The Viva: Preparing for the PhD Exam

The viva voce, pronounced as /vʌɪvə vəʊtʃeɪ/, is a latin phrase in the 1580s that means “by word of mouth”. Also known as viva for short, it often refers to the (oral) defence of a doctoral thesis, the culmination of one’s PhD written work in front of internal and external examiners, where they would presumably scrutinise your work and and ask you questions based on what you have written. It is a doctoral examination “by word of mouth”,  where rhetoric and oratory were the highest forms of philosophical discourse in ancient Greece — a practice that we still keep today to sieve out men and women of the highest intellectual calibre, scholars who speak on real matters with eloquence and aplomb.

Sounds lofty? Perhaps. But don’t let it overwhelm you.
Neither should it undermine your worth as a scholarly researcher and philosopher.

According to Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson’s The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook For Students, Examiners And Supervisors (SRHE and Open University Press Imprint), they state that a viva seeks to fulfil the following objectives:

(i) authenticate the thesis;
(ii) locate the PhD research in the broader context;
(iii) clarify aspects of the thesis;
(iv) develop ideas;
(v) justify/ defend aspects of the thesis; and
(vi) reflect critically on their work.

Based on what I’ve been told by other PhD students in various schools and departments, there are various ways of ‘holding’ the viva. For some, the PhD candidate is supposed to give a 20-minute presentation in the presence of others interested in your work, and the panel of examiners will then ask you questions. For me in the Drama Department (Humanities), I am not required to give a presentation at all. While my supervisors can be invited into the back of the room, they cannot utter a single word during the viva. I would have an internal examiner from my Department (usually the Head or Chair of the Department, but not a requirement) and an external examiner from another university. Ideally, the PhD candidate can choose who their examiners are going to be. Both may have very different theoretical backgrounds but should be prolific scholars in their fields. I was told that these examiners will eventually be my academic referees when I apply for a teaching position in any University in the future, so their own academic “status” should be high and far-reaching enough too.

For me, it’s just a party of three: me and two other examiners. A closed door event with no outsiders.

Often, there is an arc in the shape of questions during the actual viva. They would start with easy questions, followed by really deep, tough theoretical questions in the body of your thesis, followed by a tailing off with easy questions again.

I have been told that the “body” of the interview can be so robust that the scholars may seem to be arguing amongst themselves, having long pauses — and you might be stuck in it as well. Theoretically, that’s a good knotty place to be in: that means your work is highly provocative and is contributing to larger discourses within the academia. I have been advised by my supervisors to see this “interrogation process” as scholars (including myself) engaging in a robust theoretical discussion. So being “stuck” is fine.

See this process as nothing more (i.e. not a personal attack on you, but on words and ideas), and definitely nothing less.

Tinkler and Jackson have proposed the following ways to prepare for the viva:

1. Know what is written in the thesis
2. Know the layout of the thesis
3. Understand what is presented in your thesis
4. Justify and defend your thesis
5. Identify, and be prepared to discuss, weak areas, gaps and mistakes
6. Reflect on what could be done differently if starting again (Tinkler and Jackson, 2004, p. 147)

Point 6 above would require some extra readings since in the course of the 3-4 years of a PhD process, new developments in your field might show new directions for your research. So it is advisable to refer to the more recent academic journal publications and the debates that have developed in the last year or so.

Here are some guiding questions:

1. Why this topic?
2. Why this angle on the topic, rather than some other?
3. Why the use of certain literatures and theories and not others?
4. Why these methods, sources and techniques, as opposed to others?
5. Why these modes of analyses?
6. What are your contributions to knowledge?
7. Why these conclusions?

According to Tinkler and Jackson, here are some of the type of questions viva examiners would ask, and what they might mean in the context:

(a) Clarification:

  • How many…?
  • How did…?
  • When…?
  • What…?
  • What do you mean by…?


(b) Checking Understanding:

  • Explain how…
  • Why did you…?


(c) Prompting Justification/ Defence:

  • ‘Why’ types of question
  • Why did you…?
  • Can you explain why…?
  • Can you account for…?


(d) Linking to Broader Context:

  • Questions about application, relevance, contribution to field, originality.
  • Also comparative questions – How does your approach compare with…?


(e) Prompting Evaluation (Judge in Relation to Own Objectives); Useful in Pursuing Developmental Purposes:

  • Questions that encourage reflection on the candidate’s work and self-assessment:
  • Can you reflect on…?
  • How would you assess…?
  • How might you…?
  • To what extent…?
  • Also hypothetical questions: What if you…?

Final advice I’ve been given:

Be on top of your thesis. That is, have a helicopter view, rather than being stuck in the muck while disentangling the mess when you were writing it. Once you’re able to view it from a critical distance, it allows you ease to move in and out of your own work.

 

At the end of the day, view it as a rigorous, robust scholarly discussion with high-profile professors in your field contributing to an intellectual and academic debate – and it will, hopefully, be less ‘scary’ than it should be.

Because then, it is all about posturing and performing your highest ideal self as the scholar that you are.

And they would have to recognise you for that, Dr _____.

PhD_viva_EdmundChow

Animum debes mutare, non caelum
(“You must change [your] disposition, not [your] sky”)
~ Lucius Seneca

 

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