‘VIVA Survival’ Workshop at BCU

PhD land is getting real…real in the respect that writing is happening, chapters are getting completed, words are being edited and reviewed. It’s a love and hate relationship at the moment within my “prison-house of language”. It’s called this in reference to a theorist I cite in my thesis when I speak of post-colonial theory’s application to China. For a second, I feel like I can see an end in sight.

Today, I attended a ‘VIVA Survival’ workshop at Birmingham City University where I am currently completing my PhD. Run by Rachel and Jacqueline from BCU’s pgr (postgraduate research) studio, ten students attended alongside recently completed students, more established what they called “VIVA survivors”, examiners and others from the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media.

The session began with an informal ice-breaker where I was partnered with a PhD colleague who I’ve known for many years called Mohammed from the School of Architecture. We were asked to find out their name, proposed VIVA time and about their research. Mohammed is aiming for September 2016, researching the impact of the physical environment on students development, how we can use the physical environment to influence education and create optimal learning environments in Kuwait related to international perspectives. I’m not going to tell you when my proposed VIVA is…that’s just for me to know and you to find out when I’m a Doctor. It was great to hear the diversity of students’ research projects in progress or near completion round the table. So much going on that I didn’t know about. Below are perspectives and thoughts from the workshop.

viva survivial 1

What is a VIVA?

From an institutional perspective, the VIVA is the most important part of the process of research. It is the point at which all the work you’ve done stands or falls. It is an oral examination of your thesis. We imagine the thing that matters the most is completing the piece of writing, when it’s your successful completion of the examination process.The VIVA is when you have to convince your peers that you can “join their club”…an interview with a group of experts showing that you can stand your field with a high level of expertise. It’s about you being admitted to “the club”…you are showing them you are both a colleague and a peer. Ultimately, it is a conversation with your peers about things that you know a lot about. It is isn’t about knowing all the answers, it’s about your ability to have a meaningful conversation between you and your peers.

If the thesis is there, there is only a certain level of responsibility….your job is comparatively easier. The decision has been made before they’ve even spoken to you…although this isn’t common practice.

It is about experiencing your research, and the research journey…I wanted them to interpret the work, interpret the research. Treat it like a crit.

The assumption is that the VIVA is a terrifying situation. It is down to the frame of mind that you are in and your strategy. The best advice I was given is that this is probably the only time in your career where someone will have read your work, shown an interest in it and want to talk about it for hours. It’s all about frame of mind.

You want the student to rise to the challenge and approach the questions in the same way.

The VIVA takes place with your external examiner, internal examiner and an internal chair. Your Director of Studies/second supervisor can be invited to attend too however, they cannot speak for you. The role of the examiners are between a defender and listener – don’t leave the rope loose or too tight. It has been compared to other European VIVAs being set up like a court case. It should a positive and supportive event for the student. They will only ask questions that relate to the thesis, pre-arranged before the thesis. It is about a conversation with the work, getting the best out of the person sitting the examination.

Trust your supervisors. Trust the process.

Show ownership of the research. Take control.

Defend and justify versus being open.

Be honest. Talking around or avoiding a question approach does not work as they can see through you. There is no pass or fail moment. Be clear and concise. Imagine you are at a conference and you get stuck in the lift with the keynote speaker, you’ve got a minute until the lift gets to the bottom floor – why are you doing the research, what is it about, what is the value of my thesis. The value is important.

You should be able to talk about and present your research in five minutes. Let them introduce your research and take control of the VIVA at the beginning. Why, what lead me to do it, the core of what it was about and your contributions.

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How and what should I prepare?

Sleep. Have some distance from your work. Re-read the entire thesis. Write a synopsis of the argument of each chapter. Have a definition and understanding of terms. Have things ready to make you remember and act as a trigger. Find ways and methods that make you feel confident about it.

Read about your external examiner and if needed, show an awareness of their work in the VIVA.

Come up with a strategy from your mock VIVA. Identify weaknesses and come up with generic questions. The first question is usually can you tell us what your thesis is about, then asking what motivated you to do the research, object of study, method/methodology, what’s at stake, why have you used this theory versus another, why the case studies, key issues of debate, why is it a contribution to new knowledge…précis the chapters. A level of preparation that gives you a level of detail.

Have a mock VIVA. Be sure to organise one in advance.

Understand your research. Is it practice or theory-led? Look at the value and why practice-based/practice-led research was needed.

Justification. Justify why you did it that way. State what you could have done retrospectively. Being away from it for three months was the best thing to gain perspective. There’s an underlying reason why you do something. I’m kind of saying don’t worry. Don’t be defensive…don’t make yourself a hostage to fortune. Account for the choices you’ve made. Be honest.

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What actually happens? What is it like? Be prepared for the fact you will be nervous.

Your thesis is sent to your internal examiner, external examiner and the independent chair. They have a minimum of seven weeks to read the thesis, then coming together after this time to discuss the thesis and set and agree an agenda with questions, problems, methodological issues to unpick, how research is used and more. This is then compressed into questions reasonable to ask one person ready for the VIVA…and questions can then be made in response to answers. There is no right or wrong answers. Be clear about the limitations of your knowledge. It is how convincing you can be.

It can act more like a discussion with comments, less an interview. There are times when you don’t respond as they make (throw away) comments. There are times when you sit back and listen to them talking.

In terms of questions, remember context questions. How does your work compliment someone else’s…how does it fit into your field…where can the research can lead next…demonstrate what it can do and how it fits into your examiners knowledge. Mention current practice since handing in prior to the VIVA, what you are doing now.

It is not a memory test. Mark up and annotate your thesis. Take notes whilst questions are being asked in the VIVA and as you are having a conversation. This isn’t a job interview, it’s about your academic career…your thesis and how it is written. Think about what you want to say before you say it. Justification.

You can record the VIVA, it just needs to be agreed with independent chair and academic registry. You can also take in visuals and sound (or research aids). Only take these extra things if you actually need them.

By the time the VIVA is coming to an end, is there anything we haven’t asked you that you want to talk about…what is at the heart of your thesis or an area of development. You should have the opportunity to talk about that before it comes to an end.

You’ll be told the outcome of the examination, positive and negative feedback, you’ll be given a period of time to be complete corrections. The four outcomes are being awarded the degree with no corrections (I wish!); minor amendments to the thesis (typographical errors, errors in formatting, corrections so substantial for the submission of a revised thesis); not awarded the degree but be permitted to resubmit with or without VIVA (also called major amendments); finally not awarded the PhD but invited to submit for MPhil.

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The next step…and post-VIVA timeline

When you’ve passed your VIVA you don’t generally take in what you need to do, or what has happened. I can’t wait to have this feeling of the unknown. A time for reflection, recollection, reconsideration, renegotiation and rethinking of wordgirl’s next step. Will it be in academia? Will it be in research? Will it be in anything to do with my research? I’ll let you know later in the year…

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