“Don’t wear a suit, just a nice shirt is fine”. This was one of the last pieces of advice my primary supervisor, Sally, gave me prior to the viva. That PhD event so formative and significant, and approached with such trepidation by some that one might expect a crack of thunder whenever the word is uttered. My viva was scheduled for 10.30 am on Wednesday 14th December (2016), and so despite living only a 15 minute walk from campus I was naturally up and pacing at 8.00 am – just in case. I tried on several shirts and smart-casual trousers but I could not feel comfortable. “If in doubt, dress up, not down” my father had always said – and so whilst it might’ve gone against the advice I received, I really felt much more comfortable in a suit that morning. With a waistcoat, because why not, it was cold.
I met with Sally 30 minutes before kick-off, for a cup of tea and general encouragement. It had previously been communicated that my internal examiner would come and collect me from my supervisor’s office. Sally would be sitting in – as a PhD student you’re allowed to have one supervisor (silently) observe your viva, if you so wish. Regardless of your choice, a supervisor always has to be available, just in case an examiner wants to discuss something before or after. The ‘mock viva’ I’d had the week before was an informal affair – just a chat really, that for me, sparked the recognition that I needed to avoid trying to answer every sociological question about gender at the same time, if being asked a small point about how I’d contributed towards scholarship on this, that, or the other.
My viva preparation in that single week simply consisted of re-reading the thesis. Those who’ve done a whopping piece of scholarship will know how hard this can be when you’re very close to a large piece of writing, and so I’d deliberately avoided looking at the document since I’d submitted it. This helped a great deal, and I found I was able to bear reading myself (yet again) much more easily than when I was agonizing over the final edits. I highlighted and made notes on things like how I had contributed to scholarship, what original turns-of-phrase I’d deployed, why I’d made certain practical choices or focused on particular bodies of literature over others. Whilst one can’t predict what will come up, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having things covered which you could expect to be expected to answer. I put sticky labels to divide up the chapters and put it all in a ring-binder to take in with me. I also wrote a few bits on the inside of the folder, but nothing much.
The viva itself was… also, seemingly, an informal affair! I took my cup of tea in with me. My examiners were candid, friendly, and made a point of initiating that the viva should be approached as a peer-to-peer conversation about the details of the thing that no-one in the world is more familiar with than you. A bit of nerves is only natural given the symbolic importance of the day, but really, in the scheme of the PhD, it’s going to be the exception, not the rule, where the viva is make-or-break, and you’d be likely to know this weeks ahead of the fact if this were the case.
Probably the most difficult question I received was actually an ethical one, which surprised me, as I felt much more likely to fall foul of some complex theoretical niggle than simply how I did stuff. It was exciting in a way though, to consider a dimension I hadn’t considered in that way before. It also demonstrated (after the fact) that your examiners can disagree with you about something, and yet your position can remain entirely defendable. They’re not looking for perfection because there is no such thing – simply the necessary contributions.
The whole experience took about 90 minutes. My examiners asked my supervisor and me to step outside – we hadn’t managed to walk down the corridor before being called back in, due to a chance encounter (and frantic whispered dissection) with my second supervisor, who was passing. On being called back in, I was particularly humbled to receive no corrections, which did have me shed a tear of relief (just the one). In the haze of endorphins and surreal emotional diffusion that felt like a balloon letting out all its air, I was given a little information on what would happen next (which I’d already obsessively poured over in the ‘Guide to the thesis examination process’ document I had looked up).
In a way, (cynically), the result of a PhD pass is the same for everyone – more work, of one kind or another! Thus, one should not fear failure – your supervisor shouldn’t let you be going in there if that’s on the cards. Everything else is details, for the vast majority. I put a lot of energy into maintaining my well-being over my PhD, because ultimately, nothing is more important. Beyond survival, everything else is for happiness, and one should do the best one can to construct the PhD experience in a way that allows you to be. As one gains experience and confidence, this can increasingly empower you to tread your own path, even in small ways (like wearing a suit). Approaching the viva as an experience to enjoy rather than an ‘exam’ was certainly constructive. And whilst I couldn’t shake the idea that ‘it could all be taken away from me’ until the result was unequivocally stated, I was able to focus a little so as to ignore that irrational doubt.
The viva is a paradox, because it’s an ending and a beginning at the same time. No two are the same, and yet there’s overwhelming similarity in the way people describe their pre-viva nerves and post-viva relief (and subsequent collapse – put time aside for this!). Ultimately though, it’s yours – and it can be a pleasure.