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In defence of... the viva voce: a Q&A with Dr Ellen Harrison

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 Ellen Harrison, previous PhD student at the University of Cambridge and now postdoctoral researcher in the Helliwell Group at the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth, about her viva experience.

How long did you have to wait for your viva?

 I submitted my thesis at the end of October and my viva was early February.

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

I continued on working in my PhD lab until the Christmas, finishing off experiments and attending a couple of conferences. I took January off, going on holiday which was a good break before starting a research position at the University of Exeter, based in Plymouth, at the start of February.

To prepare for my viva I reread my thesis a few times, which was tricky after so long, seeing all the little mistakes you want to change. I also prepared answers to a few questions my supervisor advised would be asked, such as being able to summarise the thesis in a few minutes. Which experiment/chapter was I most proud of and why. Also, what would I do differently if I had the time again, and where would you go next with the research if you could.

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

The day before I spent on the train from Plymouth to Cambridge, nervously pretending to read papers and my thesis in preparation. I remember being very concerned about what to wear, and what I would have for breakfast. The night before I read my notes a few times, googled some very obvious things about algae that I suddenly panicked about and tried to get an early night.

What did you do immediately after your viva?

I told my supervisor and lab colleagues that I’d passed with minor corrections, and called my parents to tell them the good news too. Then because it was early I went and ate cake and read my book until my lab mates could reasonably leave work and meet me in the pub.

How long did your viva take?

Roughly 2.5 hours, with a quick break in the middle.

What was the atmosphere like during your viva?

Very supportive and curious about my work. Initially, I was very nervous but the examiners were very kind and gave a time to collect my thoughts if I needed it.

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

One of my examiners asked me to draw a diagram to help her understand a slightly confusing aspect of the project. Drawing isn’t one of my best skills and I’m not sure it really helped but I tried.

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

That I knew the project the best and to not doubt myself or the work too much, and also to be honest if I wasn’t sure about the answer or if I needed the question reframing.

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

The same advice I was given, not to overthink it. You know your thesis the best, so try to relax and enjoy being asked about something you spent years working on.  

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

I would do the viva again, definitely wouldn’t want to write anything as long as a thesis ever again!



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