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In defence of... the viva voce: a Q&A with Dr Cordelia Roberts

The viva voce - perhaps the most dreaded conversation of a PhD student's life. Here at SciEnvy, we are talking to previous PhD students about their viva experiences so you might feel a bit better about yours. We asked Dr Cordelia Roberts, previous ARIES PhD student and now postdoctoral researcher in the Cunliffe Group at the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth, about her viva experience.

How long did you have to wait for your viva?

I submitted in early May and then my viva was in early August.

What did you do in that time? How did you prepare?

I’d love to say I took a well-earned break but I submitted on the Friday, and since I was strapped for cash I worked in a coffee shop that weekend, a hair salon the following week and started a new research position the next Monday. I was fortunate to be continuing on in the same research lab so had the flexibility to revisit work in my PhD, formatting manuscripts, and generally keeping myself familiar with my thesis. I did a presentation during my viva so I spent time planning the talk and summarising the outputs of my work to facilitate the discussion.

What did you do the day/night before your viva?

I went to work as normal. I think I spent a lot of time re-reading my thesis, making sure I was familiar with broad concepts I had introduced in my thesis and also some really specific ones, making sure I knew why I had chosen to do something a certain way and also considering what the other available methods were. I think I also had a moment of madness where I started looking at the eukaryotic tree of life and questioning why diatoms were closely related to another organism, and also googling some basic topics like what was the difference between eukaryotes and bacteria, based on a fundamental knowledge question that someone told me they had been asked when they had their viva. I also went through my presentation a couple of times by myself. When I got home, I made a cheesecake to bring into my viva. The night before, I had planned to practice my presentation one final time to my partner, but then on opening my laptop I discovered that the keypad wasn’t working and I couldn’t log into it. I think I remember reflecting that I wanted to just be alone and go through my thesis and notes I had made, so I went and sat down by the water until it was dark.

What did you do immediately after your viva?

I came out of my viva, told my office mate that I had passed and then went to tell my supervisor I had passed with very minor corrections and then went and had lunch with my examiners and supervisor. I had cake and fizz with colleagues and I then went and had a cold shower as I just remembered being overwhelmingly hot.

How long did your viva take?

I think it was around 2 and half hours.

What was the atmosphere like during your viva?

Initially, when I first sat down I was a bit nervous, but my examiners were very welcoming so I remember just after about five minutes thinking actually this is a really friendly and safe environment, I can totally relax here.

Was there anything that happened in your viva that you did not expect?

Not really, I guess the unexpected thing was really enjoying it!

What was the best piece of advice you were given in the lead up to your viva?

Not to get too bogged down in the details of everything. As long as you know the reason why you did something, made a certain choice around your sampling design or your protocol, that should be sufficient. You have a completely different view of your thesis to your examiners, they are unlikely to see everything you might think is a mistake or you wish you had done better, try and get a different perspective that’s less ‘attached’.

What key piece of advice would you give to PhD candidates waiting to have their viva?

Only that, you know it all already. You did all the work that is in your thesis, you know it inside out. Relax and enjoy it, it will be the one few times you get to talk about your work and only your work!

Finally – if given the opportunity to do it again, would you?




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