PhD Life Research Research Research Methods

My PhD Viva experience

PhD vivaThis post has been published on the PhDLife blog too. 

I had pondered about the viva day many times during the PhD process, and mostly in terms of ‘I will probably be asked about this in the viva’, and the dreaded thought ‘imagine I don’t pass the viva’. But I had always reassured myself that even if in the nightmarish situation I did not pass the viva, I had benefited hugely from the PhD experience: learning how to do research; publishing two journal papers; and meeting a huge array of the most wonderful people, in person and online.

I submitted my PhD thesis in the middle of December 2016, although I had a full complete copy ready by the end of August 2016. As soon as I submitted my thesis, I took a short Christmas break and in Jan 2017 went straight into placement with the public health team at Hackney City Council. I finished with the team in March 2017, and decided it was time to start preparing for the viva. I have written about the 13 steps I took to prepare for the viva in detail here, so I will not go into that here.

The wonderful people in the WMG research degrees office (Julia and Jason) had confirmed the viva date and organised the day, including arranging lunch and the pre-viva coffee and pastries. They sent me a reminder email a week before too. My viva was scheduled to start at 10.30am in Arden House at the University of Warwick. Lunch was scheduled at 12:30pm, and my supervisor and I were both hopeful that my viva would be complete by that time.

As I live in London, I was kindly offered accommodation for the night before the viva in Arden House (on campus) by the WMG research degrees office, which I decided to decline, as I knew I’d be much more relaxed in my own bed, with my own pillow (I have a thing about pillows), and next to my husband. And I am so glad I stayed at home.  I didn’t sleep very well that night (woke up a few times), but to be honest, that is to be expected given that the viva is a big deal. I eventually woke around 5:30, prayed, had a shower and got ready to go. I couldn’t fathom the thought of breakfast so decided to catch something on the way, which I did, but I couldn’t eat, so I gave up on food, and drank some juice instead.

I arrived at the venue at 9.30am and was directed to the room of the viva. The room was quite warm so my supervisor had opened up the windows. The tables were already set up, but I decided to push my table closer to the examiners so it wouldn’t feel like a panel was assessing me, and it also meant I wouldn’t need to speak louder than I would naturally. I then placed my thesis and all the other things I needed on the table and checked my ‘checklist’ again (see here). I waited for about 20 minutes with my supervisor, she commented on how calm I looked (and surprisingly I felt really calm!). I think my supervisor looked more nervous than me.

At Warwick, it is recommended that each viva has an examination advisor (in addition to the examiners), whose role is to chair the viva and maintain a record of the viva, but not examine in anyway. I had chosen someone who had previously conducted a viva upgrade for me and was really lovely and friendly, and my supervisor agreed she would be a good choice. The advisor arrived around 30 minutes before the exam, and it was lovely to see a friendly face. She went down to look for my examiners, and came back up to tell us that the examiners wanted to meet for around 10-15 minutes before the exam, so we should go down, and she will come and get me when the examiners are ready for me.

We proceeded downstairs and bumped into the examiners on the stairs! We said hellos and went our own way. Around 10-15 min later the examination adviser arrived to fetch me, and we went up the room.

I greeted the examiners, and was asked first to present the presentation I had prepared (see here for further details), but was told to keep it to 10 minutes, which was fine as it was around 9 minutes long. After I presented, one of the first things the examiners said was something along the lines of that although the thesis appeared to be very long when it was delivered to them (around 350 pages), they found it was really clear, well-structured and very easy to read, and they seemed very happy about that. So this was hugely reassuring, and I remember thinking they can’t fail me now, and by this point, I didn’t feel nervous at all. And I am glad I didn’t because we had some really interesting discussions after this. It also helped a lot that my external examiner (who I had never met before) was very friendly and smiled a lot!

The examined then asked me a few questions on some of the things I had mentioned in the presentation. For example, I had discussed motivations for conducting the research, but they wanted to know more about why specifically I looked at attitudes towards online patient feedback, rather than the utility of online patient feedback, especially given my motivations, which was a fair point (I suppose they were asking me to justify the scope of my research). They also asked me about what I would advise the NHS now based on the results of my research. They then moved onto going through the thesis and asking questions, and made a point of telling me that if they didn’t ask a question that didn’t mean they hadn’t read it, just that it was all fine.

I was asked for clarification on which parts of the thesis, if any, were not mine followed by straight in to my second literature review chapter, where they asked me how I had searched for the literature and I explained what I had done, and they suggested I include that in the thesis. The next few questions were about how specifically I had recruited my participants for one of my studies, and during that discussion I mentioned how I specifically recruited people from different demographic background, and they suggested I should include that in the thesis too.

The next few questions were not about what I had included but rather what I hadn’t included and the choices I had made, which wasn’t a problem, as I knew why I hadn’t included certain things, or if I had, and they were in a different place of the thesis, I directed them towards it. If they made a suggestion that I thought was a fair point, I said quite quickly that I was happy to correct that (but there weren’t many – in the end I was given 8 corrections to make). There was however one point that I remember defending – which was that one of the examiners raised the point that he felt that perhaps in one of my chapters, separating the results and discussion may make it easier to read. I disagreed, as it was a very large chapter and findings, and explained my reasoning for using that approach.

I remember referring to some of my participants’ specific comments during the viva, and I hadn’t thought that I would remember in the viva that type of detail, but thankfully I did, and clearly my lovely participants had left a huge impression on me. The viva really felt like a discussion rather than an exam, although they did ask me some difficult questions. There were was one point which was towards the end of the viva where I was asked how I came up with this one figure calculation, and I had to ask for the question to be repeated, and asked if it was OK if I took my phone out to work out the calculation. To my utter embarrassment, the decimal point was in the wrong place (0.036 instead of 0.36), and I was so embarrassed and a bit mortified, and I apologised. The examiners very quickly reassured me that it wasn’t a problem, as it could be easily corrected and that is why there are examiners, to check the research is correct. I was just really glad this was very strategically raised towards the end of the viva, and not at the beginning.

I was asked a few more questions and I glanced at the time and we had gone pass 12 noon and realised my poor supervisor must be panicking (as she had told me a good viva normally goes on no more than 1.5 hour in our department at least), however mine went pass that, but I could tell it was going well, so I wasn’t worried and I was really enjoying the discussion, especially because the external examiner from Oxford was an expert in my research area, and you could tell he was genuinely interested.

Around 12:30, the examination advisor intervened and said it is lunch time now so we will have to take a break and come back after lunch. The examiners then said actually we’ve only got one or two more questions, and we can wrap up. So that’s what they did. At the end of that the advisor said: Are you happy with the way you have been examined? and I replied affirmatively of course and then she said would you like to add anything or say something you didn’t get to mention before. I was expecting this question and my supervisor had advised me to finish positively so I started by thanking the examiners and explaining to them how grateful I was to have been given this opportunity to do a PhD, and how grateful I was to my supervisors, WMG, and EPSRC for the funding, as I couldn’t have done a PhD without funding. I also told them how grateful I was to my family for their support, especially my parents, who had to put up with a lot of comments from people, and had sacrificed a lot for me to get to where I am today.

I was then told I would be given the result after lunch, and two separate tables in the restaurant (at Arden) had been booked at the opposite end of the room, so I could have lunch with my supervisors and the examiners and advisor would have lunch at a separate table. I went out with the advisor who was escorting me down, when the examiners decided to give me the result immediately rather than make me wait over lunch (thank goodness for lunch!).  I waited for a minute outside with the advisor, and I was called back in and I was told congratulations, I had passed subject to some corrections! (By this stage I knew they were few as they had been mentioned during the viva, and not major – as Warwick doesn’t have major corrections option).

I came down into the café area where my two supervisors were waiting, looking a bit nervous. I gave them a big smile and told them I had passed, and we hugged! I was then sent off to call my family. I rang my husband, gave him the good news, and immediately texted my dad and then my mum. I knew my dad especially would be waiting anxiously for the news, so I was super relieved to tell him the good news. I then messaged close family and friends and the congratulations started pouring in!

We then went for lunch, and decided to all have lunch at one table which was great as I got an opportunity to talk to the extremal examiner too about his research, which is complimentary to mine, at Oxford. After lunch, I was asked to wait with my examiners whilst they decided on the changes. This took ages. Or it felt like ages to me anyways. My guess is the examiners were disagreeing about one of the changes, because when I was called back in, the internal examiner had left (and had explained to me why he had to leave) and that was the only change that the external examiner didn’t know exactly know what was needed, and I was told this change would be clarified through email (and it was on the next working day).

When I went back in (one of my supervisors came in with me too), the exam advisor went through the list of changes and made it clear she would type up all the changes required and send me a detailed list, so I didn’t need to take notes. But I did take notes, because I wanted to get started on the changes the next day (yes I am that type of a person!), and it was actually really useful because the external examiner chipped in with comments. There was one or two things that he said casually that I had noted down that came into real use when I made the changes. I was given only 8 minor changes to make, and one typo to correct. The examiner and advisor both commented something along the lines of how they were very surprised and really pleased to find only one typo in the thesis!

After that, I was told that was the end and we got ready to leave, I packed my things and said goodbye (the external examiner and my supervisor got into a conversation by now). One of my supervisors sadly couldn’t be there as he was on sick leave, so I sent him a quick email letting him know the good news. I got the bus back to the train station and headed back home, relieved it was over but the good news hadn’t quite sunk in.

On the weekend, to my utter surprise and I still can’t believe my whole family made a 5 hour journey with very small babies to throw me a surprise party. I was ecstatic, even happier than when I was told I had passed. They were all just so proud and happy, and I was so glad that I had made them happy, especially my parents, who had sacrificed a lot for me to reach this stage.

My list of corrections arrived on the next working day (hurray!), which were very detailed and thorough and I was really pleased. I allocated in my diary around 6 days to work on them, and it only took me 1 full day to complete!  I created a table in which I listed the correction requested, what changes I had made, and on which page the changes could be found. I also highlighted the changes in the thesis too. Three weeks later the changes were approved (I did chase up the internal examiner as I was really keen on graduating in July and the deadline was fast approaching). I am now planning a trip to submit the final copy of the thesis and graduate this summer! #PhDDone

PhD viva flowers