Mock Viva Voce Examination

Those of you who know me, will be aware that since September 2011 I have been pursuing a professional doctorate at the University of Birmingham.

Today I attended the university, at the request of my supervisors, to undergo a mock oral examination - a 'Viva' for those in-the-know - in which I was to defend my thesis.

After the initial pleasantries, the event quickly became almost comically serious. This was role-play, I was told, and promptly banished from the room to wait until I was invited back in.

I didn't have long outside to ponder my predicament before my supervisors - both adopting inscrutably stern expressions - summoned me back in. Two men I had got to know reasonably well over the last few years were now talking to me in hushed and somber tones that were strongly reminiscient of school-boy visits to the Headmaster's study for a good ticking off..

And so we began. Could I summarize the findings of my research in less than one minute? I could.
Thereafter the questions came hard-and-fast, getting progressively more mentally taxing as they did so. We launched into a discussion of my research methods chapter. I described my methods accurately, giving, I thought, a good justification of each. My confidence grew.

'Which authors had I drawn on most heavily in designing my research instruments?' I was asked. Horror of horrors; I had a total mental blank. 'Someone whose surname begins with C...' I said lamely as my (now sweaty) hands slipped about on the keys of my laptop in a vain effort to navigate to catch a glimpse of that elusive author's name.

'Don't worry to much about looking for it on there,' said Mike, 'Just tell us about it'. I regained some composure, but my bravado had evaporated.

'You make reference to both theory and models in your work,' said Mike. 'Could you tell us how you see these two terms as different?' A gnawing sense of inadequacy poured over me as I resorted to making a joke to buy myself time. They were serious.

There followed searching questions about my study sample, my own bias, the techniques I used in analyzing my findings, my conclusions, the repeatabilty of my work... And so it went on, for more than an hour until, at last, levity returned, and they told me it was all over. I was asked to leave the room again. What were they talking about in there? This didn't feel good.

After what seemed like an age, they invited me back in, and I was relived to see that they were smiling. They told me that I could submit straight away, without any further recourse to them, and gave me a few useful suggestions. The ones that apply to a more general audience I record here:

  • don't go in with a laptop. Take a paper copy of your thesis in stuffed with post-its so that you can navigate around it quickly under pressure (and with sweaty hands!)
  • give the examiners confidence that you know it inside out. I resorted, on several occasions, to: 'In there somewhere it says..' What you should say is: 'In Chapter x it says..' or, even better, 'You'll see on page x..'
  • stick to the word limit or else you'll fall at the final hurdle. In my case my abstract was over the 250-word limit.
  • go back over your research methods chapter carefully so that you can recall exactly what the rationale was for each of your research decisions. I wrote this Chapter 2+ years ago and although I've read it many times since my reading has mainly been in the spirit of looking for typos. I got found out by not having the names of authors I had cited ready for instant recall.
  • the pattern for these things - and I quote directly is 'pleasantries, formalities, questions become increasingly searching, go for jugular, wind down and pleasantries and formalities to finish'. I can confirm that, for me, that is pretty much exactly how it went.

This weekend I will attend to the last few things with a few to formally submitting next week. If I've learnt anything it's to not underestimate the viva. It might be several more months before I have the examination proper and I will certainly be treating it with a good deal of respect.

It's no cake walk -:)

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