Last Wednesday I had my PhD viva voce, or thesis defence as it is sometimes known, and I passed with minor corrections. A week has gone by since in which I have been ecstatically happy, I have celebrated and I have also been very grateful that I have a plan for the coming year. If I didn’t have that I think I would be feeling a little lost right now. It’s over so quickly, after years of hard work, and you think to yourself… is that it?
First of all, the build up to the viva was intense. For me, I only started to think about it the week before. It had been a long time since I had submitted therefore I really needed to re-familiarise myself with my work again, so that I would know what the examiners were talking about. Some might think that the week before is leaving it too late but it’s amazing how quickly it all comes back to you after a couple of read-throughs. Furthermore, I didn’t want to spend weeks obsessing and agonising over it. There was nothing I could change about it at this point so the main goal was to think of how I would defend the main arguments.
I marked up the thesis with a fair few sticky notes (none of which I used in the viva) and I looked up common viva questions, none of which I was asked. The best advice my supervisor gave me was to be willing to concede minor points to the examiners, which could be amended in minor corrections, as long as that didn’t undermine the main thesis and it’s supporting arguments.
The night before, sleeping on my friend’s sofa (as I no longer live where I did my PhD), I imagined all of the worst case scenarios. And in a way this was cathartic because I thought that even if they did happen, it still wouldn’t be the end of the world. For instance, I knew I wouldn’t fail because various people, who’s opinions I respected, thought it was a solid piece of work. So the worst case would be major corrections and, while that would be a pain, it wouldn’t be terrible.
Fortunately, I had a good viva. I naturally felt nervous. And I totally underestimated my performance. While I thought many of my answers were weak and shaky, the examiners told me afterwards that I gave an excellent performance and all of my answers were solid. I wasn’t defensive but I did defend, I was clear and I never once seemed rattled (even though I often felt it!). My external examiner also thought my thesis was one of the best presented he had ever seen (and he’s seen a lot), because it was coherent and well-written in such a way that any slight omissions or mistakes really stood out.
I suppose I was lucky to have really nice examiners who were sympathetic to my theoretical claims. However, they still asked me tough questions and it was far from an easy ride. When I left the room, despite being calm throughout, I began shaking like crazy and had to have a sugary hot drink. It was like I had experienced a bad shock and all the adrenaline had just been building and building in my body. While I hope never to have to do anything like that again, I can at least look back on it as a positive experience and as the only time two academics will ever be that interested in my work.