The Viva

The viva seems to be an elusive beast for many which is shrouded in mystery. While it is still fresh in my head I thought I’d reflect on the experience of my viva.

It was short – about 1h 45mins – and I passed with minor correction. These are mainly to expand a little in some areas and change some graphs. It was intense and I had to defend the way in which I had done my studies to prove the rigour. The questions focused on my method selection and how I had conducted the studies rather than the specific results. Areas of weakness and the impact of the research were other themes of questioning, for some other commonly experienced questions see this post (point 15).

The main issue I had was the academic and industry examiners had a bit of a discussion as to whether an entire chapter was relevant! This made me panic as the chapter was trying to tie it all together and had been published as a conference paper the year before. This discussion highlighted that the research was relevant to industry and I think that helped the academic examiner realise it had contributions to practice. This seems to be an issue several EngD vivas that the examiners are expecting a PhD thesis and EngD thesis are aimed more as a contribution to practice rather than theory.

Definitely what I was like the morning of the viva (from http://www.phdcomics.com)

Differences between the UK and the Continent

The month I started my EngD I watched my then supervisor defend his thesis. I was in awe of how easy he made it look and how well he hid any nerves. As it wasn’t too traumatic I decided not to watch another viva incase it scared me too much. Some students in the UK can really struggle to see a viva as they are mainly private and conducted behind closed doors. The EngD invited other students to attend as long as they didn’t speak or interrupt but some UK students can really struggle to observe a viva before they partake in their own.

This is totally opposite to the process on the continent as far as people have made me aware. In Scandinavia and France at least the Viva is an open defence where the candidate presents their work to an ‘opponent’. At some point the floor opens to questions from other, not just the examiners as in the UK. While part of would have liked to have some familiar faces in the room I think it would have increased the pressure some more. In terms of impact of the research though I can definitely see how the more open format could benefit this.

Everyone has their own Viva Story…

One thing I noticed at work since my viva is how many people at work took an interest in how my viva had gone. Maybe they are a just nice bunch of people but I think it also gave them an opportunity reflect back on their own viva and tell those stories. I loved hearing them and the variety of things that they remembered. A couple of good examples online include George’s reflection here and Dr Ed’s here. It tended not to be the questions asked but how they felt holding their own against experts in there field. While stressful at the time, people’s reflections seem to be that they enjoyed it in a strange way.

Continued assessment vs All or Nothing…

On a final note, one question that bugged me while I was revising was whether this type of all or nothing examination was the best way to assess whether a contribution to knowledge had been made. Having done 12 masters modules, published 2 journal papers and met 5 other criteria to pass, I still had no idea how the final thesis would be judged. Perhaps this is designed to put the candidate under pressure but  perhaps some acknowledgment of the progress to the point at which the viva takes place could help reduce the stress of the whole experience.

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