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How to Survive Your Viva: Defending a Thesis in an Oral Examination

Book Review

Rowena Murray, McGraw-Hill, Open University Press, 2nd Edition (2009), paperback, £19.99, ISBN 0 335 23382 1

This book seeks to dispel the myths surrounding the PhD Viva. The suggested audience is PhD students, their supervisors, examiners and chairs. To some extent, this extended catchment is detrimental to the book as a whole and there are places where it becomes a bit turgid for the key audience: PhD students, e.g. the section on prior research (pp3-8) which comes across more as justification for writing the book than as supportive commentary. Despite this, the book is otherwise well set out and easy to dip in and out of. It is particularly strong on understanding the nature of the Viva (it is, at the end of the day, an exam) and in providing a set of useful techniques and questions designed to enable students to “survive” the Viva.

The book comprises nine chapters covering a variety of topics: orientation towards the Viva, the Viva defined, roles and responsibilities, Viva timeline, questions, answers, interactions, preparation, outcomes and post-Viva recovery.

Early techniques suggested include considering your orientation towards the Viva in terms of research – what can you find out; practice – how can you prepare; and rhetoric – demystifying the Viva process. Some of the most valuable comments about the Viva related to understanding that the thesis itself is a ‘finished’ product (whether you like it or not).

“This oral examination is, therefore, a retrospective discussion of a piece of work that is complete.” (p17)

Murray describes the Viva as a process of disaggregating the ‘whole’ – accepting and dealing with any flaws and shortcomings of the thesis, and learning to be reflective and critical of your own work. At the same time, she recommends that students don’t assume that your thesis can ‘speak for itself’ – they have to find ways of talking about its strengths. The Viva is a debate in which students need to be  proactive. In a section titled “Socratic Dialogue” (p20) she provides a helpful summary of how good, experienced, examiners will attempt to support students in such debates.

The chapter on roles and responsibilities sets out who might attend the Viva and how the student can best prepare for interactions with these people. Murray goes on to provide an extensive guide to planning and preparation at the 3 month, one month, one week, day before, on the day, 30 mins before, during and after stages. This can come across as a bit ‘scary’ for the student but, taken as advice rather than a prerequisite – it contains much that is useful – particularly the 3 month, one month and one week elements. Suggestions for a ‘viva kit’ (p59) are also useful and indicative of practical advice not often found elsewhere.

For PhD students, the chapters on questions (5), answers (6) and interactions (7) are the strongest and most useful sections of the book. Questions include specific, open, closed, easy, hard, long, methodological, combined, obvious, probing, difficult, etc. The discussion of examiners’ “hobby horses” (p89) is an amusing but fruitful snapshot. The chapter on answers, meanwhile, offers some useful considerations, including learning how to talk about the thesis; strategies for positive discussion (define-illustrate, define-defend); being explicit, specific, active; learning to pause; dealing with weaknesses and answering the question asked. The chapter on interacting with examiners, whilst it suffers somewhat from some overly negative examples, nevertheless offers some useful strategies and tips, e.g. dealing with lack of feedback during discussion, being assertive, and making yourself heard. On the whole, these chapters offer wide-ranging and practical tips on what to expect in terms of questions, how to answer them effectively and how to interact positively with examiners. In terms of Murray’s goal of ‘demystifying’ the Viva process – these were most successful.

The chapter on practising prior to Viva is less clear and appears to target too many multiple audiences and activities – e.g. workshops, mini-vivas, mock vivas, etc. The ideas and suggestions provided are sound and useful on many levels but students, wishful for a quick fix, may find themselves reading between the lines a lot here. A useful piece of advice in this section is the notion of ‘disaggregation’.

“The central purpose of practice should be to ‘unpack’ the thesis, to disaggregate it into its components.” (p140)

In the outcomes chapter, a useful snapshot of the Viva process on the day is provided. The need for precision in dealing with requested revisions is useful and is supported by a snappy set of suggested questions for students to ask of examiners.

The idea that the Viva is a communication process which requires a new set of skills the student is not used to is a good one and is well supported in chapters 5-7. This, perhaps, is the most useful aspect of the book, particularly for those PhD students whose oral exam is imminent.

A key message that comes out of the book is that the Viva is an exam, it is a rigorous process and one which it is well worth preparing for. Overall, this book provides a very good foundation for that preparation.

Reviewed by Wilma Clark, Institute of Education, London

At the time of writing, Wilma Clark was a final year PhD student at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of FindAPhD.

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