How I Successfully Defended My Viva
The one year anniversary of passing my viva was last weekend, and boy what a year it has been (insert cliche about how fast time has flown etc, etc). With a few good friends preparing for theirs and asking me how I prepared, I felt this was an apt time to reflect on my experience.
I would like to preface this with the following -
To bastardise Palahniuk, the following is a combined effort of all academics I have ever known and whose advice I have been privileged to have received.
As my PhD is in Political Science the advice below is likely to be most suitable for the social sciences. But do as you see fit.
I present to you… The Soo Approach to Viva Preparation*
The general amount of time I would recommend for viva preparation would probably be two weeks of undivided attention. This includes buffer time for periods of procastination and anxiety attacks. If you think you will be distracted by other responsibilities, adjust accordingly. Right. On to the ‘good stuff’ -
Before the viva
Use a list of commonly asked viva questions as a start. I drew on this comprehensive list from the Open University, but here’s my annotated version, arranged in order of importance. I read through this and had these at the back of my mind as I re-read my dissertation.
Unless your viva is scheduled many months after you submitted your dissertation, re-reading it once should be sufficient. Afterall, you wrote that tome.
If possible, oganise a mock viva with your supervisors/academic advisors. This was one of the most helpful things I did in preparation for my viva. As your supervisors know your work well, they will also know its strengths, weaknesses and potential questions that might be asked.
Organise the thesis so that it would be easy for you to find things if you need to, but I would not get too carried away with too many tabs.
Prepare short chapter summaries as you read so you don't have to keep ploughing through the thesis as you prepare your questions and revise.
When re-reading your thesis look for sections that are vague or unclear, rather than ‘mistakes’ or typos. These are what you should work on noting down to explain clearly in case asked, preferably with other examples from the thesis. If you do find your dissertation riddled with typological errors, take note of them, but don’t let that be the focus of your preparation.
Practice. I cannot emphasise how important this is. Get your friends round for snacks and practice answering the questions you have prepared. Use a mirror. Whichever you have time for, do it.
Lastly, try not to do anything the day or two before the viva. Relax, or if you, like me, had a job, even better. I spent entire day before my viva teaching first years about Marxism and international relations. Did moments of unease creep up? Sure - but reminding myself that I have done my prep AND a roomful of wide-eyed students in front of you pretty much pushed those thoughts out of my mind. Importantly, try to get a good night’s rest!
Bring your dissertation, a notebook and pen, as well as a bottle of water.
Set the tone and show passion for your work. In case you’ve forgotten, you’ve just completed an in-depth piece of research over four years, and you are the subject expert. You’ve got this.
Make sure you know your opening spiel (that’s Q1 on the list) like the back of your hand. It is usually the first question asked, as it is meant to ease you in.
Try not to be overly defensive. An advisor told me, "Don't feel like you have to defend everything." Part of being a good researcher means being able to take criticism and say, "Thank you for the suggestion, I'll have to look into it."
Use/draw examples from your research to answer their questions. Unless they mention other authors/the literature, refrain from using them to explain your answers.
A year on, and as abhorrently cheesy as it sounds, I can honestly say the viva was a great experience and important rite of passage. It might seem inconceivable, but I was intellectually challenged over a piece of work I was and still am very passionate about. That in itself makes you feel like you’ve truly earned your doctorate. Best of luck, and I hope this helps.
*Aka Gold Dust. (I’m only partly joking).