Are you a researcher, masters, PhD or doctoral candidate with your fated ‘viva/defence’ looming? In this article, Dr Nadia Anwar reflects on her viva experience and shares tips making your viva a positive experience. Good luck!
The term ‘viva’ comes from the Latin phrase viva voce, which literally means ‘by word of mouth’ or ‘with living voice’. It is somewhat surprising that many people, although possess sufficient information about oral examinations and face to face interviews, have no substantial knowledge of the term viva voce and what really goes into preparing for it. The main reason for this is that popular terms used for viva in England are oral examination and post-submission interview or assessment. In countries like India and the US, the word is translated as verbal defence which has pretty much the same connotation as the word viva. The difference is that whereas the former is conducted in a form of seminar or presentation in front of a large group of specialists and non-experts – sometimes including colleagues, friends and family – followed by rigorous Q&A, the latter is done in the privacy of a room and under the critical eye and observation of examiners.
The main task of a candidate when placed in such a context is to justify the propositions made in written work (e.g. dissertation, thesis…). The candidate is also required to exhibit extensive knowledge of the written thesis through verbal defence while demonstrating sound presentation skills, as well as the ability to communicate clearly and convincingly.
Although my experiences and observations, may not be relevant in all situations and contexts, I hope they clarify some of the confusion prospective viva candidates often face during their academic or research journey. My knowledge of the viva process is based on my personal experience which I will describe under four headings.
First, prior to my viva, I had the opportunity to attend a number of tough interviews; both academic and professional that demanded a high level of subject knowledge and confidence – two crucial prerequisites to succeed in a viva. This experience unraveled many aspects of my personality that I was hitherto unaware of. I learnt that I perform well and confidently in interviews that relate to my specific discipline and research Since this revelation I have stopped considering myself a Ms Know-it-All who can provide a satisfactory answer to all questions (a general misconception of people with PhDs). Now I focus more on what I am good at – my forte. It is, I believe, absolutely alright to accept your limitations and act normal in any given context.
Second, I attended many workshops which specifically dealt with the nature of viva process and the possible expectations of potential assessors/examiners. These workshops provided me with a good platform to practice my presentation skills and discuss my confusion with my facilitators and peers.
If such platforms are unavailable, another way to prepare for a viva is to practice Q&A with colleagues and friends. The success of this activity, however, depends on a candidate’s capacity to sift through any feedback given. Because although useful, a discouraging comment by a colleague or failure to deliver in front of friends can cause anxiety rather than boosting confidence in a candidate. With this kind of experience a candidate goes to the viva room with a pre-formed feeling of unpreparedness.
In some institutions, a practice oral examination called a mock-viva is usually performed before the main viva (oral defence). In an attempt to respond to the questions in the light of advice given during and after the mock-viva, we become conscious of what and how we are performing which may block our natural capacity to deal with a challenging situation.
I would advise potential candidates against forming strong opinions about their performance during a practice session (from an informal or mock session).
Third, I acquainted myself with available resources and second-hand information explicating and busting myths about the Draculean nature of viva. I also gathered information by talking to recent graduates about their respective experiences before and during oral examinations.
The tips you get from online resources and various institutional websites although very useful, are mostly person-specific and sometimes applying them to yourself may hinder the natural flow of many useful ideas and eureka moments that are triggered only during the highly nerve wracking experience of a viva. The challenge is to understand how you deal with tense and taxing situations. Since all have different levels of tolerance, we need to devise our own emotional strategy to cope with the viva experience. I think the key to good performance is to ‘be yourself’!
I am of the opinion that different candidates react and respond differently when in a viva situation. Over preparation sometimes compromises the spontaneity of the moment. A very common mistake that candidates make during the viva or oral defence process is to “run the show” or overtake their examiners. It is good to show your examiners that you can be flexible and confident at the same time. Depending on the mood and environment of the room, you can relate interesting anecdotes and little incidents and experiences from your life that have somehow impacted your research process i.e. connect your research with the world that exists outside its immediate domain. No matter how trivial, these useful diversions sometimes contribute in facilitating your access to your examiner’s mind. Since, the emphasis is on the creation of new knowledge, original research and advanced scholarship, unless your knowledge collides with the real world, it is not going to make sense to your listeners and readers.
I have now come to the conclusion that performance in a viva depends not simply on how well you have memorized your written work and how far you have been able to converse fluently about the primary and secondary sources you have cited and quoted but on how confidently and comfortably you respond to your examiners’ questions in the particular environment in which you find yourself on the particular day you are invited to appear. In all respects, the ritual is person-specific and context-driven. The venue where an oral examination is conducted is like a liminal space where endless possibilities for your future are created. Coming out successful from this space is what gives you an edge over other candidates.
About our writer – Dr Nadia Anwar completed her PhD in Nigerian drama from The University of Northampton, UK. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Management and Sciences, Lahore. You can read her other contributions to The Hub here and here.