Preparing for the Viva.

The UK viva is an odd bird.  Unlike oral defences in other countries, you are not examined by your supervisors in the viva. Instead, your examiners appoint someone from within your university and an expert from a different University to examine you. Because there is also a lack of formally-stated critieria — other that your work meet the nebulous standard of a substantial original contribution — this means that what occurs in the viva is contingent upon examiners you have had no contact with. As a consequence, preparing for the viva is a strange task; since everyone had a different experience in their viva they give you different advice; since you aren’t very familiar with your examiners, you can’t really anticipate what sort of questions they will ask. The best you can do, it seems, is to: (a) re-acquaint yourself with what you wrote. (b) come up with a list of questions you think will be asked and write answers to them (c) come up with answers to what are said to be the sort of standard questions people ask:  what is unique about your thesis? What is its central argument/finding? How does it differ from other key players in your field? The latter are particularly depressing. In a way they concretise the bathetic trajectory of the PhD: when you begin you think a substantial original contribution is something that will actually make an important mark in your field, by the end you realise that it will be ignored and that your originality is established by empty formal criteria and correctly situating yourself in relation x,y and z like everything else. For any of you in the process of writing-up it might help to make sure you address these questions directly in what you write. Although one of my supervisors thought it was stylistically clumsy and insecure for me to state what grounds I was staking my original contribution on and how I thought I related to the field, I’m now glad that I did.

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2 Responses to Preparing for the Viva.

  1. Kambing says:

    Good luck!

    Sadly I have no specific advice for you, as Australian universities don’t have an equivalent (thankfully!). Instead, everything is based on external examination of the written thesis. Well, there is often an expectation (or even a specific requirement) to present a seminar, but there’s usually no formal examination involved. For example, my department (Anthropology/Sociology) expects candidates to do both a pre-fieldwork and a post-fieldwork seminar, but these are framed more as occasions to seek constructive criticism and advice rather than an assessment of the final product.

    I think some North American Universities organise their thesis defence along similar lines to the UK viva, but I have no direct experience of that.

    A lot of what you mention in terms of positioning your work and anticipating criticism applies to straight written examinations, too, though. I can imagine that, with some examiners, the face-to-face viva environment would intensify their desire to ‘score points’ through aggressive criticism, but for others it may restrain them compared to a purely written review. In any case, in practice selecting examiners has as much to do with assessments of their personality, career trajectory, and academic relationships as it does their actual scholarly work.

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