Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Viva

On the viva form (the one you fill in when you're 6 months or so away from submitting the PhD thesis), there are various boxes to tick. One of them says, for example, ‘do you object to your supervisor being present at the viva?’ Tick yes or no. There are boxes to tick to attest to the fact that your PhD is your own work, and that it is of the right length, and so on. But there should also be a box that says ‘Do you really want to have a viva?’ Tick yes or no. I would personally have ticked ‘NO’. Alas, there was no such option.

I don’t want a viva. I don’t want to have to talk to academics (grown-ups) about my project. For one thing, I have spent the last two months busily forgetting everything relevant, from what the interest and aims of my study actually might be, to the very academic language that one would use to talk about these things. There are all these words, you know, special subject-specific words that one must use, like ‘methodology’, ‘theoretical approach’, ‘blah blah blah’ (I don’t think we need a third; plus I can’t remember any more). I was never particularly good with those words and now I definitely can’t use them anymore; I could use a grown-up, a coach, so to speak, one who is well-versed in such things, to come and have a chat with me and tell me some words that I can use to answer viva-related questions.

I don’t want my viva. But there you go.

For those of you who are also facing this thing, here are some hints and tips for surviving the viva – courtesy of an erudite and friendly grown-up at my Graduate School. (please forgive the scraggliness of these notes.)


- you can prepare for it - read your dissertation; be familiar with your argument, its shape, how each chapter serves shape of the argument, how each section of chapter serves each chapter which serves argument. the discussion will be about that: structure, conceptual shape of the argument, in its detail.

- other people's books - you don't need to know more than what you knew when writing the dissertation. you might need to know a bit about the approach of the thinkers you used. you might give an indication of why it was appropriate to go there. why you went for certain writers, why it helped you, why it was important to you. remember why you went there, what it allowed you to do.


'Having done the thesis, where do you think you are with it?' what do you think you have achieved with it? what do you think your arguments are? (why you wrote it, what it offers.)

'How do you think you are going to develop it?' - but this is a viva on what you HAVE done; you can't be penalised for any thoughts on what you might do next.

'What are the strengths and weaknesses?' - you have the absolute right to concentrate on the strengths - yours and supervisor's. you have every right to be confident.

you can say 'i can see now that a certain aspect of (X history, etc), and I'd add that in.'

Take questions with a pinch of salt, but they don't like it if you INGORE the question. if a question half interests you, half-answer it and move on.

don't be too close to the material; if they ask a general question, don't get too embroiled in the detail. don't give the impression that 'I'm the only person who knows about (these texts), and I'll tell you the plot of…'. interaction, overall argument - key.

they have read your thesis; but you needn't assume they understood it. Think of examiners as very well disposed, knowledgeable, civilised and cultured. they've read your thesis and the books you have read, but they probably don't fully understand it. they've understood a lot of things - but you can guide them through the key stages in your argument in response to questions.

by and large, examiners have already got a view of your thesis when they come in. so you can't do yourself any harm - you can only do yourself good. the thesis matters more than the viva. if they have problems with the thesis, the viva won't make that go away - they'll ask you to do stuff later.

TAKE COPY OF THESIS IN WITH YOU. have exactly the same object with you that they've got - bound, as well. easier.

bring any notes that you want.

(lists of page no.s , things you want to talk about - but you can also say 'i discuss that point in chapter 5, not so much in chapter 4.)

worst nightmares:

'not knowing the answer' - it's somewhere in your dissertation.

'i don't understand the question'; - 'i don't know what that means/ i haven't thought of that'. NOT irredeemable. if someone asks a question you don't understand, ask them to ask it again. 'I don't understand the question cos i never thought about that' - come out and say this. 'the deconstructive thinking of Paul de Man does NOT figure in my thinking of the thesis.' then go on to other writers that you do use.

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