As I might have mentioned before, I come from a business background. Now, I am not going to fall into the trap of imagining that it’s always good to transplant practices from the business world into academia, which is an idea that is patronising and often inappropriate. But, there is one topic where some lessons can be learned and that is viva rehearsal.
On academic twitter feeds you can sometimes see people asking, is it a good idea to rehearse for your viva? It may just be me, but I find that even asking the question seems very strange. My former occupation required me to make sales presentations or go to interviews where you had to make a strong impression on a group of senior people assessing you from across the other side of the table. As far as sales presentations were concerned, this was a weekly event for me. It takes a few years of doing this for real, where success and failure have a direct impact on your career, to become competent. There is a strong learning effect; failure, triumph, observing more experienced people, all provide the material that allows you to improve slowly over time.
The most successful business presenters use rehearsal as a key way of preparing for the fray. PhD candidates getting near to their viva very seldom have this level of expertise to draw on and are, as a result, unconsciously ignorant of the skills needed to make the best case they can at their viva, which is, let's face it, one of the most important meetings of their lives.
Rehearsal is a fundamental element in making a successful presentation or impressing hostile interviewers at a meeting and I would recommend it to anyone facing a viva. What reasons could you have for not rehearsing? Failure to rehearse is ignorance or arrogance or both.
So if you are with me so far, what makes for a successful rehearsal?
Timing is key to a good rehearsal; it needs to be early enough so that you can do something about the recommendations that result from it. I would think three to four weeks before the viva is about right.
This should mimic as far as possible the actual location for the viva. Back in my business days I would try to get to see the actual room before the big day, so that I knew I would feel comfortable in it. At the very least, make sure that you have a decent sized room with a table and chairs where you won’t be interrupted.
These should be two of your academic colleagues who have been through the viva process themselves and like you enough to read most of your thesis and to think up appropriate questions. Favourite viva questions are readily available online. The reading burden can be reduced by sending each interviewer, using a humanities thesis as an example, the following chapters:
Two content chapters each
It may well be a good idea for the candidate’s supervisor to attend the rehearsal and to take notes. I don’t think that a supervisor can be sufficiently distanced from the thesis to make a good interviewer.
Viva rehearsals have two main functions. The first is to make the candidate more comfortable with the process, the second is to make them more confident about dealing with the content of their thesis.
As far as process is concerned, the emphasis for the interviewers should be to replicate as far as possible the conditions for the actual viva. The lead interviewer should introduce themselves, explain what happens next and how they will communicate the results of the practice viva. A series of questions follow. Depending on the circumstances, it can be a good idea to drop out of role play and to stop the rehearsal and to go over a particular answer or explain why it needed some improvement. It’s a judgement call that is a function of how confident the candidate is. It is probably best for nervous candidates to go all the way through the rehearsal and then deal with the improvements that are required. The rehearsal is an opportunity to practice: tone of voice, body language, getting to the point, smiling … all the things that build up to a confident performance.
As far as content is concerned, the rehearsal should try to encourage the candidate to get a distance between themselves and their thesis, so that they can see it objectively as a piece of work that has strengths and weaknesses, but one that satisfies the technical requirements of a doctorate. The rehearsal should be an opportunity for the candidate to get over any sense of embarrassment that they may have about discussing their own work in public. It will also point out weaknesses in the candidate’s knowledge of their thesis, giving them time to improve their indexing, highlighting etc.
The ideal outcome from a rehearsal is for the candidate to think of themselves as equal to the examiners in status. Ideally, the viva should then consist of three members of the academy having an interesting discussion about a thesis, rather than a supplicant defending themselves from an attack from his or her superiors.
This level of preparation provides a candidate with much of what is needed to successfully handle small, perhaps conflictual, meetings. Most examiners are kindly and well intentioned and will respond positively to a meeting that the candidate has prepared for properly.