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This Category: > PhD Advice / Support


My viva was awful - need advice

User: desperate88 - 05 May 2023 15:14

Hi everyone,
I have had a long and very challenging journey in my PhD due to my personal circumstances. I almost quit dozens of times. In the end, I persevered and submitted a thesis back in September of last year. It wasn't the greatest thesis and I definitely knew I was going to get some sort of corrections either minor or major as it was a rushed job. My supervisor never gave me a clear indication as to which way it would go but the week before my viva, he seemed pretty positive and told me I'm likely looking at minor corrections (in my uni major is not a pass - and you're given 12 months to resubmit).

I had my viva a few days ago and it was the hardest thing I have ever experienced. One of the examiners came 15 minutes late, didn't apologise, and started with an intense question. For 2 hours, the tempo kept being intense. The external examiner started by telling me " When I saw the title your thesis, I thought not again!". It really felt like they were trying to trip me up the entire time and I think the only positive comment I received was "we both thought this was an interesting topic" yet it seemed like the entire time they were questioning the validity of the topic itself. I found really strange was that out of the 200 questions that I had prepared (there is a list circulating on the internet) I only got four of those. In addition, they did not ask me questions about my actual findings/ specific chapters of my thesis - they just kept asking really vague theoretical questions not directly related to my thesis. In the end I got major corrections and have 12 months to resubmit. I am feeling quite disheartened. Due to their overall attitude I am really worried about trying to address their comments (which I am yet to receive) as it feels so subjective (they didn't like the topic to begin with). I know that my findings are valid and I know that my topic is interesting but what is the point if those who are evaluating me don't think so?
I am seriously considering quitting as I just don't know if I can do it anymore. I have work and family commitments and can't imagine spending more time this. I am not a crier and have spent the last week crying every single day because they made me feel like such a failure.

User: tr1992 - 07 May 2023 16:36

Hi! The same thing happened to me, i'm hoping to resubmit in the coming months.
I think if you have 12 months, then most likely the first months you won't be able to focus on it as it will make you feel bad.
If you are in the UK, your re-viva should have an independent chair, which should help you somewhat. If you think their comments are unreasonable, you can say so. Some examiners are just dicks (mine won't let me graduate unless i use his rejected paper as the foundation for my whole thesis!) and sadly there is no good way aroudn that, but the uni probably won't want you to fail, so you can get advice and they may try to make the re-viva more impartial. I think before you think about quitting it would be worth just taking some time to let it all sink in and die down. For me I was still too annoyed about it even 5 months later and its only very recently that I've been able to sit down and work through it. For me it took realising how bad my examiners paper was and making a big list of all of its flaws, i realised he is a moron and i started to treat it as a comedy rather than a horror story. The uni have assured me that the re-viva will have enough checks and balances in place that he won't be able to do anything corrupt this time hopefully.
Take some time, get some advice from the uni (also students union if you feel the examiner is unfair) and then see how you feel :)

User: castle85 - 08 May 2023 18:17

I'm not in the best position to give advice here - I'm 5 weeks from submitting my own PhD, which I am far from confident in and can't imagine will possibly be finished in that amount of time. I can't fully imagine how you're feeling, but I just wanted to send some support. And think about the hurdles you've already passed - you did finish the thing! You submitted it and got through a viva. No matter the outcome or what comes next, I hope you can take some time to just breathe, put it out of your head until you receive the corrections, and then decide what you want to do. You don't have to decide now. tr1992's advice sounds great and comes from a place of experience. It's ok to be sad, angry and annoyed. I've been asking myself all day every day why I decided to put myself through this, but we all had our reasons and one day it will be behind us! Sending you strength.

User: desperate88 - 09 May 2023 09:52

Thank you so much tr1992 - I am sorry you had to go through that. Your examiner definitely sounds like a dick! I find that it really is a strange process as so much of it ends up being linked to someone's subjective perception of your approach/data etc. The chair did say to me as she was walking me out of the room as they deliberated : "that was intense". I still am struggling with the fact that it felt unfair. I don't mind the major corrections and constructive criticism but I am struggling with the fact that they were absolute dicks. The second examiner is new to all of this so she kept just acquiescing to what the external examiner was saying. I think I will do what you have suggested and just let it all sink in for now and see what their feedback is. Really appreciate the advice! Best of luck with your corrections!

User: desperate88 - 09 May 2023 09:59

Thank you castle85 for the words of encouragement.
I hear you - I also wonder why I chose to do this. Even more so as I have no interest whatsoever in academia. Sending you strength for the last few weeks!

User: abababa - 09 May 2023 23:10

One of the most important things to note are any procedural irregularities - you examiner arriving late in itself may not be substantial grounds for appeal, but if they they indicated their review or the viva itself was rushed as a result, this would definitely qualify.

A viva is intrinsically very subjective; there's considerable debate over whether, in modern academia, 2 people picked by your supervisor is the best way to examine years of work. Unfortunately you can't change the system. But you can consider:

- If there indeed are any procedural irregularities, these are much more open and successful for appeal than academic judgement. It's generally not worth arguing the verdict, but you can readily argue the process by which it was reached. For example, if your supervisor was required to sign off on the submission and did not do so, or did not do so following the correct process, this is certainly grounds for appeal. The general feeling in academia is that a supervisor that has allowed a student to submit a failed PhD is, in many ways, the one responsible for the fail (though, of course, the student is the one that suffers).

- Forgetting that for a moment, if they passed you with majors (and a pass with majors, is a pass, never forget that) - you may find yourself surprised by how achievable the corrections are. It is the job of examiners to be critical and combative - and shred you, as required - this is not necessarily a bad thing if they then give you corrections that are achievable and will make your PhD better. The only point you need to revert to complaint about process is if the corrections are flatly unachievable; like repeating a study without any resources or time. Otherwise you will likely find highly critical examiners are very unlikely to reject majors if it's clear the candidate has put the effort in. You will see horror stories on these forums; and it does, sadly, happen, but often with majors examiners are trying to send a strong message, which if the candidate listens to, they will have a lot of empathy for.

- Note your external can shred you and actually be a mediocre academic at best. In fact, the worst/least experienced academics are, by a mile, the most critical. You can make the judgement call on whether to dispute them, but usually the best call is to (sadly) acquiesce, and disprove their judgement in your postdoctoral work, when they don't have any hold over you.

What perhaps blows my mind in this and other posts is - what was the supervisor thinking? I'm thinking we're sadly moving to a world where the blind lead the blind, and the inexperienced supervisor googles rather than knows people with relevant expertise. It really should not be the case a viva is a surprise for a student, or that the opinions of the examiners massively differ from the supervisor.