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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Presentation at the PhD Conference in London (LSE), 15th June 2012

After months of reading and drafting for my actual PhD thesis, I finally found some time to post an update on this still very lively blog.

As some of you might already know, I will present a paper at a PhD conference/symposium in London – at the London School of Economics (LSE), to be more precise. I am going to present the findings of my research on the ‘European Blogosphere’ which I conducted in the context of my German MA thesis last year. However, I am currently revising my theoretical framework and take a fresh look at the empirical data I gathered in long weeks of coding. Read here the original proposal that was accepted by the committee. Comments are more than welcome!

The ‘European’ Blogosphere in Times of Global Crisis

Chances and Limits of Transnational Public Spheres on the Internet

Contemporary online media facilitate the exchange of information beyond geo- graphical, social, cultural, as well as political borders – and possibly stimulate com- municative interactions between members of different national backgrounds in a trans- or supranational context. This aspect is of considerable relevance for the aca- demic (and political) discussion on the chances and limits of transnational public spheres as well as ‘postnational’ identities in the context of Europe or the European Union, respectively. Little empirical research on these very issues exists so far. This is quite surprising, especially if one considers the broad dissemination of the Internet on the continent and its obvious potential for the emergence of transnational online discourses.

The present project attempts to narrow this gap by analysing a representative sample of political blogs covering EU-/European issues, published in English and German. Blogs have been repeatedly characterised as particularly suitable online media for open, multilateral debates and are one of the predominant modes of communicative interaction online. The central research questions are: Which topics are considered to be ‘European’? In which discursive networks are the blogs embedded? When do individuals leave their ‘national’ backgrounds behind and engage in discussions on transnational issues? Do participants express a certain identity? If yes, is it rather the national or a post-/transnational one (or a mixture of both)? To gather sufficient data, the complementary content analysis integrated quantitative and qualitative aspects.

This paper will finally show how we can observe transnational online public spheres as context-depending, dynamic communicative phenomena and that both the na- tional as well as transnational dimension do not exclude each other but do exist in parallel and often overlap. The ‘European’ blogosphere, however, appears to remain an elite project of limited social scope.

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The Struggle for Funding (…and other odd aspects of PhD studies)

There are numerous interesting PhD programs available in Europe. However, being able to pursue such a course appears to depend much more on an individual’s financial background than on his or her academic expertise these days. This is at least my impression after sending out several applications to universities in the UK (and a single one to Denmark). Though each and every uni offered me a placement in the end, I was not able to procure sufficient funding. Hence, I had to turn down all offers so far. What surprised me most were once more the huge differences between the higher education systems in Europe, especially when it comes to PhD courses and financial aspects. As usual, I would like to contrast the British and the German models, in order to highlight some rather disconcerting aspects of PhD studies in two important member states of the European Union. To begin with, I will briefly digest the British system – since it is rather simple to explain and less complicated than in Germany. However, my account focuses the humanities and social sciences exclusively. I do not claim to know how the situation looks like in other academic disciplines (e.g. economics, natural sciences, medicine etc.).

In the UK, actually every faculty at university offers postgraduate research degrees. These can either be MPhil or PhD. Sometimes, an MPhil is required before one can enter a PhD course. It strongly depends on what program you wish to study, and at which university. Before you officially apply, it is recommendable to contact a possible supervisor and to discuss a proper PhD project. I spent quite a few evenings writing e-mails to lecturers and professors, explaining them what I am planning to do in my project. Most of them were very interested, even enthusiastic about it. I made some very encouraging, positive experiences at this early stage of the application process. If he or she gives you a ‘go’, it is time to complete the official application form. Most universities have them ready to download on their websites. Once your have completed this, you will need a lot of certified copies and at least two letters of recommendations, written by two former lecturers or employers. After sending it to the institution you wish to apply for, it usually takes four to six weeks before you get a reply. In the meantime, you should think of ways to finance the course – because doing your PhD can be pretty expensive (UK/EU student fees are roughly 3,500 to 4,000 pounds a year). A British PhD course takes either three (full-time) or six (part-time) years; you’ll be accompanied by two supervisors and work mostly on your own. Depending on the structure of the program, you may need to complete a few classes during the early stages of your studies. It gives you a strictly defined time frame, in which you can develop yourself more ore less independently. Altogether, the tightly organized study plan of usually no more than three years and the ‘openess’ for new, innovative approaches make the British PhD courses very attractive – at least from my point of view. Nevertheless, the aspect of funding is extremely problematic, especially for people from the lower, less wealthy social segments of society. Just like myself. In times of economic crisis, it is almost impossible to conduct your PhD studies if you have not the money to pay A) the fees and B) to cover living costs, which are quite high in Britain. There are very few studentships and competition is fierce. You need an A-class degree and lots of references just to be considered at all. For EU-students, there is often an additional confinement: You can get a fee-waiver but no covering for living costs. Only UK citizens or EU-students who have lived at least three years in the UK can get fully-funded awards. Hence, I had to turn down a couple of offerings from London and Liverpool because they would have been fee-waivers only. It appears, that whilst many talented but poor UK, EU and International students cannot commence their PhD studies, less gifted but richer ones can. I do not want to know how much potential for academic progress gets lost due to social inequality and a lack of proper funding.

The situation in Germany is by no means better from a financial perspective but different in many other ways. First of all, the local ‘PhD system’ is still reflecting the same social mechanisms it had a hundred years ago. Though in recent years programs similar to the British ones emerged, doing your PhD in Germany is today often a very ‘personalized’ matter: There are mostly no fixed study plans, little guidance yet a strangely close relationship to your supervisor – who is either called “Doktorvater” (literally translated “doctoral father”) or “Doktormutter” (“doctoral mother”). Both terms speak for themselves, I guess. Defining your PhD topic considerably depends on the research interests of your supervisor. Despite a few exceptions, they are in many cases not really flexible and expect you to adjust or change  your proposal to their ideas, if you wish to have them supervising your dissertation. The relationship between you and your doctoral father/mother appears to be less equal, far more hierarchical than in the UK (or elsewhere in Europe). Moreover, you might have to search throughout the country before you find a supervisor whose research interests match with yours. For instance, I am focusing on transnational political online-communication. There is currently no professor even close to this area of studies at my home faculty; the next one I found works in Munich, some 600 km away. In the UK, supervisors show more flexibility; they are more willing to learn something new themselves and to cooperate with you on a more equal level. That is at least what I have witnessed in many conversations with possible supervisors in the UK. Though money is tight at German universities as well, there are some difference concerning funding a PhD course: First of all, pursuing your PhD is more or less for free, i.e. there are no fees to pay. That is basically a good thing but you still need to eat and sleep somewhere. Most PhD students finance their degree by working as a teaching and/or research assistant. If you are lucky, you can combine your dissertation topic with the contents of your work placement. However, many have to focus on two totally separated  areas; subsequently they need much longer to finish their actual doctoral thesis as they have to concentrate on disparate topics. Many have to ‘serve’ their supervisors as personal assistants, too (making copies, phone calls, organizational stuff, revising written exams and term papers etc.).  Another opportunity is to complete your PhD as part of a larger research project. Here you can get even paid for your PhD studies because your work contributes to the overall outcome of the project -thus, such a placement is considered to be a lucky pull. Self-evidently, these opportunities turn up relatively rarely and competition is tough. There are not always jobs in academia available – not every PhD candidate can work at a university faculty parallel to pursuing his/her studies. Thus, some work in the private sector or elsewhere. Studentships are even harder to get than in Britain, because rewarding organizations set very high standards: A distinction degree is taken for granted, you need to prove additional extracurricular activities in the social and political sector, but also in sports and/or culture. If you have not been trained for these competitions from the first day of your life, it is basically impossible to get one of these awards.

If you would ask me, both the British and the German models have their merits and demerits. Ignoring all financial aspects for a moment, I would (slightly) prefer the British one due to the more encouraging, flexible and innovative intellectual environment. This is a very subjective evaluation, basing on personal experiences. However, German ‘programs’  increasingly converge to international standards (which British PhD courses actually  represent). I have applied now for one more studentship at the University of Hull – one that covers both fees and living costs, also for EU-students. Moreover, I started to look for further places to commence my PhD allover Europe. Nevertheless, I have to admit that my experiences so far have been rather discouraging – and it is even more bitter as I had to turn down all offers due to financial reasons only, even though I was considered for awards (but the wrong ones).

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