A positive reflection on a viva

Heard a few horror stories? I know, same. This blog post gives a real-life narrative of my experience of preparing and surviving a PhD viva.

It aims to show my positive experience rounding off my PhD journey, and will hopefully settle some nerves and give some useful tips along the way.

To introduce myself and my research - hello, I am Louise, and my thesis took an interest in older people’s health and wellbeing using nature. I spent three years setting up, collecting, and analysing data, submitting in December 2021, and with my viva in February 2022. 

My journey through PhD life was similar to others - a rollercoaster of highs and lows. I had a difficult time refining my research questions, moving away from home, keeping motivation, health struggles and then a pandemic spelling an end (in part) to collection. 

After these challenges, I still felt that everything was hanging on the dreaded viva. I'm pleased to report that all those scary stories that I had read didn’t come true. 

I really enjoyed my viva, from being able to talk about all of the different opinions I had collected, the stuff that didn’t make it into the final write up, the trials and tribulations of things that didn't go to plan and the real-life impact of what this research could achieve. 

So please indulge me and read about what I did to prepare, the actual viva and life after. I hope that I can help demystify the process and anxieties for others. 

Dr Louise Mitchell Viva Blog cropped

Author: Dr Louise Mitchell

Currently a lecturer at SRUC (Scotland's Rural College), Louise completed her PhD at the University of Salford and was part of the Doctoral Training Alliance (DTA) Applied Biosciences for Health programme.

During her PhD research, Louise was investigating improving the health and well-being of older adults through the use of Green Infrastructure (GI) projects at the community scale. 

Viva preparations

If I am honest, once I sent that email with the thesis pdf, I didn’t want to look at it for a while. I thought I would feel that a weight had been lifted, but the opposite was true. I felt the weight of the world knowing that the viva would be the next step. I tried to be kind to myself, or maybe that was avoidance, but I gave myself some thinking time and then, around four weeks before, started preparing for the viva,. 

I looked up some of the generic questions that might be asked and bought viva cards which were helpful as you can pull them out to revise independently or with someone else. I also took tips from my amazing supervisory team, with one suggesting reading the thesis through, and then ignoring it the night before. I read each chapter twice, annotated errors that I had found, or probable questions that I thought might crop up. The night before, I ran through the main themes of each chapter and called it quits around 7:00 pm. 

Viva Preparation GettyImages-1346781795

Other things I did to prepare

  • I attended a virtual training session from my university around a month before the viva, with a lovely academic who ran through the process that I would face on the day and the forms that the examiners use. This really helped my anxiety as I could visualise the steps of a viva and wasn’t as daunted seeing the marking sheet. 

  • I was lucky to have two PhD friends who ran mini viva mocks. Fortunately, I met these two amazing PhD students, now doctors as a DTA student. They each took one of my weakest chapters, and quizzed me, which made it less intimidating in the real viva. 

  • Practicing generic questions that I had researched online was great. But saying them aloud was the best way for me to really hear where I waffled or didn’t quite go far enough. I also recorded a few of my weaker responses and played them as a podcast when walking the dog. 

  • Preparing a presentation helped settled my nerves, as I was able to bring the PhD story to life with some photographs, some of the bits that didn’t fit naturally in the thesis. It was good to reflect on how much work I had done over the years.  Ask ahead of time if you would like to do one (not everyone does a presentation, some examiners prefer if you don’t, so check), and make sure you keep to time (usually 10 minutes). Doing the presentation gave me thinking time.  

The viva itself

Woman at a laptop - Viva Interview GettyImages-1395657608

Now the bit that you have come here for. That morning I was up early, had a quick scan of my notes, the questions I’d prepped and technical run throughs of my presentation. Examiners were meeting at 9:00 am, but I wasn’t due to join the virtual room and start the defence until 10.30. Staring at my screen waiting, I was a ball of nerves, so I needed something to take my mind away from worrying. I cleared my desk, leaving only my marked-up thesis in front of me. For the thirty minutes before entering that room, I sat, listened, and sang along (very badly) to my favourite album, and forgot about the viva. It was honestly the best decision I made, as by the time 10.30 arrived, I had stopped shaking, felt relaxed and most importantly confident. So my top tip: have some downtime just before going in, pick a song, art or even a walk to clear those last minute nerves.

I am not going to lie, hitting the button to join the call was still nerve wracking, but my supervisor was already there with the independent chair – both asking me how I was feeling. Immediately I was made to feel at the same level as everyone else. The chair outlined the format of the viva and checked I was who they were expecting. I had to give some emergency contact details, so be aware you might need those. 

In minutes both examiners popped up into the room, and with little time to scout out their offices, I was asked to deliver my presentation. I awkwardly checked that I was sharing my screen and gave what I thought was the worst presentation I’ve done. Yet still they were listening and smiling away. Then we were right into our first questions. Honestly, everything in those three hours is a bit of a blur. But we started off with a general overview of the thesis, where we spoke about the need for the research, the novelty and current literature basis – and we just had a conversation, it wasn’t a grilling, they were there to see me show my enthusiasm for the studies I had read and what had influenced my own research. We then went chapter by chapter, questioning things about all of the decisions made behind the scenes. I was asked about my decision-making process and had to defend alternatives that had not worked out.

There were points towards the end of the viva were my brain fogged over; one question that sticks out was: ‘What organisations do you want to get this information to?’. My mind had totally gone, as we were nearing the end. I had prepared for this, I knew who I wanted, but couldn’t make sense of the question. Eventually, after a few prods by the examiners I was able to get my flow back and give an answer. My tip here is that even after a shaky point, appreciate that they may want to dig a little deeper, so don’t  be put off by questions on top of questions.

The decision

The part where you are asked to leave the room was the worst bit for me. My anxious brain went into overdrive, immediately clicking the call button to one of my supervisors. Thankfully she was lovely, she brought me back to reality, calmed my nerves and we both had an awkward realisation that we had not had a break in the viva, so hit mute and ran to the bathroom. Another supervisor had finished teaching and jumped in too to find out how everything had gone. If no one was around, I planned to go back to listening to music and screeching an awful rendition of ‘Dancing in the dark’. Yet, in what I felt was almost a blink of an eye, but was in fact 20 minutes, we were called back. They read out the decision, but it didn’t really register – congratulations Dr Mitchell!

Life after viva

It felt weird knowing I had passed (subject to corrections), I still don’t think I realise that it is nearly over, and I am not using the title yet, this is the first time I have written it. I was kind to myself by taking time to celebrate with family and friends, so didn’t look at the list of corrections until a couple of weeks later. If I was to give a tip here, then please make sure you get all the bits of paperwork you need to do the corrections, in my case half of the examiner’s report was sent over by the office, so double check all the files. 

So that’s my viva voce experience. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a tough exam, it’s years of work that you are chatting about and rightfully so, it takes a good chunk of time. But it was an enjoyable event for me, talking over novelty, impact, and things that I had poured my heart into for three years. The examiners were there to be supportive, and to have an academic chat about what I had dedicated years of my life to. They were not there to interrogate or catch me out, and each of them really pushed me to evaluate my thesis in a positive way. 

What I am trying to say is that the viva is a good professional chat about your research, one which you will probably not get to experience in the same capacity again. So try to enjoy it as much as possible. Enjoy the process, enjoy the conversation, and good luck!

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