I remember thinking in the months before my viva, what questions would be asked by my examiners and how best to prepare for this monumental event. Who would be there, how long would the viva take, where would I need to go and what should I wear for such an important discussion. The anxiety and apprehension only grew as the time got closer to the big day.
Three months to go
My preparation, that evolved from the day I submitted my thesis to the examination office at the University some three months prior to the event, to the hour before my exam was based on a number of sources of information. In part it was based on advice from my supervisor, talking with other people who had recently survived their viva and reading one of the many books that provided a generic overview of how to deal with the oral exam.
The initial advice led me to attend a viva workshop that consisted of a group of want-to-be PhD survivors and a panel of people who were recently examined. The workshop offered an understanding of individual experiences but was practically helpful coming from within the faculty were I was a student. In my case this meant one internal and one external examiners, a break for the examiners to deliberate the outcome and time for feedback at the end.
Other viva preparation consisted of a list of predicted questions. Although I knew my thesis inside-out, these questions helped me condense my thoughts ready to expand on them if they came up in the exam. I also used these questions as a way to practice verbalising my responses. I found this practically helpful as it gave me confidence to speak out and reminded me of some of the finer details. My questions that evolved over the three months for the exam consisted of the following:
1) What is your thesis?
2) Why did you decide on this project for your thesis?
3) How did you go about reviewing the literature?
4) The people included as participants in your study from Chinese backgrounds are a small minority group, why do you think it is important to study the way services work with them?
5) You describe crossing cultural boundaries in your research. Can you talk about what boundaries you think you crossed and those crossed by participants? How important is this process?
6) What methodological approaches did you consider in developing your research? What made you decide on ethnography?
7) How did you manage language difficulties in the literature and in the field?
8) How dependent were you on key informants and interpreters? Can you say more about the role of each of these groups in the research?
9) What did you do in each organisation during your fieldwork? How was it different in each service?
10) How did you use reflexivity in your research?
11) What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses?
12) What were the main findings?
13) What are the implications of your study in terms of current views in the UK about multiculturalism?
14) What contribution have you made to knowledge?
15) What is original about your work?
Four weeks to go
It was about four weeks before my viva that I took the opportunity to attend a mock viva. This was setup like a real viva and was organised be my supervisor and one of her colleagues. However, after I had answered each question they gave me feedback on my performance. Although this was slightly odd, taking timeout to be critical about my performance and answers was a very useful exercise. If nothing else, the mock viva taught me to express my enthusiasm for my subject while giving my answers and to use body language such as hand gestures and giving eye contact.
One week to go
In the following week I practiced my questions. I would walk around the house first reading from my note book and then by memory. I stood in front of the mirror, stood in the garden, walked around the living room while vocalising my answers. I know that for some people this may not work or be necessary but it worked for me although at times I did think it was a little too rehearsed. About this time I made arrangements to stay overnight at my supervisor’s house (as I lived two hours away from the University by train) and buy my train ticket to Bristol. I also decided what clothes I was going to wear and made sure they were washed and ironed. A copy of my thesis, pens and notebook were ready in my bag. Perhaps a little over prepared but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance or to the last minute as this would have created more stress that I didn’t want.
One day to go
The day before my viva I took it easy. I had made sure I had gone to bed early the night before and had no alcohol as this would be my treat after the big event. I spend the morning going over my questions and the rest of the afternoon I rested, listened to some music and packed my bags read for an evening train to Bristol Temple Meads.
On the Day
The morning of the viva was spent in part lightly chatting with my supervisor about what would happen in the exam. My supervisor also attended the viva and we discussed her role which consisted of making notes as appropriate. My viva was at 2pm so the rest of the morning I spent walking in a local park near to the University. This gave me ample time to think about my answers (with no note book) while taking in lots of fresh air and exercising as I walked up and down the many hills in Clifton. About two hours before my viva I met-up again with my supervisor and we found the room where the exam took place. This was at my request because I wanted to reduce any surprises and become familiar with where the event would take place.
During the viva
As I walked into the room feeling nervous and stressed, I noticed that the examiners had made an effort to reduce my anxiety. On a white board was written, ‘Welcome to your viva’. They asked me to sit in a specific place and pointed out that they had put a picture on the wall facing me which I think was supposed to help me relax. I thought the gesture was worth noting along with the Japanese snacks and jug of water that was on the square table where we sat. My supervisor sat at the back of the room.
The opening question from my examiners surprised me, but on reflection was a very good way to warm-up. They had written down all the names of my participants onto separate coloured cards and spread them all over the table. They asked me to explain who these people were. Straight after this question it was into theory, but what struck me was that none of my predicted questions that I had practiced were asked directly. This meant I had to think on my feet. Some questions were easy, others were challenging. After one and a half hours the examiners mentioned the time and after two hours of questioning and debate, I was told the exam had finished and my supervisor and I had to leave the room until they called us back.
During the half an hour interlude I had the best cup of tea imaginable. I was buzzing from the questioning and I tried to piece together what the examiners might say on my return. I went back into the examination room and I was congratulated on being successful and for producing such a readable thesis that added to knowledge and the void in the literature. My examiners briefly went through the amendments they wanted me to do and once again congratulated me on defending such a good thesis.
After the viva
On reflection, the most stressful part of my viva was the time leading up to the exam. During the discussion I had no time to think about anything else other than answering the questions which my examiners posed. The post viva celebratory drink with my supervisor was a cereal time as it had not really sunk in that it was over. Even on the train journey home in the first class coach that I had booked as a treat for myself seemed a strange anticlimax to such a traumatic day as I fell asleep with my headphones firmly inserted into my ears. During the following month I came to realise the implications of surviving the viva but there will be no celebrations until the amendments are accepted and the degree has been confirmed upon me.