For most PhD students, the viva is something you try your best to forget about until the day it arrives but for some reason, like the PhD itself, it refuses to give you sovereignty over your own brain for the best part of 4 years.
Those who have had their viva will remember all the advice people give you that it’s ‘impossible’ to follow. ‘Remember to enjoy it’, they say… ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’… ‘Relax’. Like I said – impossible. I can confirm, however, that it wasn’t that bad. In fact, dare I say it, I did actually enjoy it.
In the weeks leading up to the viva I pored over my thesis, trying to identify all the little gaps in the data (not that there were any, of course), preparing my defence for little things that only the author would notice. I started to make a list of papers that I should also memorise. I put one reference on it before having a panic and going straight back to analysing my own data. Where’s all the data!? I’m sure there was more of it somewhere.
My preparation progressed from scanning the thesis cover to cover in 20 minutes and wondering how on earth someone could ask me several hours of questions about this piece of ?@%! – to spending several hours on each chapter and hoping that no-one ever asked me questions about certain parts of it.
This fixation on the quantity, as well as quality of data in my thesis is again something that I’m sure that most PhD students will be familiar with – and is something that I carried through my PhD. I think it’s because of this that I had expected the viva to be much more data focused – requiring me to provide a justification for whether something really showed what I suggested it did. In reality, it was a lot more focused on how the research applied to the wider context of the field, and the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology – which I’m sure we can all agree is a lot less daunting. Especially as it turns out that studying something in minute detail for over three years means that you can talk about it for quite literally hours on end. Someone said to me before going in that in the viva you realise where the ‘philosophy’ in ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ comes from. And I think that’s certainly true.
In the viva, as we got to the end of my final data chapter, I realised there must only be, at most, half an hour left – and that I surely must have ‘done it’. I got this big surge of adrenaline, the edges of my vision went a bit funny and I had to remind myself to listen to the question my examiner was halfway through asking. When the moment came when they finally announced my fate, I thought back to all those times I’d visualised it in the last three years. Why didn’t any music start playing? Why didn’t Sir David Attenborough himself come through the door and give me a hug?
For about two weeks after I heard my examiners tell me I’d passed with minor corrections, my brain kept trying to make me fret about the PhD. I kept accidentally thinking that I should do some revision or worry about my thesis in that same old generalised existential kind of way – before remembering that I’d already had the viva. Very surreal. This article actually took me about a month to write, because the way I felt about the PhD as a whole has continued to change every day since the viva.
One of the main things that came out of my viva experience was that the viva should exist as a chance for you to talk about your research in a positive light. Easy for me to say now that it’s over! The thought that the viva might be the last time ever that anyone will listen to you talk about your PhD in depth will either be disappointing or liberating – never having to think about your PhD ever again might sound like a highly attractive option to some people. It certainly did for me by the end of it.
Strangely, however, after several years of questioning my ability to do science, my viva experience actually did make me feel positive about my research, allowed me to see it as an achievement and rekindled an interest in scientific discovery that a year of solitary writing in front of a computer screen will squeeze out of most people. It’s funny that it should come as a realisation, but after all the literal blood, sweat and tears that went into my PhD I do actually feel like I can do science.………post-doc, anyone?
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