- I had to submit a robust PhD dissertation to help my chances in my PhD viva. This meant the final draft had to be as close to perfect as I could get it.
- To produce a high-quality PhD dissertation, I started writing parts of it sporadically two years before I submitted.
- I took a much-needed break after submission. I needed this rest to come back to my PhD dissertation refreshed in preparation for my PhD viva.
- Watching videos online explaining how a PhD viva worked helped me to prepare for my big day.
- I prepared answers in advance for potential questions I believed the examiners might ask.
- To help boost my confidence and performance during my PhD viva I got myself into peak physical condition.
It was the summer of 2010 and it was the height of the recession in London. I was unemployed. Finding work was depressingly hard. I had already worked a couple of years in the manufacturing industry and I always said to myself that I’d pursue a PhD if the opportunity comes along. Well, with my career on hold, I decided to reach for this goal. I relocated to Birmingham in November of 2010 to embark on the next chapter of my life. I was excited, I felt like I was going to change the world with my new discoveries. Doesn’t every PhD feel this way at the start? By the end, you just want to submit your dissertation and move on with your life. You’re exhausted.
There were a few setbacks, to say the least. But I doubt that any PhD has ever run totally smoothly. There’ll be tough times and moments of elation. What kept me going was that I knew if I stuck with it, the finish line will appear.
I submitted my PhD dissertation on the 20th of April 2015. My PhD viva took place on Thursday the 11th of June 2015. It lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes. I passed with minor corrections. I completed my corrections the very next day on Friday. Saturday, I had a boxing match in a stadium. On Monday, my internal examiner finalised the submission. I graduated on the 8th of July 2015. I went into this with utmost confidence and I am going to discuss how I got to that point.
How I prepared
In my other blog, PhD viva: the defence, I introduce the PhD viva. So, if you’re not totally clear on how a PhD viva works, then I highly recommend checking out this blog. But in a nutshell, the examiners want to determine if you actually authored your PhD dissertation yourself and if you can defend your findings.
I knew from pretty early on that in order to pass my PhD viva I had to submit a robust PhD dissertation. To do that, I had to have some worthwhile results to discuss which meant long hours in the lab. I encountered all sorts of trouble in my final year with my lab equipment. Stuff broke. But that’s a story for another time.
I started writing up as early as possible
I actually started writing my PhD dissertation around two years before the date of my viva. It’s not that it took that long to write the whole thing, it’s because I wanted to get an early start on my PhD dissertation. I worked on it here and there starting with the introduction and literature review. These two sections occupied around 40% of the final draft of my PhD dissertation. I wanted these sections out of the way by the final year. I did this on purpose because I knew that by the end of my PhD, I’d be exhausted and I had taken steps to make the whole writing-up process as easy and painless as possible. You can see a copy of my PhD dissertation here.
Your final year is probably going to be your most challenging. I strongly recommend taking steps to make that period as stressless and manageable as possible.
It was important to me that my PhD dissertation was as close to perfect as I could get it. After all, I knew this was likely to be the most important piece of work I’d ever produce and would be published in the British Library. Anyway, I submitted and I was exhausted.
I took a break
I reached a point where I was sick of thinking, analysing, reading and writing. My head just hurt. Just like going to the gym, eventually, your body aches and continuing through pain and exhaustion will just result in diminishing returns. I had to pry myself away from my PhD dissertation and I did not look at it for two weeks. I needed this break. It allowed me to come back refreshed, rejuvenated and with well-rested eyes. The real preparation could now begin.
I watched videos
At the start, I was really curious to know what a PhD viva involved. But in addition to reading up about it, I wanted to watch one. As I mention in my blog ‘PhD viva: the defence’, In the UK, the examination happens behind closed doors with just you, the chairperson and two examiners. That’s it. I heard some vague details about other people’s experiences but I needed to visualise it. Good old internet. I did a quick online search and found numerous videos on the matter. This ranges from videos of experienced examiners advising what kind of questions they ask to actual footage of a PhD viva.
I simply played to my strengths. I normally respond well to video tutorials, guides, etc. Perhaps, you prefer reading up about topics instead. I like both, but pick whichever style of input you like and consume it. The internet is a powerful tool and I made the absolute most of it.
I prepared answers for examiner’s questions
After my break, I came back to my PhD dissertation with fresh eyes. I was able to spot errors I never noticed before. So, I went through my PhD dissertation page by page to correct any spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. But as I discuss in my other blog ‘Why is editing important’, you can never catch every mistake when proofreading and editing a 50,000-word PhD dissertation. I made a list of these types of mistakes and many more and took them with me to the PhD viva in case the examiners brought them up. It was more to provide proof that I had recognised and addressed these mistakes beforehand.
To get a good idea of what questions could come up during my PhD viva I read this blog ‘Top 40 potential viva questions’. I went through this list and picked out the questions I thought would be the most likely to come up on the day and then I prepared structured answers for them. I also printed a copy of my dissertation off. This copy was printed double-sided with two pages per sheet to save on space. I made notes throughout this copy to help prompt specific answers and explanations.
Now, this is unorthodox, but my motto is if you’re both physically and mentally fit then you’re at or close to your best. Whilst I was preparing for my PhD viva, I was also training for my first charity boxing match. I really wanted the challenge and I wanted to raise money for Cancer Research UK to honour the memory of my late PhD co-supervisor who passed away during my PhD.
I don’t necessarily recommend training for a boxing match during your PhD viva preparation, but if you set some other goal to get yourself physically fit, do it. For example, you could train for a marathon or just join a gym and set all kinds of goals. I got into my best shape for my boxing match and, in doing so, it helped me to lose some unwanted weight. The net effect made me feel more confident overall. If you can find an activity that will help to boost your confidence and self-esteem then this can help your performance during your PhD viva.
The big day
Before my PhD viva
I recall my PhD viva being scheduled just after lunch. Usually, the internal and external examiners meetup beforehand to discuss the plans for the PhD viva. I suspect my examiners did this over lunch. My external examiner had to travel over 200 miles from Newcastle University down to my institution, the University of Birmingham.
I got a good night of sleep, had breakfast and briefly skimmed over my PhD dissertation. But I didn’t want to overload myself. I realised that there was no point in getting too worked up about what to say during my PhD viva because at that point nothing new would go into my head. It wasn’t helpful to stress myself any further. What will be, will be. So, I dressed formally and I arrived at the venue early to have a look around and get a feel for the room.
My PhD viva
I would describe my PhD viva as nothing like the oral exams I had in the past. Previously, I had done a French and German oral exam during my time in secondary education and that was far more intimidating. My PhD viva was more of a discussion rather than an examination. The examiners asked questions but did so more to fortify their understanding than to test me. It was more akin to the kind of questions you would get asked during a conference presentation. There were some occasions where I did not know the answer to the examiners’ questions and my answer was ‘I don’t know’. Don’t be afraid to use those three words when absolutely necessary. The examiners will know if you don’t know the answer based off your response so save yourself the embarrassment. It’s okay not to know the answer to everything, it’s normal.
My PhD viva lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes. It went by really quickly. In the end, the examiners asked me to leave the room so they could deliberate. I waited in an atrium outside of the viva room and I was called back in by the chairperson to hear the decision. The examiners announced that I passed with minor corrections. A sigh of relief left my chest. I was asked by one of the examiners if I wanted to wait until they compiled an official list of corrections for me to do. But, I opted to take their copy of my PhD dissertation which contained notes on the corrections they wanted to be done. I just wanted to get on with making the necessary corrections as soon as humanly possible as I had my final training session for my upcoming boxing match that evening.
With the benefit of hindsight, I would have tried to organise a mock PhD viva to help me better prepare for the real thing. This could have made me more confident going in and less stressed as a result. Also, I would have sought help with proofreading and editing of my PhD dissertation to make sure the final draft was pristine. Asking a friend to do it would be impractical in which case I should have paid a professional. Doing it alone was too much for me to handle.
That aside, the whole experience was a positive one. I look back with fond memories of the day and the days leading up to it. I hope I made my supervisors proud of my performance. That really mattered to me.