Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Preparing for the Viva

Although this blog is ostensibly about life after the doctorate, I had such an immense response to my post on honesty and openness about viva results and corrections that I thought it might be worthwhile sharing my viva preparations. 

I submitted my thesis in July and had my viva in September - approximately 10 weeks wait. So what did I do during those weeks? Here is my checklist of things to do and not to do!

  1. Take a break. After I submitted my hard copies of the thesis, I took about 4-5 weeks as a break. I was doing some summer school teaching, chaperoning a trip to Paris, and I returned home to Ireland for about 2 weeks. This is so essential. If you start re-reading your thesis too soon, you will find mistakes (and trust me, you will!), and you will stress about those mistakes for two months or more. This is not conducive to sanity!!
  2. Re-read your thesis. This is important for three reasons: first, you want to familiarize yourself with your thesis; secondly, you want to identify any mistakes; thirdly, you want to identify potential areas which the examiners will raise. I knew going in that my second and final chapters were going to be the most problematic so I anticipated as many of the questions as I could.
  3. When you identify mistakes, keep a list of corrigenda, print it out, and bring it with you to the viva. That way, when your examiners raise the point about minor mistakes, you can show them that you already have a list of items to be fixed.
  4. Divide your thesis. You will likely bring your own copy of the thesis for reference, and its a great idea to use sticky tabs to sub-divide the chapters, and post-its to highlights areas where you think you might have to defend or clarify a point.
  5. Read some of your examiners works - books and articles. If they have written explicitly on your topic and your differ from them slightly in argument, be prepared to defend that. Also, it is good practice to know their style and train of thought. Be aware, if you are reading their works in a foreign language (which was my case because my examiner was from France), to allow extra time to extract the important information from their works. However, don't feel you have to read their entire oeuvre! Just enough to prepare yourself!
  6. If you had friends read it over, it may be worth having a mini-mock viva ( I didn't do this, but it could be useful if you are very nervous and want to prepare answers)
  7. If you have a specific outfit to wear, have it ready to go the night before (I had to wear subfusc so needed to iron my blouse, skirt, gown, and have cap and ribbon - you don't want to be running around the day of the viva looking for a pair of tights or socks that don't have holes in them!)
  8. Relax the night before, and don't read the thesis again. You know it back to front! Watch a movie, go out to the cinema, anything to get your mind away from it for a few hours.
  9. Be prepared to begin with general questions like: why did you choose this topic; why did you choose the approach you did; etc.
  10. Don't be confrontational when you disagree with an examiners question or opinion; on the other hand, don't be too deferential! Remember, you are the expert on your topic, having lived it for over 3-4 years. Be respectful and appreciative of the examiners standpoint, but stand up for yourself as well.
  11. When the examiners, at the end, started to talk about the changes I should make, I asked outright was this a pass with major corrections. I had a feeling that was the way the viva was going, and wanted to be sure in my mind that I had at least still passed. Now, the examiners may not actually be allowed to tell you, but they will likely give some indication. 
  12. Organise to meet friends afterwards. I came out of my viva a little disheartened with major corrections, but it was a pass, which friends and family will reinforce and celebrate with you. This is so important. Whether a straight pass, minor or major corrections, you have successfully defended your thesis, passed, and deserve to recognize that achievement.
  13. If any major problems arose during your viva, contact your supervisor/s immediately. My supervisor was not allowed in the viva, and talking it through with her was immensely helpful and comforting. Furthermore, your supervisor/s can liaise with the internal examiner to find out what happened and why, and to help formulate a plan of action (this is vital since technically you are not allowed to directly contact your examiners).
I think the number 1 thing to remember going into your viva is that you are not defending a perfect piece of work. If you aim for perfection, your thesis will never get done! At some point you have to say that this is the best that I can do. I remember in John Banville's The Sea, the main character quotes Paul Valery saying:

"There is no finishing a work, only the abandoning of it".

Now, I'm not suggesting you abandon your thesis in the face of attaining perfection. Perhaps it is better to say:

"There is no perfecting the thesis, only the abandoning of it at the submissions desk".

Be aware of the little mistakes, acknowledge and admit to them, but rather show off your broad knowledge, the strength and position of your argument, and your passion and enthusiasm for your subject!

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