My PhD viva experience

Are you curious about what happens in a PhD viva? Are you trying to suss out what to expect? Well – I thought it was about time that I shared my PhD viva experience in order to help you do just that. So, take a deep breath, sit back and relax while I take you back to that day with me.

Confession time – okay! So I meant to write this and publish this post back before Christmas when all the feelings were that bit more fresh and raw. But things got a little hectic finishing some experiments in the lab and Christmas came and went in addition to all the updates I shared in my previous post, and I didn’t get round to it. But now life is good. I’ve had time to reflect and hopefully give you a more meaningful post.

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What is a PhD viva?

So, any PhD students reading this will know what a PhD viva is, but I thought I would start with a quick explanation so we are all on the same page.

The format varies across the world and you might be more familiar with the term ‘PhD defense’ instead, but here in the UK it is called a ‘viva voce’ which means ‘by word of mouth’. As a side note, if you would be interested in a series of blog posts about the different PhD viva formats, experiences and preparations from across the world, do let me know in the comments.

But here in the UK, a PhD viva consists of basically an interview or discussion with two examiners; an internal examiner from your university and an external examiner from a different university who is an expert in that field. This is done in a private setting and not one that is open to the public like many of our European and North American counterparts, and probably others. The whole point of the viva is for you to defend your thesis. All your knowledge of the area, your methods, your stats, your results and what you think you have contributed to the scientific world. Easy right?

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So, what was my viva experience like?

Before

Being the worrier that I am and always thinking the worst is going to happen, I was freaking out ever since my supervisor confirmed the date for me. My viva date was set about three weeks before the big day and it was time to open up my thesis again and refamiliarise myself with everything I had spent the last three months avoiding and the three months before that totally immersed in.

But as the date grew ever closer, my ‘freaking out’ escalated as I was so panicked I didn’t have enough time to prepare properly with lots of deadlines to meet in the lab and job applications culminating in having a job interview at 5pm – yes 5pm! – the day before my viva which was at 9am the next morning.

As I prepared, I was looking for advice and tips on social media about vivas and experiences. Most of the replies I received were along the lines of ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’. Now while I knew they were probably right, until I had come out the other side is was kinda hard to believe them.

More blog posts on how to prepare for a viva and questions to prepare in advance coming soon.

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During

So the day arrived and I would like to say that I kept my cool but I would be lying. I stayed up until 2am revising after my interview, and I was up again at 5am because I just couldn’t sleep. So I got ready made my way to work and once I was sat at my desk going through my thesis with some last annotations I seemed to calm a little.

That was until my supervisor came in at 8.30am and said ‘your examiners are here and chatting about you now’! So for a bit of context here, before a viva starts, your two examiners have a quick meeting to discuss their thoughts on your thesis, who had what issues and what they want to quiz you on and such before you enter the room. But my time for preparation had rapidly vanished and the time was now.

Oddly, as soon as that door closed behind me and it was just me, my thesis and the examiners in the room. All my worry and panic just disappeared. It was very weird. My examiners put me at ease straight away and I instantly felt like I was not in an exam but just chatting about my research with two interested parties. Turns out everyone I had spoken to was right.

How examiners conduct an viva completely depends on the individual. The usual format, and I use the term usual loosely, is they start off with some more general summary questions to ease you in and then make their way through your thesis asking questions about key findings and methods to check that the thesis is all your work before finishing with some big picture questions.

It is safe to say that my viva was pretty standard. But with all the ‘opening questions’ I had prepared answers for, the first question I got asked was a bit of a curveball.

What was your best result?

It flustered me for a little bit and took me a little while to answer but I got there in the end and the rest was pretty much smooth sailing – making our way through my thesis chapter by chapter. Apart from some tricky questions about stats which is not my forte at all. But it wasn’t a grilling, more a discussion of comments the examiners had made. Naturally, some chapters we discussed more than others based on the examiner’s backgrounds, there were some things I said ‘I don’t know’ too but otherwise I actually felt quite confident about it all.

Boomerang clip flicking through the pages of my PhD thesis

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After

So considering that my transfer viva was about 2 hours long and that my final thesis had more than doubled in size and was a bit of a monster, I was expecting at least a 4 hour viva to give my examiners time to pick apart at everything. So, I was shocked when it felt like no time at all had really passed and we were chatting about my discussion and future work sections of my thesis that it was done.

Well, almost. After 2 hours and 40 minutes – not that I was counting – I was asked to leave the room and return in 5 minutes with my supervisor. Now I hadn’t done anything wrong. It is normal to be asked to leave after the discussion for the examiners to decide the result. But I had never heard of someone being asked to bring their supervisor back in with them too. So naturally my panic set in again as we waited to be called back in for my judgement.

We were invited back in and the examiners seem to talk for what felt like forever about all the possible outcomes and what the next steps of each would be. They made some comments about how they felt my viva had gone and finally told me that I had passed with some minor corrections. Yay!

And that was that. Left the room and headed into the coffee area for celebratory nibbles and bubbly. But my overwhelming feeling was tiredness. Probably from my lack of sleep the night before. But also because it would take a while for the fact that I had passed to sink in.

But after a few glasses of fizz and some food, I actually went home to get changed and a power nap before coming back to head into the lab and set up some experiments for the next day. Think I’m probably the only person ever to go back to lab work after their viva but what can I say – I’m a workaholic. When it’s your turn, make sure you get someone else to help you out or just don’t plan any experiments the next day if you are still in the lab πŸ˜›

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And that was that really. 4 years worth of work summarised into 500 pages and discussed in just over 2 and a half hours. A small part of me was a bit underwhelmed that we didn’t have a chance to discuss all of my interesting results. But I wasn’t going to prolong my viva unnecessarily.

In all honesty, in hindsight, all that worrying and fretting was completely unnecessary – as it usually is with me. My viva wasn’t the torture that I had imagined in my worst nightmares because I was the only expert in the room on that document. Everything I said I could back up and I could explain my thought process even if it wasn’t right. The relaxed nature of my viva made it actually enjoyable and gave me a huge boost of confidence that two other academics who weren’t my supervisors enjoyed reading it too.

I didn’t get the ‘Congratulations Dr Arthur’ routine, which combined with my tiredness after it was all done meant it was a few weeks before I even realised what I had achieved. Completing a PhD is tough. That’s just one of the reasons I share my experience on this blog and social media to help people get through. But actually getting there and now having had time to reflect on the whole experience, I am really proud of myself.

If you are a PhD student reading this and you are going through a tough time – firstly know you can always reach out to me and chat about things – but secondly if you can persevere. Getting through a PhD is such a massive achievement that I don’t think I can put it into words effectively. It is supposed to be hard, but you are there for a reason. Trust me! And I cannot tell you how awesome the feeling is to know you have completed it at the end. It might not seem like it now, but it will all be worth it.

Be resilient. Be curious. Work hard, but look after yourself. Celebrate the little wins and before you know it, you’ll be a Dr too.

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So what now?

Surprise, surprise – your PhD doesn’t end there unfortunately. Especially if you have corrections to make – which as a side note does not reflect on you or your ability as a researcher! But as I have spent a few extra months in the lab after my PhD funding ended gathering data for two more publications, my next steps include more data analysis and then writing those papers for publication as well as the corrections I need to make. All of this with a new job too. Looks like I know what I’ll be doing this weekend.

Read more about how to prepare for your PhD viva with this post about questions to prepare in advance & more fresh viva content coming soon. Subscribe not to miss out!

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What was your PhD viva experience like? How did you prepare? How did it all go? Share your stories below to help the PhDs of the future. But also if you haven’t done your viva yet and have some more questions about any aspect of it then please don’t be afraid to ask. I can almost guarantee that someone else is reading this thinking the same thing. So, fire your viva questions at me in the comments, even if it’s about a different country and I will find out for you!

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