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

The Literature Review as Dinner Party

The best advice I had on starting my PhD was to write 3000 words each month, no matter what. After 9 months, my average is closer to 2000 words each month and my literature review, minus the conceptual framework, research questions and methodology, is only around 10,000 words. It hasn’t been easy. I chucked out around 5000 words after 4 months, having re-scoped my research and completely changed the research question. There are still areas in family business, innovation and internationalisation which I haven’t explored in sufficient depth yet. Though with new papers coming out all the time, perhaps I will always feel insufficiently knowledgeable. So what’s the answer? It’s too early to say. As my research question, sub-questions and objectives continue to get refined, and my philosophy, methodology and research design take shape, the literature review will continue to evolve. Sensible advice, as always, comes from Kamler and Thomson (2014) in their chapter on literature reviews; this is unforgettably titled: “Persuading an octopus into a glass”. I read their book early on in my studies. It made a profound impression. Thinking of the literature review as a dinner party, where, as the host, I am orchestrating different conversations, showing appreciation asking probing questions and firmly in charge of proceedings. By the end of the evening, I hope my guests will have been entertained and informed. If my literature review can illustrate the fields relevant to my research, whilst also outlining the nature of the debate, define terms and establish how gaps in the literature justifies my research questions…then I will be satisfied.

Image below “Family Meal” by PascalCampion

My first year of teaching

My supervisor encouraged me to teach, pretty much from the early months of my PhD. Having run many training and development workshops in the past, I thought that teaching final year and postgraduate students wouldn’t be such a big leap, right? Wrong. The student-academic dynamic is very different. I have now taught final year undergraduates and Masters’ students, developed course material and taught small groups, individuals and delivered training to large groups.

This is what I have learned:

  • Listening is important. Probably the most important thing to do. I learned to listen carefully to students’ aspirations for their course, what they hoped to do in future with their degree and why they selected a particular thesis topic. Understanding the personal context of their studies helped me to explore how their learning could be made more relevant to their overall objectives for studying.
  • Ask searching questions. Even if I thought their project was unfeasible, I learned to ask students to explain how they would go about answering their research question, how they could collect their data, and even asked them to go out and try to find the relevant data before even completing their literature review. Students needed my guidance, not my control.
  • Believe in them. Even with students who seemed disengaged, I went back to my supervisor for advice and kept trying different approaches with them. Even while being candid about how they needed to improve, I always believed that they could improve and never gave up on them.
  • Ask them to submit written work as early as possible. Most students are marked on their written work, so they needed to understand how important it was to write. And then re-write, as early as possible.

I love teaching. It is exhausting, frustrating and distracts me from my PhD, but it is a privilege and a genuine joy. It has also helped me in my reading, writing and research: brushing up on aspects of business studies that are not core to my PhD has got me out of the narrow confine that is a PhD. Also, trying to explain a complex concept to someone else, helped me understand it more thoroughly. If you are offered the opportunity to teach while studying, then go for it!

Way to the Knowledge tomsumartin


No liberation without repression?

"How difficult it sometimes is to know where the black begins and the white ends." Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)

“How difficult it sometimes is to know where the black begins and the white ends.”
Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)

The brilliant and provocative Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law professor, has written a brilliant book about about people who do not defend their ethnic or cultural background. Otherwise known as “race traitors” or “sellouts”. In his wonderful book “Sellout” he describes the history of the black person who has compromised their racial identity for their own financial gain. He argues this is at the wider cost to the black community. He defends the right of the black community to ostracise sellouts and argues that the liberation of black Americans required a collective back-turning on treachery.

“There is much ostracism that is good: ostracism of racists, misogynists, fascists and purveyors of other hateful ideologies. We rightly describe as progress the repression of such ugly ideas and their attendant modes of conduct.”

He argues that the civil rights movement relied on creating a climate of fear amongst black people who would otherwise have sold out. Without the fear of black-on-black reprisal, blacks would have continued to ride the buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, and the boycott would never have happened.
Do you think that we are right to ostracise those whose views offend us? Can we defend the right to free speech, but legislate against their “attendant modes of conduct”?