Lessons from my PhD viva: don’t be defensive about your defense and have a biscuit close by

When you’re approaching your viva, all those who have gone before you will give you advice. And the majority of it is gold. Here’s just some of the advice I was given before my viva, and whether it helped at all:

Try to enjoy it. This was great advice, but I didn’t have the capacity to try to do anything except “think before speaking”. But as I say, fab advice. Do take it if you can!

Know that it should be challenging. It’s true. My viva was tough. Interesting, challenging, all those words people use when what they really mean is: it was hard. Hard because the questions are meant to be challenging and/or hard because you’re so stressed that even relatively easy questions seem challenging. But it was helpful to remember that finding it hard doesn’t mean you’re failing. It means you’re getting something out of the experience. It certainly helps if your examiners were lovely like mine were. There were times where I was flailing a bit, but the internal examiner helped me get back on track (thanks!).

Prepare some answers to questions they might ask. Nothing I prepared was asked. Nothing. I was advised to have a 4-5 min overview of the thesis ready, and 2-3 min for each chapter. I didn’t need to have done this, but it really helps just to do something.

Revise your stats. I didn’t really bother with this one as my PhD was pretty stats heavy. Of course there were some questions about my methods, but it was really only where I’d done something a bit out of the ordinary. If you’re not confident about your stats, then by all means go over them again. But as with most things, there’s usually more than one ‘right’ way to do your stats, so I wouldn’t worry too much as long as you know why you chose the particular method you did use.

You’ve passed well before your viva. Not all examiners will tell you this at the start, but this is usually true. They’ve already decided whether the work is worthy, you have to show it’s yours.

Argue your case but don’t be defensive. I think this is the crux of it really. Although they might call it a thesis ‘defense’, that’s a bit misleading.

Now for my advice:

Have some tea and biscuits partway through. This was immensely helpful. I had a chance at the start to settle in over tea and treats, and the break partway through let me have a bit of a breather.

Ask for time to think if you need time to think. I’ve discovered that I do this quite a bit, especially as I sometimes take things a bit too literally, and need a moment to parse what’s just been asked! It is completely not a problem to do this. No one will judge you for taking your time before you answer. Or for asking them to repeat/rephrase the question.

Think about your bigger research plans. I was asked what I’d do if I had unlimited time and money. That was a super tough question. I still have no idea what I would do with all the time and money in the world, but I figured they didn’t really want either my philanthropic or my utterly selfish lotto winning dreams so I gave them a three-year research pitch. But I do wish I’d thought more fully about it before.

And finally:

Relax. It will all be fine. You’ve worked hard for many years to get to this point. You know your thesis. Repeat: It will all be fine.



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