For every PhD student, the viva is the dreaded final examination which determines the outcome of years of hard work and sleepless nights. By the time you submit your thesis, you will most likely have pictured every possible scenario, including (let’s face it) some outrageous ones, and your stress levels will probably be off the charts. If that is the case, fear not! We have all gone through it and come out alive.
However, during these unusual times, the standard stress factors are not the only source of anxiety. For many of us in the last year, the viva experience has been quite different, as thousands of students found themselves forced to conduct their examinations remotely. The sudden shift was welcomed as a relief for some, but for others it sparked a good degree of angst. In this week’s article, I will guide you through the stressful journey towards your viva. Whether this will take place online or in person, I got you covered!
1. Preparing for your viva: take a break
It is imperative and well deserved, after years of intense and tireless labour, to put your work aside and focus on yourself and practice some self-care. It may be difficult, especially in COVID-19 times with our normal lives being so severely disrupted, but a certain distance helps making things clearer when the time comes to begin the revision process. So, try to (re)create routines: whether you are moving your regular yoga class to Zoom or learning to knit a scarf, finding some fun activities will fill your empty schedule with a sense of purpose and positive energy, leaving less space to feelings of apprehension and anxiety. And do not forget your friends! Social interactions, either face to face or virtually, are an essential source of emotional stability and overall wellbeing.
2. Preparing for your viva: revision
Every viva is different, but here are some tips on how to approach revision which can be easily applied in most situations:
DON’T RUSH IT
As your viva approaches, schedule plenty of time to revise your thesis. Avoid last-minute marathons, as they only increase strain and tension. It is important that you feel confident and relaxed on the day, so make sure you get enough sleep and don’t burn out.
THINK ABOUT THE DETAILS
If you are anything like me, you probably spent the last few months before submission trying to make your thesis as cohesive and systematic as it could possibly be. After so much time and effort spent thinking about structure and composition, it can be easy to get lost in the big picture. But you should never forget that, as much as your examiners want to read a coherent thesis, they will focus very carefully on the details too. So, try to dedicate a few hours every day to short sections and pay attention to the finer points of your work, the development of the arguments, and the data. This way, when you are asked a specific question, you will not be caught off guard and will be able to talk your examiners through every particular.
BUT DON’T FORGET THE WHOLE
Once you have finished reviewing your thesis in short sections, make sure you read it again as a whole. It is important that you understand the contribution that your work offers to the field and the place it occupies in the relevant scholarship on the subject. Often examiners will ask you to introduce your research, how it came about, and the outline of the project. Use this opportunity to put forward your own narrative and your vision for the thesis. This will allow the examiners to better appreciate your broader awareness of the successful outcomes as well as the limitations of your work.
An essential part of revision is practising answering questions. Although you cannot predict what the examiners will be focusing on, you know your work, strengths and flaws, and you can guess which items they will want to address. Is there a controversial argument? Any point where you diverge from the prevailing theories on your subject? Have you put forward any original argument that requires more in-depth discussion? Have you ignored any avenue of research in favour of another? These are only some examples, but they should give you a sense of the type of things to focus on. Picture your examiners asking the questions and elaborate your answers out loud. Do it as many times as you need and do not be shy about asking your friends or family or partners to listen to you rehearsing. In fact, no matter the circumstances, vocalising is a great tool to put your thoughts in order and get more clarity on things (our brains can be a bit foggy at times).
3. The day of the viva: feel grounded and in control
A huge positive of a virtual viva is that you are in control of the space. Whether you are in your house, college or university accommodation, remember that the physical space around you is yours. So, find a spot with decent lighting, arrange it in a way that makes you feel comfortable and in charge, and start practicing there. For some of us the absence of direct interactions with the examiners, the human aspect of the viva, can be daunting. The examiners can have a calming and soothing influence, so, if you are not in the same room, engage with them through the camera, they will appreciate your active participation and you will feel more connected to them. Regardless of the specific circumstances, remember to use all the tools at your disposal to grow your confidence and feel grounded. Take your time to consider every question carefully and formulate your answers deliberately, and, most importantly, try to enjoy it, nobody knows your thesis better than you!
4. The day of the viva: celebrate!
Now that your viva is over, it is time to celebrate your accomplishment! Call your friends and family, gather your flatmates and bring out the bubbles or a delicious cake and enjoy this incredible achievement. It might feel anticlimactic if you cannot be with them in person, but do not forget all your efforts, the sweat and the tears, and take time to acknowledge this milestone in your favourite (potentially socially distanced and COVID safe) way.
E. H. was a PhD student in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. She received an MA from the University of Florence and her research interests revolve around issues of representation in Latin poetry.