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

jennacrop-213x300Jenna Condie is a Postgraduate Researcher who lectures in Psychology and Media Psychology at the University of Salford. She is an enterprising academic or ‘Enterprademic’  taking an entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial approach in teaching, learning, research, enterprise and consultancy work. Jenna’s doctoral research contributes to Environmental Psychology, as her qualitative study explores how people make sense of living in ‘disruptive’ places, specifically living alongside railways.

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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!


6 Responses

  1. Excellent post, excellent advice. I wish I’d had this advice before my own not very impressive viva!

    Alas, many PhD students will not be able to find two academics who have the time to read the thesis and spend two hours in a mock viva – especially in departments with many PhD students. But your advice here could be invaluable for people who can’t have a practice viva but need some tips on how to do better in the actual viva.

  2. I didn’t have a mock viva, mainly due to practical circumstances (by the time I submitted I was already out of the university and working full-time elsewhere). I’m honestly not sure if it would have helped me or not, as until the week before the real thing (when I had some actual proper time off to prepare) I barely had time to look at it let alone prepare for a mock viva. So I think in my case it might even have been counterproductive – without the time to prepare I would have just had an experience of being unable to do myself justice, which I think would have knocked my confidence just before the real thing! Having said that I must say that everyone I know who has had a mock has said that it was helpful, so in general I think they are a good thing. But taking it seriously as you say and treating it with respect, as you did, is clearly an important aspect of the process, and I think your advice and observations are spot on.

    Good luck for the actual viva!

  3. Hi both thanks for your comments! Made me think that I’ve perhaps underestimated how fortunate I am to have the network to have a mock viva. Maybe I can write a post on the importance of networks next;)

    Because I found it so useful & also I know a few people that have had terrible experiences in vivas (some revise/resubmit & one a fail), I think practice vivas of some shape or form (could be group workshops even) should be built into the ‘curriculum’ somehow.

    Giving someone a mock viva can be useful preparation for being examiners for actual viva’s in the future too. So perhaps its a case of finding early career researchers and academics new to supervision who can really benefit from the experience as well.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. I never had a viva, but you convinced me of its value. For those who can’t do it, your advice will be so helpful because there are some universal issues. Good luck with the real deal!

  4. Thanks for this, it’ll help when I get round to my viva next year! One thing that made me smile was the fact that I’ve been planning to summarise each paragraph so I know it has a purpose as well as being able to describe it – I’m relieved that it’s a sensible idea and I hope it helps me.

  5. Thanks so much for this! I am just *about* to submit and was seeking advice on preparing for the viva… please post when you’ve done the viva, hope you do well! I’ve just done a lot of reading/writing regarding how to judge quality in qualitative research withOUT being apologetic for it not being rigorous according to positivist criteria… at the risk of sounding presumptuous… can I help? e.g. send you my bibliography?

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