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Surviving a PhD (or MPhil) Viva: how to finish your degree in style

The Creative Writing PhD is now firmly rooted in the Arts and Humanities forest, even if it is a relative sapling, and if you're nontheless wondering what on earth someone doing a doctorate in writing is, well, doing, this post of mine should make that clear. If you don't feel that the full length of a PhD is necessarily for you, then there's the very wonderful MPhil at the University of South Wales, which is very different from most MAs. And whatever you're studying, you might find that my post about Academic Writing is useful. But whether you're an MPhil or a doctoral student, the final agony, after between two and seven years of work, is the examination otherwise known as the viva.

Viva is short for viva voce, which shows that it's oral, and aural. Months before the examination you submit your thesis, which will be a body of creative work and some kind of critical commentary, extended essay or critical paper connected with your creative work. (Click here for more on creative writing commentaries.) Two or maybe three examiners - usually some combination of academic/s from your university, and from somewhere else - read the thesis, and then meet up with you to talk about it. In the sciences this meeting is often called the "defence", because a scientific doctoral thesis is setting out to prove the answer to a definite research question, and the purpose of the viva is to test that proof: that it's true, that there are no flaws in the argument, that all the evidence has been dealt with and referenced in the proper scholarly way, and that you haven't pinched it from someone else. In the humanities, and even in practice-led research in the arts, a lot of what a viva is testing is exactly the same:

  • the plagiarism test of creative work. Does the way you talk about the work convince them that the creative part is genuinely your own? This shouldn't be a problem, assuming it actually is your own. If you're using and responding to others' creative work, the critical commentary - and your comments in the viva - should make it clear that you understand the creative, ethical and legal implications of this kind of work.
  • the plagiarism test of critical work. This is all about good practice in notemaking, quoting and arguing, right from the very beginning of your course, and your university should have given you lots of advice and support. The viva is all about demonstrating that you know how scholarship works: you understand that all our ideas are woven and grown from others' ideas, and you know how to acknowledge those relationships.  

Essentially, then, in the viva you'll be asked a series of questions to explore what you've created, what you've argued, and whether it holds up. It's hard to be more specific than that, since examiners have a specific job to do - to make sure you deserve to be made a Doctor - but great freedom in how they go about doing so. But these are some ways you can prepare, in the weeks running up to the day.

  • Read the Regulations for your university's Creative Writing PhD, and think about how your PhD ticks those boxes. Don't be modest, but do be accurate.
  • Skim-read your creative piece, to remind yourself how it works as a whole, creative project: it may have been some months since you last looked at it at all, let alone in that spirit.
  • Even if your PhD regulations don't require a formal critical commentary, my post on writing commentaries should help you to think through questions which you might be asked about the creative work. It might help if you remember my mnemonic: "aims and outcomes, choices and changes".
  • Skim-read the critical/reflective part, and jot down some skeleton notes to help bring it all up to the front of your mind: the bare shape of your discussion.
  • If you drew substantially on one or more texts for the critical part, skim-read it/them and make a few notes, just to bring what you once knew well back up to the surface.
  • If you know an examiner has a very different position on one of your topics than you've taken up, then revise your arguments for your position, so you have them ready.

The detail of the process does vary, so it's worth making sure how your university does it, before the great (dreaded?) day. But as far as I can tell, this is a pretty standard setup. And when you go in, don't forget that they know you've never done this before. You may be allowed to have your supervisor sit in, though they won't be allowed to speak - it's your choice whether having him/her there makes you more, or less, nervous. But please, try not to be nervous. On a good day, a viva develops into an excellent discussion which you might even enjoy: after all, this is possibly the most detail that anyone will ever not only read, but also explore, what you are trying to do with a piece of writing. On a bad day it can be tough, so hear are some thoughts which should help you:

  • The examiners want you to pass. They would rather a new brick was set in the wall of scholarly achievement than wasn't, and they know you've spent a huge amount of time and money on this. 
  • A PhD is a training degree. It may seem impossibly grand and intellectual to the book-group reader on the Clapham RiverBus, but in academe it's a beginner's degree: your first go at full-dress scholarly work. You're allowed to make mistakes, and the results structure reflects that. It's all about the corrections, in other words.
  • Examiners ask questions to test what you said, not to tell you you're wrong. When an examiner says "Why didn't you do X?" or "ask Y?", or "read Z?" it's a perfectly reasonable to say "That wasn't relevant to my project. I was focussing on A or B". 99.99% of the time, you will have had a good reason for not having gone down that road, and you're entitled to explain your decision. But as part of your prep, you could remind yourself of those decisions, and your reasons for them.
  • What they're checking is that you've thought about the issues that you decided not to pursue, as well as those you did. (In my case I was paralysingly anxious about whether my literary-critical knowledge and thinking was up to scratch, what with not having an English degree 'n all. I had explained in the thesis why I had mostly gone to practising writers, not literary critics and theorists, but I was still worried. I needn't have been.)
  • If you did dodge an absolutely central authority, or a topic that anyone in this field would say you must look at, then they could conceivably ask you to correct that omission before they'll pass the thesis. But that's all perfectly normal, and nothing to be ashamed of.
  • If your thesis does go directly against an examiner's position, then that doesn't mean you're "wrong" and you'll therefore fail. What's important is that your argument is solidly made on the basis of good evidence well set out and analysed. But do be polite!

At the end of the viva they'll ask you (and your supervisor) to leave, so they can discuss the result. They'll then call you back in, and tell you that, provisionally, they're are recommending to the university that your thesis should be given one of the following:

  • Pass with no corrections
  • Pass with minor corrections
  • Pass with major corrections (with or without the examiners wanting to see those corrections)
  • Fail with the option to re-submit for a second examination/viva
  • Fail without the option to re-submit
  • Some universities will consider giving a PhD candidate an MPhil if the work reaches that standard, but not Doctoral standard.

Pass with no corrections is rare - it is a beginner's degree - but so is Fail without the option to re-submit, so the chances of you emerging degree-less are small. You can relax! And to give you an idea of the outcome, I hope you'll forgive me for posting this final, rather celebratory link. The real point is that Philip Gross (as he later said to me) was aiming his comments "straight at the stumps" of the University of London regulations, so they give you a good idea of what sort of thing the regs - and therefore the examiners - are trying to get at: that I was OK at "articulating and clarifying for the examiners the choices and/or processes underpinning decisions material to the content and structure of the thesis". 

Sounds alarming, but it needn't be. Spend 45 minutes or so talking about your own work to two people who've read it in detail? And when you have, with luck and only a small following wind, you get to wear a gorgeous gown and a very silly hat, and call yourself Doctor. What's not to like? 

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