The PhD Viva

Last week I finally had my PhD viva which I passed successfully (no corrections). It marks the end to the most intensive period in my professional career thus far. The weeks before this very special type of final examination in British academia have been quite stressful, as I tried to prepare myself the best I could – which basically meant: I read my own thesis over and over again. In the end, it (luckily!) turned out to be much more of a friendly conversation among colleagues than a classic oral examination situation.

So, I can honestly say that my viva was a very pleasant experience; it was nowhere near any of the stories that I heard in past years about five hour long interrogations and mean spirited examiners. I would like to share a few tips that, I think, helped me to be better prepared for the viva and pass it with a satisfying result. However, it is important to keep in mind that each viva is a highly personalised examination; it depends on a variety of variables and any of the recommendations here may not apply to specific cases; the following points merely give some rough guidelines. Still, I think considering some of them will potentially improve your chances.

What is a PhD Viva?

Most PhD students will know this but for our non-academic colleagues here a brief description: the PhD viva is a traditional oral examination at the very end of the PhD programme at UK universities. It takes place after the thesis was submitted and read by the appointed examiners. Its main purpose is to verify whether the candidate in question has actually written the submitted work and to give her examiners a chance to ask questions, clarify points made in the thesis, and to express criticism. It usually includes the external examiner, the internal examiner (i.e. a member of staff from you home department), the candidate and, more frequently these days, an independent chair who acts as an impartial “referee”. Aside from this, there are no further rules or institutionalised processes, i.e. no fixed guidelines for how the examination proceeds, what examiners are allowed to ask/not to ask, or even how long the viva should be.

Hence, some PhD students may pass within an hour, while other have to defend themselves for more than four hours (the lack of regulation has been repeatedly criticised). Since the outcome of the PhD viva can still decide whether the student has passed or not, the UK version is quite different from its more symbolical counterparts in Europe (e.g. the Netherlands or Germany). It is also held in a private setting and not open to the public. Due to this degree of “non-transparency” and its potential impact on their future careers, PhD candidates are often quite anxious and stressed in the weeks and days before their viva. However, as I said above, how exactly the viva is conducted and what the climate will be like can vary vastly in each individual case.

Write a good thesis

This may seem pretty obvious, if not trivial, to some but I personally think it is the most important thing you want to have before you go into the viva: a thesis that you feel confident about and which is interesting to read – not only for the expert but a broader audience. Try to work on a topic that has real relevance and topicality in your field and look for ways to communicate broader implications beyond your research area. Think of a good structure and do not deter from experimentation to find efficient, maybe even creative forms to share your knowledge. However, cohesion and logic must not suffer under new ideas. Having an honest and good relationship with your supervisor(s) is absolutely crucial for achieving a high quality thesis (which means you need to be open for criticism and be able to re-examine your reasoning).

Find a good external (and internal) examiner

This is almost as important as writing a good thesis: try to find an external examiner who is active in your research area and who will really understand what you’ve been working on the past three years. This raises the chances of having a meaningful, productive conversation about the content of your thesis. You do not want to meet an examiner who doesn’t have a clue about your theoretical framework, methodology, and research subject; he or she may not be able to evaluate your work adequately or, in the worst case, could even dismiss it as irrelevant.

Researching for an external examiner should start roughly a year in advance of your viva and the process should ideally involve your supervisor, as it all comes down to networking at some point. A good supervisor will guide you through the process and help you with the final decision. It is also recommendable to present papers related to your thesis at conferences and to discuss them with high-ranking individuals in your academic field. However, finding an examiner who can relate to your work does not mean that you will pass on the basis of sympathy. It is still about hard work and being able to defend your research professionally.

Read your thesis “sceptically”

It is easy to fall in love with one’s own work, especially if one is very confident about the findings and the thesis altogether; maybe you have already received positive feedback from your supervisors and colleagues (e.g. at conferences). It is indeed very important to be confident about your research, as it often indicates a level of expertise that is absolutely necessary for a PhD degree. However, in the weeks before the viva you need to become your own worst enemy in a sense, by re-reading your thesis from a highly critical perspective.

Try to question everything and make notes on what could be its greatest weaknesses. Come up with your personal worst case scenario and develop counter strategies. The aim of this is not to bring yourself down but to scan your work for potential weak spots and to prepare adequate explanations; you basically need to think of critical questions in advance and prepare good answers. This can minimise the level of surprise and allows you to avoid unpleasant situations; you do not want to appear “caught off guard” and shift into a passive role during the examination. You need to know your thesis by heart, which shouldn’t be too difficult since you’ve (hopefully) written it.

Summarise your thesis

After having read my thesis several times I decided to summarise it in bullet points, with the most important bits of information and potentially controversial aspects listed for each chapter. The new document was roughly 20 pages long and became my constant companion in the final days before the viva. It helped me to memorise key questions, order my thoughts, and structure my replies. When it comes to something as important as your viva, there is no such thing like “being over-prepared”.

Show “passion” for your work

In a way, the viva is also a psychological test in which academic professionals try to assess whether a candidate fits the profession of a researcher (however, whether you actually continue your career in academia is a totally different question). It is in this respect important to show your “passion” for your project, i.e. to communicate that you are truly engaged and motivated when it comes to your work. This alone can indicate a high level of confidence and expertise. You do not want appear as if you could have worked on any random topic but that you have genuine interest in advancing your field of research.

React to criticism professionally and productively

No academic work is perfect and there is always something that is missing or could have been done differently. The trick is to be aware of this and acknowledge one’s thesis’ limits. If your examiners observe shortcomings or missing points, try to explain why you made the decision to leave something out. As long as you can provide a reasonable explanation for each step you took in your thesis, no one can really harm you. After all, you cannot cover everything that is relevant within the limits of 100,000 words.

However, it is also important that you show willingness to accept criticism and to indicate that you can come up with solutions – for instance, by outlining how you would include missing bits in your thesis or by pointing to the potential of future research. Again, honest conversations with your supervisors and presenting papers at conferences are great opportunities to exercise this. It is also recommendable to have a “mock viva” with your supervisors playing the examiners.

Finally, it is very important to keep in mind that the viva is not just a burden or an obstacle. It is a chance to discuss your work with people who have actually read your thesis form page to page – and to present your skills as well as knowledge. It is an opportunity to network with experts in your field and to take the next step in your professional career.

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Web Sphere Analysis: A (Very) Brief Overview

Modern public spheres are based on mediated forms of communication that provide a shared catalogue of references for social collectives. The world that we know, including our broader cultural, economic, social, and political environment, becomes to large parts accessible through distorted representations distributed via mass media and the Internet. Especially web communication continues to gain in relevance as a crucial, highly personalised and customisable source for information about social reality.

Web discourses hence remain fresh and relevant subjects for research on public communication in networked, highly mediatised societies. But not only researchers in media and communications have an interest in theorising and empirically analysing digital public spheres; policy-makers, political consultants, and media monitoring agencies have recognised the relevance of the Internet as a space of resonance to political, economic, cultural, and social developments.

However, the precise identification and evaluation of web debates is a considerable methodological challenge. A very fruitful approach to define and approach these extremely dynamic communicative contexts provides the web sphere perspective as proposed by Schneider and Foot (2006). Their methodological proposal to understand web discourses as a condensation of related online communication, i.e. content, enables the critical observer to identify, analyse, and assess digital public spheres efficiently and link them to the underlying social and political currents that sparked their formation. This post provides an (extremely) short summary of its core ideas.

What are Web Spheres?

A web sphere is a collection of related online content that focus the same set of issues or events; the respective content thus shares a common context and is (potentially) held together by referencing and/or hyperlinking. A web sphere can integrate different kinds of online platforms and formats, which highlights the degree of interconnectedness that web content can display. For example, the war of frames/”digital words” between Islamic extremists and their opponents is not limited to one particular social media platform (e.g. Facebook) but includes the whole range of accessible web technologies.

Triggers for the formation of a web sphere are often irritations in everyday politics or society, such as scandals, disasters, terrorist attacks, but also seemingly trivial issues like celebrity news or the colour of a dress. One can basically differentiate between two general types in this respect: firstly, there are web spheres that are somewhat “predictable”, i.e. one can expect they will probably emerge in the context of a planned, ritualised event. Examples are web discourses on the next FIFA World Cup, the next general elections, or the next Academy Awards. Secondly, there are web sphere that emerge erratically as immediate “real-time” reactions to unforeseeable, ad-hoc developments and events. Accidents, disasters, unplanned revelations are often catalysts for an unscheduled torrent of online communication that potentially condenses into a web sphere. The sudden and still unsolved disappearance of an Malaysian Airlines plane in March 2014 is one such tragic event.

Web spheres can also differ in their degree of durability: some may vaporise as quickly as they formed, while others may persists over longer time periods. The issues that determined their emergence, i.e, their content, as well as the set of participating communicators, i.e. their underlying networks, are the most important factors that influence their duration.

How to Analyse and Evaluate Web Spheres?

Due to the virtually unlimited amount of web sources it is very difficult to define the actual borders of a web sphere. In fact, any meaningful empirical investigation is inevitably limited to a mere snippet of a potentially much larger web discourse. It comes all down to the general problem of sampling and representability of findings in online media research. However, these limitations have always affected analyses in media and communications to one degree or the other. When deciding what content is considered as part of a web sphere, it is absolutely crucial to explain its assumed relevance and to outline the limits of sampling.

Once a set of sources has been defined for analyses, it is recommendable to archive/store the respective websites (urls) with precise information on their origin, date of publication, authorship etc. for documentation. Online content is extremely dynamic and it can become very difficult to retrieve the original content after longer time periods.

The next step is to decide what the web sphere analysis is exactly focusing on; potential research questions can aim for demographic/ethnographic factors, networking patterns, and discursive practices (e.g. framing). For example, in my analysis of the EU crisis web sphere I combined frame- and network analyses to reveal how the Eurozone crisis was perceived from different cultural-political perspectives and what the social composition of communicators looked like. Data for both analyses was collected via a multi-step content analysis.

The in-depth screening of a web sphere in terms of its content and sociological properties therefore depends on the actual research interest and can be achieved through qualitative and quantitative content analytical methods.

In short, a web sphere may include the following steps:

  • Definition of the social phenomenon that causes online debates (e.g. a political development or cultural event)
  • Identification, sampling, and archiving of relevant online content (e.g. snow ball sampling, combination of non-probalistic and random sampling)
  • Qualitative and quantitative analysis of the web sphere’s content and/or sociological factors (e.g. frame analysis, discourse analysis, network analysis etc.)
  • Presentation of results (and potential predictions for future developments)

The public sphere – seen as a highly differentiated and dynamic network of media-based discourses  – experiences constant transformations; Internet technology is a driving force in these processes and understanding the structure and logic of web discourses is absolutely crucial for researchers and practitioners in public (political) communication. In this respect, the web sphere model provides a flexible, easily customisable as well as expandable methodological approach for comprehensive analyses – which is a starting point for grasping the complexity of public discourses in the networked society.

References:

Schneider, S. M. and Foot, K. A. (2006): ‘Web Sphere Analysis. An Approach to Studying Online Action’, in Hine, C. (ed.) Virtual Methods. Issues in Social Research on the Internet, Oxford and New York: Berg.

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