So you finished writing that long thesis, got it bound and submitted, congratulations! That’s it right? Well, not really. Definitely a reason to celebrate (believe me, I did), but you still have the oral exam, or viva to go.
What is the viva? It is latin for viva voce (means ‘live voice’ – thanks google) and is the defence of your PhD thesis. It differs depending on where in the world you are, but in the UK it is you, an internal examiner and an external examiner in a room for an unspecified amount of time (5 hours for me, we will come back to this later). Afterwards, you are told if you pass, or fail and the corrections you must do to be awarded your full doctorate degree.
So that’s the background, but if you are reading this, you might be coming up to your viva, remembering fondly(?) when you had your viva, or a fresh PhD student feeling fearful about what will happen to you in about 3 years. So I was asked to provide a perspective, and maybe even some helpful tips on how to prepare (Note: if you google how to prepare for a viva you will find LOTS of possibly more helpful advice).
After submitting your thesis, my recommendation? Take some time off! You probably spent a lot of time on the run up to your submission in front of a computer. Writing, reading, re-writing, drinking coffee, writing, changing that figure, crying, writing some more. So you deserve some time off. I have heard advice of booking a vacation for a particular date and working towards that goal. ‘A thesis is never finished, simply abandoned’, such a true quote I heard early in my PhD. You will never get to finish everything you wanted to, but eventually you need to move on. Did I take a trip? Sort of, I started working straight away in Norway on a mesocosm experiment, although a lot of hard work, I would say we got to have some fun downtime.
As the viva approaches, it is a good idea to read over your thesis again. You will probably notice a bunch of mistakes, hopefully just small ones, but do not worry about them, there is nothing you can do once it is submitted. There was a section of my thesis which was a copy and paste of a completely irrelevant paragraph (oops). I corrected this and took a new printed page into my viva with me to show that I did know how to do statistics (this was the missing section).
I also read the most recent, and relevant papers of my examiners. The most recent papers were to see what they were currently working on (and probbaly thinking most about), and also to think about the different aspects they would bring to the defence. One of my examiners was a chemist, and another worked on bridging palaeo-modern environments using fossil nanoplankton, neither of which were aspects I had worked on much during my thesis. Initially I was scared, but then I realised that this would bring completely different aspects to my work and thinking!
The night before your viva, the advice I had was to chill out, have some wine (but not too much) and not to worry. I chose to have gin, but I feel like the advice was followed well. On the day of the viva, it might be hard to do, but try to relax. I went to the office, had a cup of coffee and carried on like a normal day (I think I listened to country music and read some new paper which had just come out). I had lunch with some friends, which was great to keep your mind off the upcoming exam.
As I mentioned, my viva was 5 hours long, and believe me, it did not feel anywhere close to that long! The time just flew past. It is the only time in your scientific career where other scientists are only interested in your work, and what you have done. They aren’t there to catch you out, or to trick you. They want you to succeed, and to make your research is as good as it possibly can! If you haven’t published your chapters yet, consider it a free peer review! The viva is a chance for you to show your knowledge, but also to admit the things you do not know (it is okay to say I don’t know!). It provided me with new ideas, and also tips on how to improve my publications!
Overall, it was an enjoyable experience, after 5 hours I felt exhausted, but also excited! It was, in a way, fun. Like when you have a really interesting and amazing discussion with someone at a conference and you have this kind of ‘science buzz’! The most important part, except the fact you are almost a doctor? It provides another reason to celebrate.
The most important piece of advice I received and can give? Try to enjoy it as much as you can. It will not be as bad as you think. You have done all the preperaion in writing the document! Keep an eye out for new papers which come out between submission and your viva, and don’t be afraid to be critical of your work. That is what science is all about! Also, remember how great you are that you have made it! Well done you.
Kyle Mayers – Senior Researcher at Uni Research Environment in Bergen, Norway (former PhD student, Marine Biogeochemistry, University of Southampton).