My Viva experience: Yes, I actually enjoyed it…

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I am the mother of three small children and a research fellow based in the North West of England. My funded PhD was with UWE Bristol and explored the experiences of former apprentices in higher education. My amazing supervisory team was Professor Richard Waller and Associate Professor Neil Harrison.

Like many, my PhD journey hasn’t been easy, and there have been several literal ‘bumps’ in the road to becoming a Dr. On many occasions, I wasn’t sure I had the emotional or intellectual strength even to make it to the viva. One long-lasting memory is the guilty feelings – that I wasn’t giving my PhD enough time, that I wasn’t giving my children enough time and for my long-suffering husband.

After five and a half years (including two years of maternity) I managed to submit but I was fearful that my thesis was not good enough. For nearly two months I ignored the viva though it was looming large!! A breakthrough for me was an invaluable practice viva which gave me the chance to discuss my research in a manner like the actual viva but in more relaxed circumstances. My tip to other people approaching this stage would be to organise a practice viva with their supervisory team. Recording this practice was also really useful. I listened and re-listened to this recording, taking the time to think through the type of questions I may be asked and what my response would be. My supervisors also reminded me that examiners want to pass PhDs but must be assured of the standard and rigour.

My viva preparation consisted of re-reading my thesis and some recent papers. After not looking at it for two months I was able to bear rereading what I had written. I made notes on things like my contribution to scholarship, original aspects and the choices I had made. While I couldn’t predict what questions would come up, the practice viva discussions gave me some confidence in where the focus might lie. On the day of the viva I was extremely nervous, which I feel is only natural given its symbolic and real importance. Once I got into my stride though, the viva felt more informal than I had imagined.  My examiners were open, even friendly, and made the point that the viva should be a peer-to-peer conversation about my work. My recollection of the questions I was asked is quite hazy, but I do remember they were asked in a manner which gave me a chance to explore my thinking. I was able to talk about some of the nuances and ethical aspects of the study that supported and extended what I had written in the thesis. I really enjoyed discussing my work in this manner and revealing some of the problematic dimensions of the study. While my examiners may not always have agreed with me, I felt confident that I had defended my position with care and reflexivity. Probably the most challenging question was one regarding my theoretical framework, which did not surprise me, as I was aware I had drawn on an unusual framework and had prepared for such questions.

I was humbled to receive only minor corrections which I saw as an opportunity to enhance the thesis. I also received some positive feedback from the examiners which left me feeling elated and excited about where I may take my work.

Author: Alison Rouncefield-Swales has recently finished her Phd at the Department of Education and Childhood, the University of the West of England. She worked with Dr Richard Waller and Dr Neil Harrison.

You can read more about Ali’s research here.


Twitter: @alirouncefield

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