Are you preparing for your viva voce? What should you aim for? In this blog entry, Mona Jebril discusses preparing for the PhD viva examination drawing on her own experience.
Worrying, worrying and worrying
Just after submitting the soft-bound copies of my thesis, I started to feel anxious about my viva voce. I was worrying about the result I would get after five years of hard work for my PhD in Cambridge. But, almost everyone that I talked to seemed to have experienced a level of anxiety with regard to their viva examination as the situation could be difficult and quite unpredictable.
Of course, I worried about what the style of my examiners would be, what questions they would ask, and whether they would have any serious reservations about my work. I worried, “What if I got major corrections, be asked to resubmit or failed?” But, I also worried about other things, “What if I caught a flu or was sick on the very important day of my viva? What if I heard some bad news early on which made me feel down during my viva? What if my viva was scheduled in the morning and I missed the time as I was sleeping?” As this list of what ifs continued, things started to feel dark, scary and miserable, as if I had thrown myself into well with no rope to ascend.
My precious “pearl”
Something inside me, however, was urging me to see things differently, and that was the love for my thesis, “my precious pearl.” I really love my work and I full-heartedly dedicated much time and effort to it. My research was much more than a study
which I did for a PhD at Cambridge. My thesis was many things: an idea that I felt passionate about; a piece of work by which I aimed to find a solution for a real problem; a challenge that helped me to develop both personally and professionally; and an achievement that reminds me of good and bad memories during the five years of my study in Cambridge that shaped who I am. It was this inner voice that prompted me to take the responsibility not to compromise the day for fear and worry, and to take the responsibility for creating a successful viva.
Knowing what you can control
What is a successful viva? Is it passing with major corrections, or minor corrections, or no corrections? It was necessary to stop and explore these options through a deep self-talk – I wanted to know what really mattered to me and whether I could survive the situation without losing my self-esteem if the worst thing happened. I also was convinced that if my goal remained mysterious, I would not be able to achieve it. Going through the possibilities one by one, I came to realise that none of these could be a suitable goal. Having submitted my thesis, I had no further means of controlling my examiners’ thoughts, questions or evaluations. What I could try to control is myself and the preparations I did for my viva day. Hence, I decided to abandon the classical perception of the viva as an exam and a bench mark; instead, I adopted a more exciting vision. I simply wanted to have an enjoyable viva – a positive experience to add to my empowerment reservoir, a pleasant memory of an intriguing conversation about my “beloved thesis” with experts in the field.
It takes more than a decision
To aim at an enjoyable viva is an excellent first step; to achieve it requires much more than a decision. In order to enjoy the day and the conversation as planned, you have to prepare well for the BIG DAY! Here are a few suggestions:
If your thesis is still with you:
1. Look for the little gaps in your thesis. You still have the golden opportunity of
starting your preparations early. In discussion with your supervisor, attempt to fill the little (and of course the big) gaps in your work by adding more appendices, figures, a forward, or a post-study reflection as necessary.
2. Pay attention to the details. Little details such as the table of contents, titles, and proofreading are important as they give an impression of your professionalism. Think also about how you may be able to add a personal touch to your work in the style of presentation. For example, discuss with your supervisor whether you can include relevant photos, paintings, and poetry lines. If you have time, you can also enjoy choosing your favourite colours for the figures and tables in your thesis.
If your thesis has now gone:
1. Look at the viva preparation as a process. Over a period of 3-4 weeks, do something for your viva every day in little chunks (10 min), allowing this to increase as the time of your examination approaches. This will build up your confidence and make your viva preparation easy and not interfere with other commitments you may have during the time.
2. Prepare in different ways. It is more enjoyable to triangulate your viva preparation across different activities. For example, list some questions and answers, watch Youtube videos on students’ viva experiences, and thoroughly reread your thesis.
3. Have 3-5 mock vivas. Practice talking about your thesis to others through mock vivas with friends, your supervisor, and PhD advisor. This is helpful as it exposes you to different examining styles and questions. You can also practice responses to situations that you feel uneasy about.
4. Read your thesis thoroughly. Again, it is very important that you go through your thesis page by page. In my case, this helped me in several ways: a) it had been a few months since I submitted—getting back to the thesis reminded me of important details and helped me to substantiate my answers in the viva with names and examples; and b) re-reading my thesis reinvigorated my passion to my work and boosted my confidence on the day of my viva.
5. Build a momentum. Do not embark on your viva voce as a drama task. You’ve got to have some fun. Here are a few tips:
- Get a special viva hair-cut!
- Consider of your viva outfit!
- Have a healthy viva breakfast!
- Rely on your viva support pal!
- Wake up with some inspiring viva flowers in your room!
- Book your viva limousine (ha-ha), taxi, bike, walking shoes!
6. Do not take a list of typos to your viva. I came across some advice on the internet to take a list of the typos and give them to your examiners in advance. I did not take this advice because going to the viva with a list of typos would have a negative psychological impact on me from the onset.
7. Listen to yourself on the day. If you feel you want to start the day alone, then do that. If you feel you want to have a social start, then do that.
8. If you are religious like me, then pray to God. Showing gratitude to Allah for the blessings that I had in my life including the completion of my thesis, as well as seeking his providence was empowering to me. It gave me a sense of self-assurance, a feeling of peace and inner strength which was much needed towards the time of my examination. If you aren’t religious, consider reflecting on things that you are grateful for and all your prior achievements.
9. Don’t learn everything from others’ experiences. Be selective on what you choose to learn from people’s viva experiences. Recreate your own list adapting my ideas to suit your personality, learning style, and what makes you feel happy and confident. Since there are no two theses that are the same, there are no two vivas that are the same.
The viva: a lovely day to remember
On my viva day, I felt very alive. I was mindful of every moment. I thoroughly enjoyed all the steps of the day, from hearing the alarm clock in the morning announce, “It is the DAY!” to dressing up, to going to the venue, to meeting my supervisor and viva pal who were waiting for me at the Faculty, to being retrieved by the internal examiner, to entering the viva room and greeting my examiners.
I was now in! Actually, not quite. From listening to the first question to the end of the viva conversation, I felt as if I was not in Cambridge – I was somewhere else. I think I was more like a butterfly moving from one field to another trying to pick the bits and pieces from my thesis to respond to my examiners’ questions. I was not conscious. I was only conscious of my heart which was fuelled with passion and confidence. I was very much like myself in the viva.
It was thrilling then to know that I passed my exam with no corrections! I felt so happy and called my family in Gaza to let them know that it is DONE! Everyone was delighted. Immediately afterwards, I became like a celebrity receiving more than 16 international phone calls in the same day, and congratulation cards, flowers, balloons and gifts from relatives and friends in the following days. It felt strange. I was already so happy that all these things which usually would excite me seemed redundant. With nothing else, I was truly very happy. Ha-ha, I got totally what I wanted: I had a most enjoyable viva voce. Elhamdullillah, it was a most successful one as well.
Mona Jebril completed her PhD at the Faculty of Education in 2017 with Professor Diane Reay. She is a Gates scholar and a member of Queens’ College, Cambridge. Previously Mona studied for her MSc in higher education in Oxford where she won Said Foundation Prize for academic and personal achievement. Mona also worked as a lecturer at two of Gaza’s universities. Her PhD thesis is entitled: “Academic Life Under Occupation: The Impact on Educationalists at Gaza’s Universities”. If you want to find out more about Mona, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org