Tag Archives: PhD

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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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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Writing it right: Getting back to basics

The time has come. I am committing words to Word and beginning the official drafting of my thesis. The main aim of my thesis is to present, in writing, an original piece of research. In my case, I have been tracing the social connections of professionals in an emerging organisation in order to explore their knowledge practices. For six months, I have followed engineers and the objects of their practice in a renewable energy organisation, gathering transcribed interviews, jotting down observations and writing-up descriptions.  As I draw all of this written data together to start my thesis writing, I am reminded of one of Latour’s[1] (2005) questions: what are we actually doing when we trace these social connections?

In answer to his own query, he states that we trace social connections by writing down accounts. But what is an ‘account’? Latour maintains that an account is a text, written on paper that is read by a (normally small!) number of people. He contends that this writing of a textual account should not be sniffed at as:

the simple act of recording anything on paper is already an immense transformation that requires as much skill and just as much artifice as painting a landscape or setting up some elaborate biochemical reaction.  No scholar should find humiliating the task of sticking to description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. p. 136-7

Although Latour admits that the social scientist should not be concerned with ‘good style’ when writing their account, as we are rarely likely to achieve the skill of a poet or a playwright, I can’t help but think differently as a PhD student. When it comes to submitting your thesis you know the examiner’s critical gaze is judging not only how ‘good’ the account is in tracing the social connections but also the accuracy of the grammar, the exactness of the punctuation marks and how successfully the style engages the reader.

At this stage in your education, it is assumed by many (both supervisors and students) that the main capacity required to draft this staggering tome – one’s dexterity of the English language – is finely honed and primed for use at a moment’s notice. Passive or active verb structure turmoil, semi colon or colon anxiety, and second person pronoun confusion should be the least of the student’s worries at this point. Shouldn’t  learning the rules of grammar and punctuation belong to the English classes of our early school years?

Yet I have noticed that friends and colleagues seem to have had different experiences of learning grammar and punctuation at school. Then, when we come to actually writing one of the most important documents of our careers, we seem to have varying levels of understanding as to what constitutes ‘correct’ grammar and punctuation[2]. If we take to heart Latour’s counsel, ‘that good sociology has to be well written; if not the social doesn’t appear through it’ (p.124), I feel there is a need to ensure PhD students are equipped with the basic rules of grammar and punctuation during their PhD journey – and this level of training should not be sniffed at either. After all, in qualitative work, the written word and the ‘thick description’ is the essence of your thesis. This grammatical top-up can be as simple and effective as a couple of day-workshops. For example, at Stirling we have the option of attending workshops focused on writing for each particular year of our PhD (an external trainer at Grammatology runs these for us). These are by far the most useful training days I have been on as a PhD student. And I can now go forth on my academic journey having learnt that you never start a sentence with a conjunction…


[1] Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] I know I am still learning how to be grammatically ‘correct’ in my writing, but I like to think I have an awareness of when a sentence ‘looks’ and ‘sounds’ right. I can thank my 5th grade English teacher for this – Ms B. had a penchant for endless grammatical workbook exercises.

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The Tentative Academic

Welcome to my blog!

A brief introduction – I am a full-time PhD student in the School of Education at the University of Stirling, working within the research network Professional Education, Practice and Learning. That’s what my business card says anyway. But before I get into any more of ‘how I got to where I am today and why’ spiel, I feel I have to confess that I’m having some identity issues.  Even though I would situate my job title firmly in the academic arena, I would call myself a ‘tentative academic’.  This is grounded in the feeling that I’m not quite sure what an ‘academic’ is anymore. I have always been put off by the idea of joining what I (along with many others, I’m sure) view as a solitary, ego-based and quite lonely profession. When an offer to do a PhD came about at Stirling on the back of completing my MRes in Education, I expressed my concerns to my potential supervisor. She waved away these stereotypical images promising an interactive, dynamic and exhilirating experience. Hmm… Nevertheless, she is an incredibly energetic and convincing speaker so I decided to suspend my preconceptions, and became a phd candidate in 2011. No regrets yet. But what does it mean to be an ‘academic’?

One of our first graduate training workshops explored the learning process – On being a PhD Student. On the first morning, Sarah Goldsworthy, the facilitator, asked those in the room to raise their hands if they thought they were an academic. Not one person put their hand up. When do you become an ‘academic’, she asked? When you publish your first paper, first book, hold your first lecture, supervise your first student? Nope, apparently we were academics now.  No one looked convinced. And one and a half years into my research project, I’m still not sure when I can confidently claim this title. I have come to the conclusion that, thanks to today’s international and technological academic networks, a PhD is very much a creative process; a three or four year ‘job’ that can be shaped in so many ways.

Holding fast to the ‘learning’ status of the PhD this past 18 months, I’ve been happy to hang out in the banlieues of academia. I don’t mind it out of the headlights, sitting on a park bench with Jimmy and watching what’s going on, figuring out when and what bits of the hustle and bustle I’d like to get up and join. This freedom to observe has afforded me the realisation that it’s okay to play with the boundaries of academia. With the rapid increase and innovation of technology and social media being created for and by PhD students and academics, you can operate in a personalised ‘world’, choosing the medium you feel comfortable with and attuning your work and outputs to where your natural strengths lie and still expect a successful career (economic climate pending). For example, I love networking, working in groups, conferences and meeting to share ideas face to face. Writing concise, yet dense and theoretically profound paragraphs within a strict word count and hiding behind it, not so much. On the technological front, communicating through Facebook groups, emails and texts are like drinking water; I’m sitting comfortably amongst the digital natives, albeit I’m a late bloomer. But twitter, blogs, webinairs; I’m out of my comfort zone. Who wants to hear my opinions, rants, half-baked ideas, apart form my long suffering PhD buddies? What would I say in a blog that could be earth-shatteringly original? After all, am I not just adding to what the comedian Chris Ramsey calls offer-mation, to the pile of ‘not very interesting personal information that we haven’t asked for’?

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…

This last year a couple of things swam into my conscious that made me realise it was sink or swim with social media, especially if I ever become inclined to break free of this academic ‘tentativeness’. Firstly, my supervisor asked me to register with Twitter and tweet during an international conference that our research network, ProPEL was hosting at Stirling. After much agonising about how to best use my 140 characters, I finally clicked that it didn’t matter particularly what you were saying, it was the virtual presence you were creating with your hashtags and your snippets of that day’s proceedings that were breaking through the physical walls of the conference rooms, inviting colleagues in Australia to feel part of our community in real time. Next realisation: I was asked for my ‘blog address’ on a recent conference application form as nonchalantly as they requested my postal address and phone number. I left that pointedly blank. Then my PhD colleagues started to create blogs (for example, the eloquent and thought-provoking Knowledge is Porridge by Daniel Sage), our supervisors pointed us to ‘professional’ and trending PhD blogs for helpful thesis writing tips (for example, Patter and The Thesis Whisperer), and friends were creating blogs post-PhD to kick-start their careers (Positive Performance headed up by Dr Anna Serlachius). For these reasons, coupled with a vague 2013 New Year’s resolution that I need to be less self-conscious about my writing and just ‘get it out there’, I am slowly starting to concede to the value of blogging.

So, turning my back on Mr Ramsey’s warning of offering unsolicited ponderings to the public, I present to you ‘the office dog’ – a blog positing my reflections on research in Higher Education,professional practice, workplace learning, practice-based knowing, sociomaterial discussions, assessment and feedback issues, and my musings about what it is to be a PhD student in today’s world. Even if reading this gives you momentary respite from trying to figure out the intricacies of capitalising your references in RefWorks, I’ll feel like creating this blog has been worth it….

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