Surviving the Viva

I thought it would be helpful to describe my experience of a viva: the before, during, and after.

The Night Before

The night before,  I went out with my husband to see a comedian: the rude and funny Reginald D Hunter. In between laughing and wincing, I didn’t have time to worry about the coming viva. I slept badly, with nightmares of turning up at the viva only to be examined on university level Russian. (My Russian oral exam was in 1993, and was conducted with me standing up, dressed in Oxford’s academic commoner gown: “subfusc”. Luckily, I would be able to wear clothes of my own choosing, and would be able to sit down during my Salford viva.) I woke up coughing, with the remnants of a nasty cold.

The Morning Before

I ate breakfast in a daze, and mooched around moodily in the morning. Some impressive PhD candidates are able to do last-minute revision before their viva. Not me. I stared at my notes, but nothing was going in. My first supervisor left me a voicemail, saying that he was doing a last-minute read-through of my thesis before going up to meet the examiners and that it was “quite good”.

I caught a taxi into the University (the first time in 3.5 years I had ever treated myself to a taxi) and went up to my second supervisor’s room.  There, I managed a bit of small talk while he convinced me not to worry. At 2pm sharp, my first supervisor knocked on the door and told me that the examiners were ready.

The walk up to the examination rooms on the 9th floor was the longest of my life. Both supervisors were trying to calm my nerves, but my head was buzzing and my legs were weak. Inside the examination room, the two examiners rose to greet me, the Chair introduced himself, and I sat down.

We were on a large, square table. The examiners were to the left of me, my first supervisor was opposite me, and my second supervisor and the Chair were to the left of me. The examiners (both external) looked at each other, I popped some last-minute paracetemol, and we were off!

The Viva Itself

The first question was about why I had chosen this particular topic. I had prepared an answer for this one. The act of speaking, and seeing the examiners smile and nod started to calm me down. The next question started with the literature review, but from there, the questions took quite a different direction. Each examiner came from different specialisms within the field of entrepreneurship. Their questions reflected their background and jumped around the thesis quite a lot. There were questions about why I had chosen certain types of literature over others (e.g. management literature, rather than engineering or design to talk about creativity and innovation). I was asked how my personal experience had influenced my work. There were tough questions about how I had implemented my methodology, and why I had chosen a certain term (“semiotics”), but failed to explain it adequately.

We were interrupted after 1.5 hours by the arrival of lunch. The hungry examiners tucked in (they each had travelled from the other end of the country), while I nibbled on a grape and swallowed some more paracetemol.

The viva continued for another 1.5 hours with questions about the validity of one of my policy recommendations, and in-depth analysis of Bourdieusian concepts I had used in my thesis. While the questions were hard, I felt that they were both “critical friends”.  They had clearly read my thesis carefully and wanted to explore my work in detail. Even during the viva, I was grateful and touched that they had taken so much trouble with my research. I doubt that anyone else, apart from my supervisors and my husband who did the proof-reading, will ever read the work that consumed 3.5 years of my life.

Both my supervisors were scribbling furiously, and I could occasionally see one of them wince if I answered in a particularly incompetent way.

5pm rolled around and the examiners had gone through all their questions. I was escorted out of the room by my second supervisor and waited for about 10 minutes. I felt relieved while we were waiting: whatever the outcome, it was over, and I had done my best.

The Aftermath

I was brought back into the room, and both examiners stood up, smiled, and extended their hands in a handshake while saying “Congratulations!”. I had passed, with three minor amendments, one of which was a typo. One examiner said that I had defended my work well; the other wanted to know when I would write a book from the interviews. I couldn’t believe it!

I felt almost ready to collapse at this point. I handed out gingerbread, which I had brought from a family firms whom I had researched. Everyone liked gingerbread, so this raised a laugh. The Chair then took a photo of us for posterity.

Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

Me in the middle, with my examiners to the left, and my supervisors to the right.

The examiners and my supervisors were laughing and chatting, while we took the examiners down to the taxi rank. My examiners then jumped into a taxi while I staggered off the Student Union bar with my supervisors. A double-vodka later, and we then headed into Manchester for more celebrations. By the next day, I had a raging hangover and had completely lost my voice. Exhaustion, relief, and disbelief flooded through me.

The viva is the hardest exam I have ever done. I had to articulate hundreds of pages of my work without knowing exactly which questions the examiners would ask. Some people have said how much they enjoyed their viva. I didn’t, but that says more about what a worry-wart I am, than the viva experience itself. I could not have had more supportive supervisors nor more kind and competent examiners. The best preparation for a viva is undoubtedly to write a good thesis and to be able to defend it articulately.

If you are worried about your viva or have any questions, please feel free to write a comment. Good luck and remember to breathe.


How not to melt down before your Viva

Thesis completed? Yes! Thesis printed and sent to examiners? Yes! Viva date set? Oh yes!

So now what? Well, my Viva date is two weeks away and I’ve started to panic. Churning tummy, nightmares about my last viva (Russian undergraduate degree 20 years ago) and grouchy behaviour with everyone who comes into contact with me.

So here’s my selection of the best advice I’ve had for dealing with the symptoms of extreme stress:

  1. Take long walks.

Sounds obvious, but the effect of sunshine and exercise is beneficial for getting the brain going. A good viva performance will depend on being able to make connections between different parts of your thesis: how the research question drove the methodological choices; how the results combined to answer the research aim.  As my supervisor advised me: take lots of long walks to feel better.

2.  Read around the subject

I know how Bourdieu was applied in my thesis, but what else has been going on in the wider field? I found Ben Fine’s entertaining book on the mis-use of Bourdieusian theory  and it has re-energised my love for Pierre Bourdieu: my key theoretical influence.


3. Reread your thesis, summarising every paragraph into one sentence

Yes, it’s time-consuming, but it helps you to re-formulate your argument. All those sentences can be put into a one-page document which summarises each chapter. In a few days time,  I will have 260 pages summarised into 6 pages. And re-reading is surprisingly cheering: it’s really not a bad piece of work!

The most helpful pre-viva checklist I found was this one  from the University of Leicester. It is feasible and practical. Give it a go.

How did you survive your viva? Do you have any tips from your own experience to share?

How to Chair at a Conference – as a PhD student

Now you may be wondering, “Why bother chairing a conference track? I’m just a student and happy to present a paper or poster.”  Think again! You can make valuable contacts, and develop your confidence. Here are my suggestions as to why to chair a track and how to do it effectively.

Why Chair a Track?

  1. Find your Viva examiner

You may well be reviewing papers from experienced academics in your field of study. Chairing a track gives you the opportunity to work together beforehand. I’ve found a few potential Viva examiners from chairing a conference.

  1. Practise your paper reviewing skills

As a track chair, you will be expected to get to review and prepare questions on all the papers presented in the track. You should explain the theme that connects all the papers and summarise the papers effectively.  This is good practice for becoming a journal reviewer.

  1. Get spotted by a publisher

I’ve recently been invited to publish by a journal editor who attended my paper presentation. Because I was also chairing the track, we worked together beforehand, and I got to understand exactly what her journal is looking for. I was able to tailor my presentation of the paper to meet her journal requirements.

How to Chair a Track

  1. Present a paper at the conference

You should always try to present a paper or poster, if you want to chair a track at a conference. Even if you are not asked to chair a track, presenting the paper will give you valuable experience of discussing your work with experts in your field.

  1. Ask the conference organisers

Conference organisers can find it hard to find track chairs, especially for the last session of the conference. Send your CV to the conference organisers beforehand, and offer your services. Be prepared to stand in at short notice.

Inject your personality

There’s more to chairing than informed questions and keeping the speakers on time – see the cartoon above by Steve Macone and Lindsay Moss Try to add humour or bring chocolates or pens. Salford Business School has a great range of promotional material for PhD students going to conferences).  Make sure your track ends on a high, and you are likely be invited back next year.

More advice and suggestions for how to chair a track effectively here:

Photo 1: Udeni Salmon getting ready to chair a track at the 2016 EURAM conference in Paris in July 2016, at the  l’Université Paris-Dauphine. Coffee is always important part of being a track chair! The Latin in the hall above me, means “A mind unfettered in deliberation” and is the NATO motto. NATO were housed in this building from 1959 to 1966.

Euram Conference Chair

How to survive your 2nd year as PhD Student

How to survive your 2nd year as a PhD student

Here is a quick overview of yesterday’s training course, organised by and delivered by the fantastic Dr Jim Boran (Researcher Developer Manager, University of Manchester @whalesense) and Dr Victoria Sheppard (Researcher Developer Coordinator, University of Salford, @vishepp).

The purpose was to boost the confidence of those of us who are full-time in the second year of our PhD. Here’s a rundown of the questions we asked ourselves:

How does the 2nd year feel?

Personally, I feel that I cant see wood for the trees!


“In The Wood” by MarcoHeisler at

Other descriptions included – “Too far in to stop” “Reality sinking in” “I’m an academic teenager: -acting out!” “Middle-of-anything blues”

Where are you on the PhD mountain?

We were asked to draw a mountain – and where we are on the mountain. My image was of a tunnel: I feel like I’m finding my way under a mountain, and am now stuck half-way through, where it’s cold, dark and lonely!


“A Tunnel To… ” by Mamophoto

What advice would supervisors give someone starting their 2nd year?

– Read in an organised way 1-2 articles per week

– Start writing as early as possible

– Be clear about defending each sentence in what you write – defensibility starts in the 2nd year

– Is lack of time the issues – or is it lack of motivation?

What advice would supervisors give someone starting their 2nd year?

– Don’t prevaricate – just do it!

– Keep perspective – don’t live to work, work to live

– Read continuously – maintain a current literature review

– Manage your supervisors

What is your research question and your hypothesis?

Quite a few of us struggled to succinctly verbally explain our research question and hypothesis. This was where submitting papers, and routinely explaining the nature of my research to outsiders has helped me.

What is a thesis?

We reviewed the four main thesis type and how our research could fit into one – or none of the them! – The final work should create “sympathy for the reader”: an examiner has 80,000 words to read, so we should make it easy for them to read.

Thesis Regulations

We discussed the importance of knowing your thesis regulations, including the marking structure. We were also reassured that the best research is rarely done in your PhD, and that the contribution to knowledge does not need to be dauntingly huge. Thesis Whisperer has a good post on being realistic about your contribution to new academic knowledge

Managing the Doctoral Process

  1. Is everything you are doing taking you towards the end of the project?
  2. Where is your plan?
  3. How does your supervisory balance look?
  4. When was the last time you wrote something?
  5. Who is in your support network?

Finally, we completed a project plan, to help us plan the remainder of the year. We left, feeling energised, uplifted and ready to climb the mountain…

Mount Everest Zig Ziglar

“Climbing a Mountain” by Zig Ziglar via

What are your reflections on Year 2? What advice would you give Year 2 PhD students?

Transcription Hell

Transcribing is easily the worst part of the Phd process so far. It makes me tired, grumpy and antisocial. Here are my tips to avoid the pain:

  1. Invest in the right kit

Dragon Dictate v12 £30 – I speak, and Dragon turns it into a Word document. Saves your fingers.

Logitech headphones and microphone £25 – comfier than the free ones which come with Dragon Dictate, which is important when they are on your head for 12 hours a day.

Infinity IN-DB9 Footpedal £40 – essential to start/stop/rewind the audio files.

Express Scribe software £20 – the paid-for version allows easy start/stop/rewind/slow speaking/fast speaking. You can also organise your audio files into folders.

Whatever you do, try to avoid typing or handwriting, unless it is to start identifying themes.

  1. Allow yourself enough time

I spent so much time finding interview subjects, travelling to their site, and doing the interviews, that a backlog of 25 interviews to build up. Given that each hour of audio takes me 4 hours to transcribe, that meant a solid 3 weeks of sitting at my desk, transcribing, with breaks for food, sleep and the bathroom. My husband, family and friends forgot what I looked like. This was boring at best and nearly wrecked my relationships at worst. Learn from my mistakes and don’t let your transcriptions build up.

  1. Work out your transcription methodology

A transcript is not a full copy of the original interview and should not be taken as a record of objective reality. We make decisions about what to record and how to record it. It is therefore imperative to decide on a methodology, consistent with your wider methodology and in line with your research objectives. For example, ethnographers, working in grounded theory, may choose record and make analytical inferences from grammatical errors in speech, breathing patterns and other details. However, I have already brought Bourdieu’s theories of doxa, fields and habitus, and a hypothesis to my research. While I am recording laughter, pauses, gestures and tone of voice, which illuminate my pre-determined conceptual framework, I do not read further detail into the interviews.

“Transcriptions that have no methodology are neither useful for learning what people said, nor rigorous enough to serve in research” (Powers, 2005, p. 5)

  1. Start to identify themes as you go

I started to highlight key sections of the text and identify themes as I went along: symbolic violence, altruism, extraversion, learning…For my 6 pilot interviews with family firms, this was a good way to check that my hypothesis, that “familiness” is correlated with innovativeness, was valid. My questions could also be refined where they failed to identify any useful themes. I’m alert to the danger of relying on this initial thematic analysis, which is based on pattern matching, and which can lead to a superficial analysis (Johnston, 2006). I’m hoping that NVivo’s search tool and other functionality, can help me view the data in a more complex way.

So how are you coping with the transcription process? Any tips would be gratefully received!


Johnston, L. (2006). Software and Method: Reflections on Teaching and Using QSR NVivo in Doctoral Research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 9(5), 379–391. doi:10.1080/13645570600659433

Powers, W. R. (2005). Transcription Techniques for the Spoken Word (p. 128). Altamira Press.

What the future holds for Manchester’s family businesses

Great Manchester Business Conference

The Great Manchester Business Conference on Friday March 6th 2015 was a busy, content-packed day, outlining the trends and opportunities for Greater Manchester’s businesses in the next few years. Here’s my take on what the future holds for family firms:


Sir Howard Bernstein outlined the huge impact of devolution to a Greater Manchester combined authority: Manchester will take control over a single budget for housing, health and transport. For firms whose staff live and work within Manchester, improved commuting could be an early win. Many family firms employ older people and with better healthcare resulting in even more workers being fit and healthy beyond the traditional retirement age. Improved housing means that more students and those seeking work will be able to move to Manchester to find jobs, meaning a larger skills pool for family firms looking to recruit.


The irrepressible Wayne Jones, Chair of Stockport Economic Alliance and champion of manufacturing, reminded us that “products are make in a factory; brands are made in your mind”. Family firms need to promote their unique brand to customers, suppliers and end-users if they are going to retain a competitive edge in a highly globalised and competitive industry.

Family firms should take advantage of the increased government funding for innovation in Greater Manchester Manufacturing Strategy and the trend for reshoring described in the Alliance Report on textile manufacturing. Technological innovation, close understanding of customer requirements and responding quickly to requests for new products will be crucial for survival.


Family firms in the tourism industry could take advantage of an increase in hotel beds from 8.5K to 9.2K in the next two years. Tourists from China and the UAE continue to increase, to the extent that Manchester is now the number 1 shopping destination outside London. Family firms in the restaurant business, looking to expand a known offering, will do well in Manchester.


The Manchester Corridor and Manchester Science Park continue to offer an agglomeration of skills and financing for family firms in the high-tech industry. Microsoft’s speech recognition and translation software will make internationalisation easier for family firms who do not speak other languages. The megatrends of big data, social engagement, mobile users and cloud computing will continue. Family firms who underestimate the potential of their young employees and customers will be left behind.


Family firms can take advantage of an increasing number of financial products: Urica as an alternative to invoice financing, the British Business Bank for firms who want to grow. While the banks speaking at the event seemed to think there were plenty of products and clear signposting for SMEs, the businesses themselves were not convinced.

John Ashcroft and Steph McGovern

John Ashcroft from GMCC and Steph McGovern from the BBC – our hosts for the day

In conclusion, the future is bright for family firms who can provide high quality, scaleable products and who are able to respond quickly to technological change.

Interviewing as a Martial Art

Pierre Bourdieu, the provocative, brilliant, exasperating French thinker, described sociology as a martial art:

I often say sociology is a martial art, a means of self-defense. Basically, you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use it for unfair attacks. Pierre Bourdieu

Now in my second year of my PhD, I have completed and transcribed around 30 interviews, of both family firms and policy makers. These interviews have, at times felt, like defending the value of research. Particularly if the interviewees have not themselves attended university. They are keen to talk about their struggles and successes. They also want to know how my research will help other family firms. These are valid questions and ones that every business school academic should be able to answer: why is theoretical, conceptual work important in a business school? How do we help these many small businesses succeed, or make their exit less traumatic? I hope that, for a start, putting these businesses in touch with our students, researchers and other resources can help them grow. And that eventually, yes, my research will help explain why some family firms successfully innovate, why others do not, and what “familiness” even means in the context of business innovation.

But a martial art involves violence and we should not be afraid of passionately defending our right to understand the world in more depth and to explore areas that have not previously been studied. This is, partly, what universities are for.

Martial Arts by dunnodt

The family firms who have been willing to talk to me have been curious about the research, though I suspect that they are delighted someone takes an interest in their business, and wants to learn more about them. Bourdieu was passionate about the need for academics to take a stand, to be activists in the real world. As a business school researcher, taking a stand for me will involve teaching the “attack and defense” moves learned by family firms, to students, policy-makers and firm owners themselves. This will also be a way of honouring those who have given up their time to talk to me.

“La Sociologie est un sport de combat”