Throughout my annual PhD reviews I have kept you up to date on my progress as a behavioural PhD student. I had good years, I had bad years and now, I’ll have no more years!
No, I’m not dying (although, aren’t we all dying technically speaking?!), I have just had my viva, which is another way of saying my PhD dissertation defense. I’ll give you a spoiler: I passed with very minor corrections, which means from now on I’m no longer a PhD student. I’m a dr.!
This will likely be the very last article I can write about the PhD experience from my own perspective. Maybe it’ll be the very last article I’ll write about the topic in general. Don’t fret – I’m writing a book about the whole process, so you won’t be starved for my writing. But let’s dive into the last part of my PhD experience: the viva.
I did not go into my viva blind. Both of my supervisors, especially Andrea, set aside time to talk me through the English process (yes, different countries have different ways of approaching this). In the UK, the viva is a rather informal do. About a month in advance you notify your department (in my case, Warwick Business School) about who you want as your internal (Warwick’s own) and external (not from Warwick) examiners, as well as the chair of the meeting (they carry an admin. or more observational role in the viva. Having sent these details off (granted that they said yes when approached by your supervisors), you now have your viva team locked in. This is the team you will be faced with when discussing your research.
Now, one obvious, massive and unignorable difference between my viva and a “regular” viva is the fact that mine was online. It was online for rather obvious reasons that I will not dive into further. This can have both drawbacks and benefits. I personally liked calling in from the comfort of my own home. I sat in the office (yes we have an office at home) all professional looking, notepad and pen at the ready. I think the “meeting distance”, which is how I’m describing not being in the same room as them, actually helped me. I somehow felt it made me less emotional, maybe even a bit detached, which in my case meant I listened better, took better notes, got less defense and got more out of the experience in general. But more about that later.
As I said before, I didn’t go in blind. Andrea outlined the questions they were likely to ask me (it wasn’t his first rodeo), the most important one being: “how does your research contribute to the body of work already existing?” There’s a multitude of ways to ask that question, in the same way that there’s a multitude of ways to answer it. Just keep in mind, they may ask this. Another question that Andrea thought might come up was: “why did you choose [insert method/design]?” This question is a way of figuring out what the thought process was behind the finished product, because that often isn’t presented in the finished product (ever read an academic paper which outlined all the experimental methods that failed? I don’t think so…). So I was armed with some good prep from Andrea. Ironically, neither of these two questions got asked at my viva, but they were a great thought exercise to get myself reacquainted with my own work (it had been 2 months since submission), so I can’t say I minded. Ultimately, Andrea’s advice was: read the thesis before the viva, take the day before off, listen to the questions carefully, and don’t forget to enjoy it.
On top of having Andrea’s support I also had two dear friends and colleagues who had gone before me: David and Lara. Lara had the viva 6 months before I did (different scholarship programs) and David had it years before (different cohort). They told me what to expect, but mainly, to actually enjoy the process. Lara emphasized specifically that I really shouldn’t stress beforehand – that it might ruin the actual enjoyment of the experience. Which she said she would’ve enjoyed more had she not stressed so much.
Armed with all this advice, having read the thesis on Saturday and taken the day off on Sunday, I sat at my desk on Monday at 11 am, waiting for the viva to start. I was explained the set up of the meeting by Daniel Read, my chair, and introduced to Daniel (Danny) Navarro-Martinez (external) and Tim Mullet (internal, who I knew well beforehand and “introduced” is a strong word here). It was decided on the spot that Danny would take the lead, and so he did. He went through my dissertation chapter by chapter, starting with comments, questions and notes on the first research chapter (Chapter 3). He asked for every chapter what its “state” was. To clarify: was it published, r&r, close to journal submission or still a “work in progress”. The comments are tailored to this, because to suggest rewriting the theoretical set up of an already published paper is rather pointless. Danny’s comments, advice and clarifying questions made perfect sense to me. I wasn’t thrown any curveballs, nothing which I couldn’t place or had to retrieve from the deepest most obscure depths of my memory. Tim’s comments and advice were much the same, but this made sense as Tim wasn’t new to my work: he had also been present at most of my annual reviews.
This is how it went chapter by chapter. I have four research chapters, and now I also have 4 A5 pages in my notebook dedicated to further questions, possible experimental extensions, further variables of interest and a restructuring of the argument of Chapters 5 & 6 (not yet published), to fit a slightly different narrative. I have to admit, I got a bit worried when Danny started discussing running additional experiments, because I was scared this would feed into receiving a grade of “major corrections”. For those who don’t know, in the British system (and in quite a few systems) you can receive one of four grades: pass (no corrections), minor corrections, major corrections and a fail (no corrections can make this work up to the level of the department/university). Minor corrections can be done in a day, or even less. Major corrections require a lot more additional work. An additional experiment could be a major correction. So you can understand why I was getting a bit worried there!
After about 1,5 hours, we had gone through the four research chapters. I had explained my angle on certain things – why we applied certain theories the way we did – and had answered clarifying questions. I even had to explain why one of the analysis of my studies (my very first study!) deviated so much from the preregistration plan (it happens to the best of us, truly). After this friendly and constructive chat, I was kicked out of the meeting so they could deliberate. I went downstairs and made a cup of tea. When I was back upstairs it only took several more minutes before they called back. It had been a short deliberation. I was welcomed with a “Congratulations Dr. van den Akker. You have passed with VERY minor corrections.” I thought it was funny how they emphasized the “very”. It’s essentially hinting at the fact that there’s typos and other minor kinks that need to be straightened out. I became aware of some of them when re-reading my submitted thesis. You cannot imagine how frustrating that is.
Anyway, my supervisors were notified of the result and were also invited into the meeting (in the UK the viva isn’t open to anyone but the examination team), they congratulated me and we just had a nice chat. The obvious: “what’s next for you?” question came along. I have a job lined up in February 2022 (the world permitting), that I’m very excited about, so I was happy to chat about this. Oddly enough, we also talked about politics, Boris Johnson, sunburns tattoos, getting your eyebrows microbladed and the fact that mobile phones are about as addictive as crack. You know, the regular stuff. Had my viva been “regular” we would have gone to the pub for a celebratory drink afterwards. But given the mix of British, Spanish and Dutch callers, as well as the current state of the world, it wasn’t meant to be. I can’t say I mind it too much. I’m a massive introvert, I was happy to gloat alone for a while.
When I submitted the PhD thesis I felt a massive anti-climax. As I’m writing this, looking back on the viva and being able to call myself Dr. van den Akker, I’m experiencing the full moment of achievement and giddiness I had been hoping for. So if you’ve been worried about that yourself, don’t be, it’ll come.
There’s not much advice I can give on doing the viva that goes beyond the advice that’s already been given by Andrea, David and Lara: re-read your thesis, don’t stress and enjoy it. Because honestly, it is really quite enjoyable to talk about your research to someone who’s actually read it, knows what’s going on and wants to discuss it with you!
If you're due a viva soon, I wish you the best of luck!