Don’t mock the mock: The importance of having a practice viva

This post was originally published on the socphd.com site here.  

Don’t mock the mock: The importance of a having a practice viva

I submitted my PhD thesis just over a month ago.  Since handing in, I’ve been a tad unenthusiastic about looking at it again.  When I do read it, the writing seems unfamiliar, almost as if someone else wrote it.  If the viva was the day after submitting my thesis, whilst I might be delirious, at least I would still be immersed in my research.    As more time passes, I feel increasingly distanced from my work.

However, I recently had a mock viva and this has changed everything.  In preparation for the real thing, my supervisors organised a practice run with two academics that I didn’t know.  The mock ran as similar to the real thing as possible.  I waited outside whilst the examiners convened.  I was called in and we shook hands.  They started with some easy questions to get the conversation flowing, which then proceeded into a more intense ‘grilling’ of the how’s and why’s of my research. All the while, my supervisor sat quietly taking notes on my performance.  It lasted for around two hours and I left the room red faced with a pounding head.  They had a chat and I re-entered the room for feedback.  Here’s a summary of what they said:

  • Rehearse your answers – so that I convey the main points of my thesis more clearly and concisely.  Although I made some good points, I did waffle on at times and strayed from answering the question.
  • Your language impacts upon perceived confidence – avoid vagueness and saying words such as ‘stuff’ and ending sentences in ‘I think’.  I need to find ways around this and further rehearsal of arguments is crucial to giving a confident impression.
  • Champion qualitative research – I know that I have a tendency to sound unconvinced of qualitative research and often position it in relation to quantitative research…but I still did it anyway!  I need to drill it into my head that qualitative research is valuable in its own right.  So, to prepare for the viva, I plan to fully immerse myself in the social constructionist and discursive literature again.  I am thinking of preparing a journal article to scaffold this reading and give it purpose.
  • Read up around qualitative research evaluation criteria e.g. generalizability – I got a bit stuck on this and how I ensured rigour in my methodological approach. I’ll be doing some reading around this as well too.
  • It’s ok if you can’t answer a question – I tried to answer everything.  Prepare phrases that give you a get out e.g. “that was beyond the scope of the study”.  It’s also ok to ask for clarification e.g. “could you expand on what you mean”.
  • Summarise each paragraph of your thesis into a sentence – even though I had my thesis with me, there wasn’t time to read over sections in the flow of conversation. One suggestion was to summarise each paragraph into a sentence so that when examiners refer you to a section, you have a condensed version.
  • You must own it – it is my research, I have done a good job, I need to believe my research and defend what I have produced.  It makes an original contribution to knowledge, and what I did met the research aims.

On reflection, I can see that the distance between the research and I impacted upon my performance in the mock viva.  I now have a clearer idea of how to go forward in preparing more thoroughly so I enter the real thing with greater confidence.  Having a mock viva also gave me the opportunity to talk about my research with others which has reignited some of the enthusiasm that I used to have for my work oh so long ago now.

I don’t understand how someone can go into a PhD viva cold. As it’s such an unusual scenario, it requires a rehearsal.   I think the mock viva worked so well for me as it ran as close to an actual viva as possible. I wouldn’t have taken it as seriously if my supervisors or colleagues had played the role of examiners.  The experience has made me feel more positive about my work and given me a number of ways forward. Fingers crossed I get a date for my viva sooner rather than later so I can keep this momentum going.

Thank you to Karen Smith and Jackie Taylor for taking the time to read my thesis, giving me the opportunity to talk about my work, and provide invaluable feedback (and notes!).  Thank you to my supervisors Phil Brown and Anya Ahmed, especially to Anya for arranging and hosting my practice run.  It is massively appreciated!

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