By Kate Arnold
The VIVA… two syllables that fill any PhD student with a whole cocktail of emotions. This was the recipe for mine:
1/2 teaspoon of excitement
Juice of 3-5 years of tears
A generous dash of imposter syndrome
Shake with nerves
The week leading up to my viva did not help with the nerves. I had a little visit to A&E to have a cyst removed. It was not really ideal timing per se, but the silver lining was that I really had to take care of myself that week. Self-care is so hard to do when we’re stressed, but that’s when we need it the most. Now, I’m not saying I would recommend you getting a cyst removed under local anaesthetic four days before your viva, but I would HIGHLY recommend ensuring you are getting enough rest, eating proper meals and surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family that you might have hypothetically neglected slightly during the PhD years.
In between taking antibiotics and dressing my lovely new wound, I prepared by reading through my thesis again twice. The first time, I was checking for missed typos and problem areas, focusing on parts that examiners might want to know more about or clarification on. It looked like someone had crushed a canary on the pages of my thesis by the time I was finished covering it with post-its, which again, did not fill me with confidence. During the second read-through, I took the time to address these points which soothed a bit of my anxiety as I felt more comfortable with how I would defend potential problems.
The morning of my viva, I went through the motions of getting ready with a very strong desire to just run/swim/fly far, far away. Luckily again, my wound prevented me taking any drastic physical action, so all that was left to do was get to campus and sit the most important exam of my life. I felt an odd sense of calm before being summoned into the room, perhaps somewhere inside there was a cherry of confidence about my work.
I am as flabbergasted as anyone but I actually enjoyed my viva. It was TOUGH but so much more enjoyable than having a cyst removed with local anaesthetic! I was overwhelmed by how rewarding it was to have the opportunity to discuss a piece of work, the thesis that dominated so much of my life. The thesis that was a physical representation of the knowledge I had accumulated over the past few years. The examiners were incredibly considerate, ensuring I felt calm and comfortable before getting started. Then the warm up questions loosened my tongue and before I knew it, we were into the swing of it. I began by providing an overview of my thesis: what I did, how I did it, what I found and the implications of the findings. I expected the rest of the viva to be a painful process of testing my understanding and shredding my thesis to pieces. Instead, conversations naturally evolved and although I think the examiners did ensure I had a thorough understanding, they made me feel confident in my ability to defend my work and I was also genuinely interested and excited by the questions that they asked. The examiners were patient and responsive to my answers and seemed genuinely interested not just in my thesis, but my thoughts and opinions on the topic.
After two hours I was excused and left in a bit of a daze. I sat in my supervisors’ office waiting to be called back in and given the outcome, again a uniquely terrifying and exciting event. The whole experience was less dark and stormy than I had thought – I had old fashioned preconceptions of a sour assessors and everything going south(side). However, the whole experience fizzed with enjoyment and interest.
If you’re having your viva within the not so distant future the best advice that I could share and that was shared with me is to be yourself, have confidence in how well you know your work and make sure you don’t neglect yourself during the preparations. Finally, it’s probably best to avoid too many cocktails prior to the viva, especially if you’re on antibiotics. They taste so much sweeter when you can toast to the end of your PhD (preferably on the beach with the friends that got you through it all).
Kate Arnold’s thesis, supervised by Prof Gordon Harold, examined the associations between parental depression, interparental conflict and parent-child hostility with the development of internalising and externalising problems in children and adolescents. She had her viva on 29th April 2016 and her examiners were Prof Robin Banerjee (internal) and Dr Leslie Leve (University of Oregon). She currently works as an Assistant Psychologist for Outcomes for East London NHS Foundation, which allows her to combine research and clinical work.