I finished my PhD! Yay me! It has been quiet here for the last months (nearly a year), so lets see how I managed to finish 🙂
The Viva, or oral examination/defense, of a PhD thesis in the British system is different from many other countries. Some of the key differences are (1) that it is behind closed doors and not public and (2) most of the time the PhD candidate has to do some corrections to the thesis before it is accepted and (3) there is no grade on the thesis. This is very different from the German system for example, where the PhD candidate has to give a public lecture of about 40 minutes and then has to answer questions from a board of examiners (up to 10 professors/lecturers) and then right after the examination gets a grade. There are pros and cons for any system, but I think that the British system is fairer, because it gives the candidate more time to explain him/herself and engage in actual discussions with the examiners. And as no thesis is perfect, some corrections afterwards seem quite appropriate. Anyhow, this post is about my viva experience (which is now already quite some time back)!
There are two examiners, an internal examiner from the same University, and an external from a different University. I felt good about my examiners as I had a good relationship to my internal examiner, who I had demonstrated on several field trips with, and I had met my external examiner at several conferences and once, at the very beginning of my PhD when I had no idea she could be my examiner, sat next to her on a train ride from London to Edinburgh. The examiner selection process had taken place about half a year before the viva, when I discussed potential candidates with my supervisors and made suggestions who they should not pick for me.
My viva was in November 2015, about four and half months after I had handed in my thesis. Normally it should be a bit closer to the hand-in date, but both of my examiners were busy and then I spent a month in Nepal which did’t help either! For the week of my viva me and my brother drove a car from the South of Germany to Scotland so we could take all of my belongings on our way back. It is a long drive and so I had plenty of time to think about the viva which was coming up and I felt quite comfortable about it. I had just spent the previous week reviewing what I had actually written in my thesis, because 4.5 months are a long time and I was afraid I would forget things I wrote as well as I was preparing a talk I wanted to give just the day before my viva. Turns out I remembered nearly every line I had written! So about 4 days before my viva I felt quite good about it.
The afternoon before my viva I gave the talk I had prepared and had some good discussions afterwards and mainly positive feedback. Most people agreed that I should be fine, which I was hoping I would be! In the evening before my viva I decided to read some more of the papers my external examiner had written. It turned out I could/should have read them before and potentially cited some of them in my thesis, which made me a bit nervous. I somehow managed to go to sleep anyhow.
The morning of my viva day I was pretty nervous. My viva was to start at 2pm, which is quite late and gives you a lot of time to think about all the stuff that could go wrong! Normally, a late viva is a good sign (or so they say. Who does actually say that?! Is that really a thing?) as Vivas tend to be over around 5-5.30ish in the afternoon. Well at that morning that didn’t give me much confidence. Rather I was suffering some kind of impostor syndrome while I was sitting in a coffee shop reading through my thesis for a last time. How could anyone not see that most of what I had written was just plainly wrong? How could they even let me start doing my PhD in my particular topic? Wasn’t it all to clear that I had no idea what I was doing though the last 3.5 years? These kind of questions are actually quite common for PhD students – but that does not make them less scary. I managed to get some lunch with some friends and that made me feel a lot better! Several of them had just passed their viva in the last few months before mine and that was quite reassuring (if they can do it, so could I!).
On my way to my viva I decided to stop by the library to get a coffee in the library coffee. While I was standing in line to get my coffee I suddenly heard a familiar voice behind me. As I turned around I saw my examiners just in line behind me, also eager to get coffee. I knew they had met for lunch to discuss my thesis and the viva and I thought I could tell from their faces that they were not too worried about the viva, which felt good but as they didn’t say anything it could mean nothing at all! We walked to the viva room together, having a debate about Nepal-India politics, which was very random. When we got to the room it was still a bit early, but we decided to start the viva because we felt like waiting was a bit pointless. The meeting room had a large table stretching through the whole room, and instead of sitting on one end, which for me would have felt a lot more comfortable, we sat down in the middle, with my examiners on one side and me on the other side, separated by the table.
The viva started of with the external examiner asking me to tell them why I had chosen this PhD and I went on for a few minutes about my PhD, how the focus of the research changed while I was doing it, what I thought was good and what maybe could be improved. After that we had a short discussion about general things, of which a few surprised me, before we started literally going through my thesis page by page. Some of the more general issues the examiners had were: Punctuation (guilty as charged! Who really knows where all those commas, full stops and semi-colons go?! 😉 ), the way I ordered my references within the text (I had it sorted alphabetically (Bruce, 2010; Dickinson, 1985), they wanted it sorted by years (Dickinson, 1985; Bruce, 2010), which makes sense), and that I didn’t use enough key references (which surprised me a bit as I am pretty sure that I have more references in my thesis than anyone I know). They didn’t even comment on my wonderful layouting work 😦 !
We then discussed what they didn’t like (or like) about each chapter, by going through all the pages. Right at the first chapter my external examiner asked me a simple technical question and I literally blanked. I knew that I knew the answer, but my brain decided to not know at that moment! I tried to hide my panic and decided to draw the problem on a sheet of paper and with some help I manged to answer it in the end. But I think that was the only time during my viva where I couldn’t answer a question 🙂 Sometimes I was able to convince them that the way I did it was the best way and that their suggestions weren’t improving anything, but more often than not their criticism was sound. Most of the criticism I was actually expecting as I was well aware of the shortcomings of my thesis and I think that was something they liked. One of the key points was that they weren’t too sure what I had done (nearly all of it) and which ideas I might have gotten from other people. They other main issue for my examiners was that my Synthesis and Conclusion Chapter was too long and too much of a discussion! It took a bit more than two hours to go through all of the chapters, which for me felt more like 30 minutes!
At this point I was asked to leave the room for a bit so they could discuss my verdict (or so it felt). I probably only spent five minutes waiting for them to call me back in, but it felt closer to half an hour! At no time during my viva there were any hints that I would pass – or not pass for that matter, so I was left with my mixed feelings. While I was pretty sure that I would pass, I wasn’t too sure on how much corrections I was going to have. The horror stories of PhD students who had to do two years of corrections and additional experiments/fieldwork/research came back to my mind… and how some of them never finished their PhD.
Soon my examiners called me back into the room and congratulated me to my PhD! 🙂 This was quite a relief and even the fact that they offered me a year of corrections (instead of 3 months) couldn’t ruin it. Well, to be fair, I was a bit down because everyone else had been given three months worth of corrections (or even no corrections at all!) and from the things we discussed in my viva it didn’t feel as if I had to do much work. The reasoning was that I had to restructure my thesis a bit (move contents from one chapter to the others) and that the University doesn’t accept three months as an appropriate time to do so. So I went on to have drinks with my friends to celebrate me passing my viva!
To sit down and actually do your corrections can require some serious self-control. After all, nobody wants to work on something that was supposed to be finished again and again… It took me nearly two months before I started doing my corrections (to be fair, on of them was December, and in December nobody gets work done anyway!). But once I had started it was surprisingly easy to tick off all the boxes on what had to be corrected/rewritten/rearranged and it took me only about two weeks to do it all! Some more corrections follow suit when I sent my “corrected” version to my internal examiner and he finds some more mistakes but then I am ready to print and submit!
A few weeks after handing in I find the following letter in my letterbox:
Now all I have to do is to attend the graduation ceremony in June and I will get a final certificate, because without a piece of paper that states that you are a doctor, you are just not a doctor 😉
I hope you managed to read through this somewhat lengthy entry and enjoyed it as well! Here is to the future 🙂
PS: If you know of any post-doc that seems suited for me, please let me know! Same is true if you got some grant money lying around…