the viva. More recently, a scholar who writes about the doctoral journey, Professor Gina Wisker, presented some of her work to research students in the Department of Arts. Some interesting observations about What Doctoral Examiners look for.

The basic hints and tips are these:-

  • know your field
  • know your thesis
  • be clear about your ‘significant contribution’
  • be enthusiastic!

A question that often comes up is “what questions will be asked?”. Unfortunately I don’t have the power of prediction and every viva is different, however the opening exchange will always be around giving you, the candidate, the opportunity to summarise your thesis. This is something you can prepare for by talking to people about your work as an overview, what’s the big idea, what excites you about it, what are the key things that have come out of it etc.

Again there are some great hints and tips out there to draw upon, here’s a few…

Some final thoughts:-

Although the viva is a hurdle to overcome, try to think of it as a golden opportunity to have a good natter about your research. It is unlikely that you will ever have this much attention from other scholars who are interested in your work! Many fruitful collaborations begin after a viva exam, it could take your research down a new avenue.

I also think it is important to try to stay cool (I know that’s easier said than done) and to ask for clarification on questions you don’t understand by saying things like “I’m not sure if I’ve understood, are you asking…?” Don’t be tempted to launch into an answer to a question that wasn’t asked!

If you are a UWE researcher, then have a look at the research degrees webpages and read the document that is given to independent chairs (at UWE we have an independent chair to facilitate the exam process to ensure that candidates are given fair treatment) as it sets out exactly how the examination will be conducted from a practical point of view.

Last words:- Be confident, you wrote the thesis and you know more about it than anyone else. So demonstrate confidence with authority, you’ve earned it!

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5 thoughts on “The final viva voce examination

  1. Paul: a few points relating to how we offer a session on the same topic at Surrey (which may be useful to yourself and to candidates). I’m sure you cover lots of the same ground but I hope this helps nonetheless:1. Research shows that examiners generally form pretty strong opinions on the thesis and the candidate (at least in terms of pass/fail/borderline) on the basis of the written word – and furthermore, the viva itself doesn’t very often shift this position. The primary “assessment” purpose of the viva is authentication – establishing that the thesis is really the candidate’s own (not their supervisors’, not their research group’s, but THEIRS). Note that this goes well beyond issues relating to plagiarism or research conduct – it really refers to intellectual “ownership” of the thesis and the research by the candidate.2. One hopes that our candidates are relatively well supervised, and that in general supervisors have a sound broad idea of when candidates are ready to submit to examination. This is not to say that supervisors can (or ever should) intimate to candidates the likely outcome of assessment – they are neither qualified nor empowered to do so – nonetheless they should be able to gauge that there is (at least) a reasonable chance of success in their best professional judgment.3. It follows from the above that what happens in the exam room on the day makes less of a difference to assessment (at least in pass / fail terms) than candidates typically believe. If candidates have been reasonably well supervised, if they trust their supervisors’ judgment over readiness to submit, and if the thesis is truly theirs, generally speaking they will be OK.4. All this should serve to ease the pressure that the candidates perceive at what is undoubtedly a stressful time. And indeed, what we see most of the time is (at least in retrospect) a relatively stress-free experience for candidates… and one they actually find they enjoy. As you say above, the opportunity to talk in detail about YOUR research to experts in the field is a rare and often very fulfilling and enjoyable one.5. In terms of questions that are often asked in vivas, I have found the huge body of work done by Professor Vernon Trafford to be very insightful and useful. It certainly resonates with my experience of vivas and those of my colleagues. It shows that examiners behave in broadly predictable ways… and as you say right at the top, knowledge (of this behaviour) is power to the candidate.JB

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  2. Having just passed my viva, I’ll add my thoughts and comments about how the process was for me and the main concerns that I had about the whole thing:

    Some of the biggest concerns I had about my viva seem really silly, but I’m someone that likes to feel in control of a situation and the viva experience can feel like that control is slipping away. I worried about what to wear – suit smart? smart casual? I was advised to wear what I felt comfortable in, but still smart – I was given the rule of thumb that if I’d worn something for a podium presentation at a conference then go with that. Also, what if my throat/mouth dried up with nerves? – Don’t worry, they provide you with water and will top it up for you at the half way break (so you don’t have to be worried about being so nervous you spill water everywhere when you try and pour it!). I know these things seem silly, but they were genuine worries for me – so I can’t be the only one!

    Another thing to remember is that you will have a meeting with your chair before the viva – ask them any questions, however stupid they feel – I can guarantee they’ll have heard them all before!!

    I was in the privileged position of having a great relationship with my supervisory team and therefore trusted them completely – so I knew that although I still had to perform on the day, that they would not have let me submit if my thesis was a fail. Do remember that your supervisors are invested in you and it is in their interest for you to pass – listen to them and be guided by them, if they’ve encouraged you to submit the likelihood is it’ll be a pass on at least some level!

    My chair gave me a great piece of advice before my viva – don’t be so desperate to get out of the viva that you agree with everything your examiners say – this is your work, fight for it! I defended one model I created for 5mins before the one examiner that was unsure of it relented – constantly keep in mind that you do not want to make any corrections and only give in once you are backed into a corner – it’s not rude – your examiners will respect the confidence you have in your work.

    Most importantly (in my opinion) enjoy every minute of it. This is a day you will remember for the rest of your life – try and enjoy it in the moment. Of course I was nervous, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be asked about something that you know inside out and back to front. I revised for this viva but I can honestly say that the things I revised over and over didn’t come up once. It makes you realise that you don’t need to ‘swot up’ on this stuff – you have lived and breathed it for at least 3 years – you know it!

    Finally, one thing I didn’t expect was for my viva to turn into a networking opportunity! I am now looking at collaborating with both my examiners in some way in the near future. Remember that your examiners are picked because they have an interest in your subject – they can open doors for you and that’s pretty exciting!

    Be as excited as you are nervous about your viva, it’s your moment to shine 🙂

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  3. Pingback: how long will my viva be? | patter

  4. I had my Viva 10 days ago, within the field of a professional Doctorate in Applied Educational and Child Psychology. I read a lot of online sites, blogs and forums to prepare for mine and so I felt I wanted to ‘give back’ by sharing by experience.

    I think it would be fair to say I was exceptionally anxious about the Viva experience and could think of nothing else for about 4 weeks before it. Time really dragged and I wanted to prepare as much as I could, like I always have done for exams, although I felt frustrated that there was little I could do in preparation. Every site / document I looked at stressed how individual each Viva was and that the best preparation was simply to know your Thesis. However, the general questions that commonly came up were useful for me to prepare answers to and I had presented it as often as I could to different groups of people and considered the questions I was asked each time. This proved to be the most useful as many questions I was asked in my Viva had come up in these situations.

    On the day, I made sure I ate and drank as much as I could (non-alcoholic of course!) and arrived at the venue in plenty of time – but not too early as I knew that’s when I’d get really nervous. I wore a new outfit that was smart but, importantly for me, very colourful as I think that gives the impression of confidence even when it is lacking. I met my supervisor for half an hour before and we waited outside the room together. When it was time to begin, the chair came out to meet me and took me into the room.

    I began by shaking hands with everyone and having a drink of water whilst they introduced themselves. This is where I think I was fortunate – my examiners applied Psychology really well to the situation and began by each telling me what they thought were strengths of my research and what they enjoyed. As you can imagine, I instantly felt much more relaxed and could engage in a good discussion about it. The questions ranged from broad ‘why did you do this research’ to specific ‘why didn’t you mention this piece of research from your literature review in your discussion?’. My general response was to have a few seconds to think and I reminded myself to talk as slowly as I could. I smiled when I could and asked the examiners to repeat the questions when I didn’t understand.

    Overall, it lasted about 40 minutes, although it felt longer. When I was called back in for the feedback, my supervisor joined me to make notes. The feedback, thankfully, was very positive and I had a small amendment to make as a result. I think the process went well for me because I had over-prepared (which is just my style – I’m the same for job interviews) which gave me confidence as I knew I couldn’t have done more than I did. Also, the examiners were thoughtful people who were pleasant and treated the experience like a discussion rather than an interrogation.

    My advice would be to think back to previous exams / interviews and consider what made them successful for you and apply those skills to this situation. Good luck to anyone who reads this and has theirs coming up!

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