The Best Defence Is...

Today is exactly one month since one of the best days of my PhD: the viva. Having had a month to come to terms with real life after 8 years of being a student, I wanted to write something about my viva experience. This isn’t a how-to or a guide or anything of the sort – it’s just a few words on my own viva and how it went.

For various reasons, the time between my thesis submission and viva was unusually short – exactly three weeks. I spent most of that time in a state of mild panic due to my friends constantly asking me how my (non-existent) viva preparations were going. For one thing, I didn’t want to set eyes on my thesis ever again and desperately wanted to not think about it for a few weeks. For another, I had no idea how to prepare for a viva, and hadn’t I essentially spent the last four years preparing for it anyway?

In the end, I went through a bunch of articles with titles like “How to pass your PhD viva!” and made a note of the most common questions that popped up in all of them. I also had an additional copy of my thesis printed and bound which I went through with a stack of Post-It notes and a red pen making note of all the typos that had escaped my notice until that point. (Spoiler: I found way more than my examiners did…)

By the time the viva itself rolled around, the usual night-before-exam nerves were strangely absent. Honest. I’d love to say this was because I’ve got nerves of steel, but the truth is that I had a lot of rough times during my PhD and I just didn’t think the viva could possibly be any worse. When you’ve been very publicly torn apart in front of conference audiences, for example, and have generally spent four years on the defensive, having a sit-down chat with two people about the work you’ve been living and breathing for all that time doesn’t seem all that frightening any more. If nothing else, I was pretty sure my work had stood up to every reasonable objection that could possibly be thrown at it, which took some of the pressure off. The work was solid: I just had to make sure I knew it inside-out.

The part of the viva that I was most scared of was the start. I had no idea what was going to happen. Would we dive straight into a page-by-page critique of the thesis? Would the examiners home in on the most grievous errors first, or lure me into a false sense of confidence by throwing me a few soft questions before pulling the floor out from under me? How long would it take before they realised I was an impostor and a fraud, that I didn’t deserve a PhD after all? Was it too late to run away?

That’s what was on my mind when I tentatively set foot into the office for the viva. Then I had to tentatively set foot right back out again because I’d walked into the wrong office, as its occupant was kind enough to remind me. Perspective thus gained, the tension of the moment was broken somewhat.

We started with the icebreaker question, which I’d seen in a lot of online viva guides – “Summarise your thesis for us, tell us the main points and what you’re most proud of”. I was grateful for an easy first question – my voice hadn’t got the memo that I wasn’t nervous and it took me a few sentences before it stopped wavering with those nerves that I wasn’t feeling.

What I wasn’t quite prepared for was how free-form the discussion was after the initial icebreaker question. I’d expected a page-by-page read-through of the thesis, and worried we might spend a lot of time on the earlier chapters where my intuition was weakest (but which I’d spent a lot of time brushing up on). Instead, the discussion meandered all over the later chapters, only returning to the early chapter towards the end of the viva. I’d expected to be constantly referring to the printed thesis but in the end I didn’t even open my copy. I liked this, because it made the viva feel like an organic conversation about my work as a whole rather than us doggedly slogging through my thesis in a rigidly prescribed order.

It was also a lot more interactive than I’d expected, by which I mean I spent the majority of the time standing up in front of the whiteboard drawing diagrams and writing equations. Early on in my PhD, one of my biggest weaknesses was my inability to think on my feet in front of an audience, and particularly my inability to do maths at a whiteboard on demand. One of the reasons I took on as much undergraduate teaching over the last few years as I did was to get over that particular hang-up of mine, and it seems to have worked.

In the end, I really enjoyed the viva. It passed by incredibly quickly and I had a great time discussing four years’ worth of work with people who’d actually spent considerable time and effort going through my thesis and familiarising themselves with it to the point where we could have that conversation. They weren’t superficial and didn’t give me an easy time, but I’d have been disappointed if they did. I will be forever grateful to Dr Joe Bhaseen of KCL and Dr Brendon Lovett of the University of St Andrews for making the viva one of the highlights of my PhD.

The end result, as you’ll probably have guessed from that glowing gratitude towards my examiners, was that I passed with only minor typographical corrections. (Had I not brought in a lovingly annotated thesis copy bristling with Post-It notes indicating all the typos I’d found myself, I might’ve gotten away with no corrections at all…)

By the 24th of August I had the official letter confirming that I had been awarded the degree of PhD, and I could attach those coveted two letters to the start of my name: Dr. My time in St Andrews was over and a few short days later, I moved out of the town entirely. After 8 brilliant years there, I’ll miss the place but it’s time to go have a new adventure elsewhere.

So, what’s next? Well, in a few weeks I’m moving to Paris to start a postdoctoral research position at the nearby Institut de Physique in Saclay. I am so excited – expect to hear much more from me about this in the near future!

Au revoir for now,

Dr S J Thomson