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.