Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My viva

My last blogpost seemed to resonate with many readers. In it, I addressed the fact that major corrections were still a pass, and that it was important to:

  1. Dispel the myth that major corrections equaled a failed viva
  2. Reduce the stigma associated with major corrections
  3. Break the cycle of one-upmanship and the notion that UK/US PhDs had grades.
But that led me to think - did I ever fully describe what happened in my viva? I have discussed this in a podcast for Viva Survivors but never in print. So here it goes.

As brief background, my thesis was about an obscure 12th century medieval courtesy text which had never been translated and had little scholarship associated with it. As such, there were 100+ different approaches which could have been taken but I chose to look at it thematically, pulling out different themes and contextualising them.

My external was my second choice option and had published two key articles on my text. When I entered the viva my internal took the lead in asking questions but the external interjected only to provide negative criticism. Now, no big deal. That is what a viva is for. But what I had hoped for was that the external would be critical of what the thesis was, not what it wasn't. It became increasingly evident to me that the external was disappointed that the thesis was not the study that they would produced on the text. So every question they asked me was phrased as "Why didn't you do this?" or "Why didn't you do that?" It rarely seemed to actually focus on the content of the thesis. Whole chapters (which I thought were the most interesting and innovative) were glossed over. They had no problem with it. They were just uninterested.

It became clear that I was not going to pass with minor corrections, and it was confirmed at the end of the viva that it would be major corrections (in my institution, that constituted anything that would take between 1-6 months to complete). I am grateful that they didn't keep me waiting or make me leave the room, but now that I think about it, it was clear that they had already decided that it was major corrections before I entered the room. I don't think there was anything I could have said or done that would have changed that. However, to be fair to my external, they concluded the viva by saying that the thesis was good but the corrections would make it even better. 

When the list of corrections came through (which thankfully were very clear and well ordered unlike a colleague of mine who received a rambling list of thoughts), my supervisor and I sat down to go through them. We agreed on the substantial corrections that we were willing to address (such as structural rearrangements and an additional section), and also noted those that we disagreed with and felt were unfair and unfeasible. This included a correction to discuss the style of the text in greater depth. Mine was a historical thesis, not a literary one. It was corrections like this which confirmed that the external examiner just wanted the thesis to be something else, something more like what they would have done. We agreed that my error was not being more explicit in my introduction on what my thesis was and was not. 

So, my supervisor duly met up with the internal examiner to find out what happened and discuss next steps. This was incredibly helpful and revealing. The internal admitted that they had taken a rather passive role within the viva and wished they had done more to help me. She discussed what corrections were valid and which one's were beyond the pale, and an action plan was created. It felt so nice to know that the internal was on board and would stand up for me if there was any push back when I handed in the corrections.

I took a methodical approach to the corrections, addressing each one in turn. I had two versions of my thesis - one clean and one with amendments highlighted in red. I also took the list of corrections and annotated their comments with my own, detailing what changes I made and which page(s) they could find them on. I wanted to be 100% sure that there could be no challenge from the examiners.

So by the time that I put in my corrections, I felt confident that I had addressed all their points, explained why I didn't do something they wanted (with the support of the internal), and the corrections went through no problem.

What can be learned from my experience? 
  • Be careful in your choice of external. They shape the viva. 
  • Be explicit in explaining why you are choosing to take a certain approach and not another. 
  • You supervisor is your ally. When things go wrong, they should be your champion and defender. Mine leaped into action and I couldn't be more grateful.
I share this because it is important to remember that difficult vivas exist but people are afraid to talk about them for fear that it is a negative indicator of the quality of their research. It isn't. Vivas are conducted by humans, humans have biases/preferences/etc. Who is to say that my result would have been different with different examiners. The point is that a difficult viva/major corrections has not held me back at all. My thesis is published. I'm working on the next publication. I have two essays published post-viva. I still get conference invites. 

We shouldn't be afraid to speak about our experiences and show that, at the end of the day, all that counts is the thesis as deposited into the library not the earlier version in the hands of the externals.

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