How to prepare for a Viva?

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I found the time between submission and examination to be very complex and contradictory. I knew I was not done; yet, in my head, I was done. I had no idea how to prepare for the viva and felt the work was in the past. I had already moved on, especially in relation to the practice, which became more performative. I had even moved on physically, in relation to space, as rather than spending my time in the photography lab or in front of the computer, I was many hours a week rehearsing in the dance studio.

This cognitive dissonance was on the back of my mind between 1st of December 2010 (when I submitted) and 16th February 2011 (the date of my viva) so I asked everyone I knew what their advice was as to how I should prepare. Here’s what I found out:

– Don’t read your thesis, you will find mistakes. I did not follow this one, as I did read my thesis (more than once, in fact), but it helped me to realise that finding mistakes is inevitable. It is also better to find them before the examiners do, so you can show you have done your job properly. I certainly wanted to leave a perfect thesis in the library, with as few mistakes as humanly possible.

– Re-read your thesis and mark it well so you are able to find specific passages. This is fundamental and was very helpful in my viva, as I referred various points to my writing.

– Read your examiners’ works, especially the latest books and papers. Then, think and write specific questions you think they may ask you and try to answer them. In this way, I predicted a few of the questions I had.

– Re-read key sources you mention in your thesis (especially if they are close to the work of your examiners). It is amazing how much opinions change throughout the work of the PhD, and how much one forgets. Most of the answers to the questions in the viva are in these sources.

– Have a mock viva. I could not recommend this enough. It does not matter when you have it: it is better before submission, so you can make changes but to have it after submission is still better than not having it. My mock was extremely useful, it was able to predict most of the questions, it was harder than my actual viva (thus, prepared me well) and it was surprisingly helpful at making me focus on aspects one forgets too often (clothing, space, where to sit, how to behave). Choose your mock examiners well and do give them plenty of time to read your work.

– If your thesis is too open (as mine is) think about the steer of the viva. What is it that you want discussed?

Phillips and Pugh suggest you write a one-sentence summary for each page of your thesis. I personally think this is a little overkill but it may work for some texts.

– An analytical philosophy student and friend of mine suggested I read Arthur Schopenhauer’s ‘The Art of Always Being Right: 38 Ways of Winning when you are Defeated’. I found this online illustrated version informative and fun, as well as quite useful.

– Think about how to react and answer to the examiners if/when they are having a negative reaction to the material, or to your answers.

– Wear comfortable clothing and footwear. You do not want anything distracting you on the day.

– Be confident in asking examiners to repeat a question or clarify anything. It is normal to be nervous.

– Have water with you.

– Do not put too much hand cream on. You will get slippery, will not be able to open your water bottle and will get self-conscious when shaking hands with your examiners.

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Do you have any others? Let me know by commenting, as this resource will be very useful to future PhD candidates (including my own students).

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As a postscript, here are some of the texts I read, which reiterated the points my supervisors made (but I needed to hear them again, and again, and again):
Survive your viva (The Guardian, 16 September 2003).
Guidance on preparing for your Viva, School of Nursing and Midwifery, The University of Sheffield.
How to Prepare for your Viva, Lynn Clark and Michelle Sheehan, Centre for Research in Linguistics and Language Sciences, Newcastle University.
Preparing for the research viva, Dr David Twigg, University of Sussex
Top ten questions for the PhD oral exam: A checklist of ‘viva’ issues that always come up
Finishing your PhD thesis: 15 top tips from those in the know