Vive-ing La Viva: How to answer viva questions

So, in January, I passed my viva! Every day since I have had to pinch myself that the PhD is now officially over (apart from walking across the stage in June, where my husband will weep in utter joy that this day has ACTUALLY, FINALLY come, and I can now bring in a pay cheque and help with weekend childcare again). While I have needed a few months distance from my thesis, I am now ready to come back to it, and start thinking about post-PhD publications (who am I kidding, it’s never officially over…). So, as a starter for ten, I thought I’d pick up the blogging to spew out wisely impart any useful advice I can from the viva process to help anyone else going through this daunting journey.

Submitting PhD at university

Submission day!

When it came to prepping for my viva (I submitted in September and my viva wasn’t until January so I had a decent amount of time to prepare/freak out), I found a lot of online viva resources and blog posts that provided helpful lists of likely and possible questions you may be asked, so you can prepare your answers. However, what I found most helpful were the tips from my supervisors[1]during my mock viva (tip 1: have a mock viva with your supervisors). Specifically, they talked about HOW I should answer the examiners’ questions, not necessarily WHAT to answer. Here are some examples:

Sign post your answers: You will undoubtedly be asked, in so many words, ‘What is your original contribution to knowledge?’. As with all replies, keep your answer clear; don’t make things too complicated. Structure the points you want so you can signpost the examiner to your main thesis contributions, just as you would have in your written conclusion. For example, I said ‘My thesis makes three original contributes to knowledge: firstly, a theoretical contribution… secondly a methodological contribution… and thirdly, a pedagogical contribution….’, and kept it to a few sentences for each of the three points.

It’s a stamina game: It is easy at the beginning of the viva to want to just keep talking, through nerves, or a worry that you want to show off everything at once. My viva was only an hour and a half, but I’ve heard of some lasting over five hours – it just depends on the examiners, and what emerges on the day. Have faith that, when answering the first few questions, you don’t have to reel off your whole thesis there and then. Take your time; it is a tiring and exhaustive few hours. I hit the wall after an hour as I’d begun to relax into it, and my adrenaline dropped (I remember doing a few over-loud sighs without realising..) So, pace yourself. If you are worried that you have not answered their question, you can politely ask if they would like you to expand any more.

Although it’s a defence of your thesis, don’t come across as defensive: This is a hugely useful distinction that I was made aware of. The examiners are there to critically pick apart your thesis, probing why you did certain things and not others. Yet this thesis is your baby, and no one but you can say your baby isn’t perfect. So your hackles rise, and perhaps, without realising it, the tone or manner in which you reply could come across as too defensive and it could make the examiners feel defensive too; they’re only human, after all. You can still defend your reasons politely but firmly… ‘That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, but I found, for my study, it was more helpful to look at it this way….’, or similar.

Don’t know the answer? Sometimes they may ask you something that you have not even thought about, let alone prepared for. At this point, have a few stock phrases up your sleeve to give you some time to mull it over:

Well, now that I think about it like that…

I’m only starting to see this now…

That’s a very good point, I’d like to look at this issue in more detail.

Practice speaking your answers aloud to get used to your voice: The best prep I did was with a colleague who had her viva at a similar time to me. We scheduled weekly Skype sessions in the weeks before and practiced asking each other unseen questions. This helped me get used to hearing my own voice, and let me play with how I could verbalise concepts and ideas that I had only, up until then, put into writing.

Prepare your own questions: Like an interview scenario, it looks professional if you have a few prepared questions for the examiners for the ‘any questions?’ part, at the end. For example, you could ask their thoughts on where you could publish future journal articles from your PhD. Or, how a particular concept you developed fits with their own work (brownie points for having read the examiners’ latest papers).

And, finally, two tips from me after having survived:  

Simplify the notes you take in with you: I was allowed to take in as many notes, thesis drafts, books, lucky mascots as I wanted. However, if you are relying too much on your answers coming from reading your notes, the flow of conversation will falter, and you may end up getting into a bit of a sweat. As part of the revision process, I made colourful mind maps that summarised the main points I wanted to make for each potential question. I took these in to the viva and lay them out in front of me, which meant I could flick my eyes to them if I had a mind-blank:

A4 revision and prep cards

A4 revision and prep cards

Enjoy it… or just get through it: Everyone kept saying to me, ‘just enjoy your viva!’ It’s easy to say that once you’re through the other side. So, if you enjoy it, bonus! If not, well-bloody-done for having got to the viva in the first place, and whatever happens, reward yourself big-style at the end:

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[1]Thank you Tara and Terrie-Lynn!

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On another matter…

After my initial tentative approach to blogging, over the last few years I have come to appreciate that personal, individual blogs are a really helpful medium for both the writer and (hopefully) the reader. But there is also immense value in a following (and contributing) to a blog that has regular, multiple and varied contributors who share a range of perspectives on a similar topic. One such blog that I can highly recommend is run by the University of Stirling’s ProPEL group – ProPEL Matters:

ProPEL Matters is the blog for ProPEL (Professional Practice, Education and Learning), a cross-disciplinary network of people interested in researching matters of interest across a wide range of occupational groups that call themselves ‘professions’.

I was recently asked to write a post for this blog on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and my experiences of getting to grips with it. I decided to write about how one of the most enjoyable yet mind-bending challenges during my thesis work has been getting to grips with the powerful terms and vocabulary used in ANT. I’d be honoured if you would check it out at Metaphorically speaking: Word play in Actor Network Theory. Its a wee bit similar to my post If the shoe fits… but has a good go at integrating the use of metaphors in ANT. While you are on the site, please check out the rest of the fantastic posts! Happy browsing.

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Return of the Mac(book)

August 2017. That’s THE deadline. I’m putting it out there as further motivation to get.this.thesis.submitted. I’ve been quiet on the blogging, and working, front for the last 18 months or so due to welcoming my little buddy into the world. But I’m now back writing. The poor chap has already been dragged to supervision meetings. He’s not a fan of theory yet, but is quite happy to help me highlight journals:

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Reading buddy

Having a substantial period of time away from the thesis has been good for perspective, both for seeing my work more clearly, and for appreciating a work/life balance. Also, with my buddy in nursery now for 3 days a week, it puts a different value on my time for writing. It’s tough balancing the sleepless nights, teething and weaning with trying to write a polished final draft, but it only goes to reinforce the realities of doing a PhD: you can’t put your life on hold. And seeing this face at the end of a day writing only makes me want the PhD even more to secure a good job and future for him.  Onwards…

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Two steps forward, one step back…

This is the continuous dance of the PhD and the writing process. There is nothing wrong with this gauche sequence. Some steps are slow and faltering; others resemble a fast quickstep. One step takes you sideways, another forces you back. Throw in a full twirl after the one step back, and there’s the feeling that everything is momentarily thrown off-balance. And then the music rightens you and you take another step. Although the band is there to support you and encourage your steps to follow one after another, this a solo number. One step after the other, what ever direction that may be.

Yesterday I witnessed the best dance sequence of the whole PhD process. Each step taken was calm, proud, determined. Each step was in one coherent direction: forward. Across a stage, in front of a friends, family and teachers. In front of a silenced band. Yesterday I was incredibly proud to watch the graduation dance of my colleague and officedog muse, Dr Maureen Michael, from the School of Education, University of Srirling. We started the PhD process at the same time and know each others weaknesses and strengths better than we do our own. It has been an absolute privilege to see such a close colleague successfully audition for the most important performance of her life. It has provided me with such beautiful proof that this awkward dancing is not in vain. I look forward greatly to following in her steps next year. One step after the other, forward.

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Congratulations Dr Mo! xx

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If the shoe fits…

We have a rule in our house. No recounting your sleep dreams to each other…

So last night I had this crazy dream, I was in Tokyo and I was carrying three talking chipmunks in my backpack, when…

Zippit, my loved one. Not on my time. This dream-event never happened and, in this current dimension, most likely never will. Therefore, this is a selfish monologue of which I want no part. Take it to Russell Grant.

However, for this blog I have decided to break with this rule just once (and for which I duly apologise, but I’ll make the ‘dream’ bit as short as possible).

A few nights ago, I dreamt I took into a shoe repair shop five pairs of patented, high-heeled shoes that needed re-heeling. The cobbler lined them up on the counter and asked,

“Ah, I see these are Latour shoes. Can’t you wear something that is more comfortable? These look very awkward to walk in”.

“No, no”, I replied, “I need to attend all these events this year and I must wear these Latour shoes to look the part. As you can see, they’ve taken a bit of a bashing as I’ve tried to break them in, but they’re getting more comfy.”

“Ok”, she replied, “that will be £55”

“£55!!”, I remember exclaiming – and this is when I realised I have been a student too long – “Do you do student discount?” and brandished my student card.

I got them dream-repaired for £46 – result!

So, this dream sequence stayed with me over the next few day and got me thinking about how we choose the terminologies we work with, or even as we try to shoe horn them in, when analysing and theorising our data. I won’t be the first to admit that learning about ANT has been like learning a whole new language where the wrong subject-object-verb configuration can reveal you as an ANT interloper. Each word has to be carefully picked up, held against the light, and inspected for its suitability and sense-making for an ANT-styled sentence. After all, the description in ANT is the analysis.

However, appropriating terminology adopted, or created, by fellow ANT authors is only affording me to make sense of my data to a point. I am struggling to find the right combination of words to fully express my analytical concepts. At my last supervision, it was suggested that I could start shaping my OWN terminology to help me conceptualise my data!! This is probably the biggest, scariest outcome of my PhD process so far. I now have a RESPONSIBILITY to add to a new language – a new way of describing – that needs to make sense of a very complex ontology. So, I am excited, but nervous, as I start playing around with new configurations of words, verb conjugations and meanings. ‘Playing’, I think, is the key notion here. I am allowing myself some time to play with the words and this can only help my thinking process as I cut, paste, delete, paste, cut, and delete some more. I am hoping in the next few months I can start replacing those dream high-heels with a few pairs of lovely comfy flip flops that won’t make my feet hurt so much….

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Employing a different tack: Employability as a Discourse

In the latter part of 2014, my colleague, Errol Rivera, attended a conference in Edinburgh that addressed the subject of university-to-work transitions. In this blog post, Errol raises the question about how ‘employability’ is increasingly being treated as a ‘discipline’ in its own right. He argues for an alternative narrative drawing on Foucault: one of ‘employability as a discourse’.

 

“In October, fellow educators gathered at a Society for Research into Higher Education event to discuss the state of graduate employability and share success stories of work placement and internships initiatives. In the concluding plenary, an interesting conversation arose. Regarding the subject of employability, its growing importance and the level of understanding it requires, are we looking at the rise of a new discipline?

The employability of HE graduates is an issue which impacts us on a national if not global level. Those within and outwith education institutions have an interest in tracking the current state of employment among graduates, identifying contributing factors, and articulating and projecting the effects of graduate employment statistics onto the social, political, and economic robustness of our society. The search to define, provide, and increase employability for our students has necessitated powerful tools for a deeper, more widely applicable understanding of the matter. But what are we actually trying to do with that understanding? Are we looking for significant relationships between practice and outcome? Do we assume there is a solution – that somewhere between the data and the relevant context we can reverse engineer a single policy or a combination of policies that can be enacted on a university or national level to bring about positive change? Are we chasing a single, all-encompassing answer that doesn’t exist – that shouldn’t exist?

Engaging with the notion of ‘employability as a discourse’ is a direct response to this ongoing conversation. What would we find if we employed the critical lens of Michel Foucault’s “The Order of Discourse” as a sensibility for interrogating publications, employability initiatives and university strategies – everything that articulates our understanding of how we ensure graduates’ futures? Given Foucault’s imperative for specificity and his resistance to the “process of exclusion” that is the notion of ‘Truth’, I’d imagine such an interrogation would lead us to acknowledge the success of work placement schemes, internships, and programmes of study that are contextual, dialogic, programme focussed, and even provisional. In embracing the culture of the respective practice of each profession, these initiatives are eschewing the notion that graduate employability maps onto to a single outcome. There is no single solution, and nor should educators be looking for one.”

Errol Rivera works at Edinburgh Napier University as a creative writer and pedagogical researcher. He also loves dogs and backs my on-going campaign for an office dog. You can follow his adventures @escottrivera.

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If we build them, will they come? The stickiness of Open Badges.

So I thought Twitter was just a phase… How wrong I was. It bewilders me: what makes one social media application ‘stick’ and another one wither away into an html graveyard? This was the concern for those attending a session on The Realities of Badging at the Opening Education Practices in Scotland Advisory Forum in October. Open Badges (OBs) are digital image files created by Mozilla Firefox and are being taken up by some educationalists as a tool for recognising and rewarding non-academic activities [think boy/girl scout badges for the digital generation]. These files contain metadata about what skills, qualities, and level of achievements the badge holder has attained, as well as information about who has issued the badge, and even its verification by a third party. The value in their portability and imagery emerges when students add them to their social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress, in order to showcase their employability

For OB’s to ‘stick’, a reciprocal affiliation needs to develop between HE and FE institutions and employers. With such few trials of OBs in existence in the UK, the qualities of this relationship are unclear. For universities, there is no point spending resources creating OBs unless employers agree to value OBs, understanding what they represent and what weighting they carry. Employers are reluctant to offer their unreserved support for OBs until they understand the purpose and currency of OBs through regular adoption and use by HE and FE institutions. A charity director at the session summed up this catch-22 situation with her somewhat rhetorical question, ‘if we build them, will they come?’.

In her blog post Evidencing Employability Skills with Open Badges, Grainne Hamilton, a former Jisc RSC Scotland employee, summed up three possible barriers to making OB’s ‘stick’ for employers:

  1. Employers want to immediately understand the value behind a badge. They don’t want to spend time clicking through to the detail of a badge unless they feel it will reveal something worthwhile

  2. Employers are concerned with badge apathy and are likely to be put off the concept of badges if they come across too many badges that are irrelevant to them in a given context

  3. It is probable that new trust networks will develop but initially it is likely badges from issuers employers already know and trust will be valued more.

Grainne’s blog post offers some solutions to these problems, including tagging, clustering and endorsing badges. However, for me, there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed around employability and the use of Open Badges: one of articulation. Wouldn’t handing out badges, albeit in shiny digital formats, simply reinforce the cognitive acquisition metaphor of ‘skills’ that can be ‘transferred’ from one place to another? As my colleagues in the Careers department argued when asked about OBs, the issue isn’t how we represent the skills attained – a certificate, digital badges or LinkedIn – it is how the student then articulates their understanding of this skill in relation to the workplace during an interview. The issue isn’t about how easily the employer can understand or recognise the significance of a LinkedIn endorsement or an Open Badge for Digital Learning, it is about how the student recognises and translates their non-academic experiences into professional responses about workplace practice. As educators, this is where our focus needs to be directed in order to better understand and enhance graduate employability.

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