In this episode, guest host Dr. Edward Mills talks to Professor Michelle Bolduc, Professor in Translation Studies and Edward's internal examiner, about preparing for your viva. 

 

In the podcast, Michelle mentions the TQA manual where Univeristy of Exeter PGRs can find the criteria for assessment for research degrees. These are taken directly from the Quality Assurance Agency's crtieria for assessment of research degrees. Please do check how these are applied at your instition.

 

This is the last in a new series of podcasts on the viva, being developed as part of a suite of online resources by Edward for the University of Exeter Doctoral College.

 

Music credit: Happy Boy Theme Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

 

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to R, D and the In Betweens.

 

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researchers, development and everything in between.

 

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of R, D in the In Betweens. This is our final episode in the series on The viva.

 

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And in this final episode, Dr. Edward Mills is going to be talking to his own internal examiner, Dr. Michelle Bolduc about.

 

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The similar things that we've talked about in the previous two episodes, viva Prep, how examiners approach the thesis,

 

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but also with a little bit of a twist and a perspective from his own viva experience.

 

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So over to you, Edward.

 

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I was very fortunate to speak with Michelle about all things relating to the PhD  Viva, including My Own PhD viva, which she was the internal examiner.

 

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First up, I was wondering if you could just introduce yourself and what your kind of experience is with vivas,

 

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whether as a student or as somebody who's administered them.

 

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So I'm Michelle Bolduc, the director and professor of translation studies, obviously at Exeter.

 

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And in terms of experience and Vivas, I would say that I've had both an American and a UK experience,

 

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so I'll be really limiting myself and my remarks to the latter.

 

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I think it's probably more pertinent. So obviously you have done yourfair share of vivas in your time, including mine.

 

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But I was wondering if if you could start just by explaining what you as an examiner do when you when you get a thesis ahead of the viva

 

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presumably the first thing you do is read it. But I mean, how do you how do you go about doing this?

 

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Well, you know,

 

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it's a it's a really interesting question given given now that all of the Covid regulations require the that we don't have paper copies,

 

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I really need a paper copy in order to be able to read.

 

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So I don't know whether you know this but, but I requested paper copies of your dissertation.

 

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And I did so because the way that I'm going to be just very practical about it,

 

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the way that I read is both by taking notes with a pen really old fashioned on the thesis itself,

 

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on the pages and also on a notepad that I keep next to me.

 

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So I go through, I read, I take notes on the thesis.

 

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I read it a second time. I take notes on the notepad.

 

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I read it a third time. I take further notes on my notepad. And and then usually my fourth reading is where I start to try to pull things

 

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onto some kind of a word document so I can organise the comments thematically,

 

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whether it's based on argument or language use or some of the kinds of ideas

 

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that are linked across the the thesis and the questions that I might have.

 

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So could I ask what when you're reading a thesis for whether it's the first time or the fourth time, what do you like to see?

 

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And is there anything that sort of really frustrates you?

 

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Is there anything you look at and are good or anything you look at and go, oh, hang on a minute, this is going to irritate me me?

 

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Well, I would say that I really like signposting.

 

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I really like when I see what the argument is, I see clearly how the argument is progressing,

 

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the way in which the student has chosen to or the candidate has chosen to mark out.

 

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This is what I'm doing and this is why I'm doing it.

 

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I pay really close attention actually to those features of argument that I don't think we teach quite enough, frankly.

 

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But but I think that having a sense of what your argument is, why it's important,

 

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how you're going to improve it makes for a much easier reading experience for the for the evaluator, for the examiner.

 

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But I think it's also important for you as a candidate to know.

 

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Can you can you identify what it is that you're arguing and why you're arguing it, what's important about it?

 

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It sounds really simplistic, but oftentimes that's lacking.

 

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And so oftentimes, by the time you get to the the the Viva,

 

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hopefully all of that is is quite clear is this is this sort of lack of structure or lack of signposting,

 

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something you you would you would hope to sort of signal the upgrade stage if it's not if it's not immediately clear.

 

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We do always signal it at the upgrade,

 

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but especially now what we're reading in terms of the upgrade tends to be a very small number of pages compared to what the the thesis ends up being.

 

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There can sometimes be a little bit of an issue of if students go through the upgrade,

 

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but they're still not able to mark out their argument and in a very clear way.

 

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It's it's really easy to get lost when you're writing your thesis.

 

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And Edward, I have your thesis sitting in front of me.

 

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And without the appendix, I seem to recall it was like three hundred and twenty nine pages, something like that.

 

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I think that's right. Yes. You know, it's it's it's really hard over many, many pages like that to remember.

 

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Well, how does how does page two hundred and twenty nine fit with what I said back on page seven.

 

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You've got to be able to to focus in on specific places in your argument, specific ideas,

 

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and yet still have an overarching idea of what it is that you're doing and how each specific idea responds to that overarching idea.

 

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And could I ask just for anyone who's not familiar with the term signposting, obviously how ideas relate to each other is one thing.

 

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But how would you describe signposting? Is that to do with how you signal all of that?

 

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Well, it's about how you signal the way that a very specific idea is important to your argument on

 

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a local level and important to your argument on a on a general universal overarching level.

 

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And signposting doesn't mean anything really complicated.

 

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It can just mean explaining. I am looking at this particular idea because it relates to my argument in this way

 

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in relation to something is the idea of connective tissue signposting gives the.

 

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Reader,

 

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the idea that you you know what this particular idea is doing for your argument and in your argument and your and you're telling that to the reader,

 

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connective tissue is making the connections between the idea.

 

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Why is it that one idea follows another idea that you do just simply with transitions

 

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And and I can be that it's important in terms of the paragraph structure.

 

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But typically speaking, by the time you're getting to writing your thesis, you don't have a problem with how you link paragraphs.

 

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It's more how you move from one idea to another.

 

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There's some really interesting and useful thoughts I think, that a lot of PGRs will find very helpful.

 

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Thanks. A lot of those were based around the sort of preparing for submission stage, if you like, what you do before you submit your thesis.

 

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So I was wondering if I could talk a little bit about the preparation for the Viva itself.

 

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You mentioned that you will have been reading the thesis through two, three, four times,

 

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that you yourself have a hard copy and that you go from notes on the thesis to notes on a notepad, to notes on word document.

 

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Could I ask what you might suggest the students to be doing at that point?

 

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How would you how would you advise a student to prepare for the viva if you were the examiner, for example?

 

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It's hard to do, but I think that as much as you can move away,

 

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step away from your thesis and come back to it as if you weren't the person who wrote it and try to work out for yourself,

 

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how would someone who is external to the process see this?

 

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I think you can't do it on the computer. I really think you need to have a hard copy in front of you.

 

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I have vague memories of doing exactly that, actually, of going in sitting places with a hard copy deliberately.

 

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No screens in front of me going through and asking myself, so what with every few pages of the thesis?

 

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Yeah, it's not it's not easy to do. I think that first, when you're reading on a screen, you're not actually reading.

 

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Oftentimes you kind of your eyes just skip over words because they've become very familiar.

 

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So you really need to have, I think, the hard copy in front of you.

 

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And it's really hard to to read your own work as if you're not an interested party if if you know what I mean.

 

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What you can do is think to yourself, what kinds of questions?

 

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Do I want to be asked what kinds of questions scare me, what kind of questions am I really afraid of being asked?

 

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So if you can come up with a list, a list of potential questions that you might imagine the examiners asking,

 

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and how would you respond to those questions? What are the questions that are really scary for me that I really don't want my examiners to ask?

 

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Those are the ones that you probably need to pay the most attention to. I think that's that's that's a really useful piece of advice.

 

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Thank you. I remember actually that's something that happened in in my experience coming out of my upgrade.

 

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viva your questions were fair, but also in many ways quite nightmarish,

 

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which provided me with a really good opportunity going into the final viva several years later to imagine you because you were the examiner.

 

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I knew at that point I'd met at least once imagining really difficult questions.

 

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And this led to me creating what I call the nightmare sheet,

 

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where I had some notes on the worst possible questions I could be asked and how I might how am I answer them?

 

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I asked my supervisor on the morning of my Viva to put me on the spot and make me really uncomfortable for a few minutes.

 

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And did he? Oh, he did, yes. It was awkward because we know each other quite well.

 

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But now he did. He put me on the spot and he he helped me think through some of the some of the nightmare questions, if that makes sense.

 

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And what about during the Viva itself then?

 

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Obviously it's a. A nerve wracking experience for the candidate, could I ask?

 

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You've mostly worked as an internal examiner, is that correct? That's right.

 

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So in the UK system at least, what contact is there between the the internal and the external examiner before the vivaitself?

 

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There is quite a bit of contact. Typically, we each have to fill out a preliminary report form.

 

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And in that report form, we give a sense of whether or not imagine that the dissertation fulfils the criteria for the award of the Ph.D.

 

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So we have to be in agreement about that. So I'm sure many of us will already be familiar with what these criteria that you mention are.

 

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But can I ask if you'd be willing to just run through them again for anybody who's come across these for the first time?

 

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Of course, there are five different criteria. And actually you can find this in the TQA manual.

 

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Basically, you're you need to have shown that you've created and interpreted some kind of new knowledge.

 

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It needs to be original research, some advanced scholarship, something that peer review quality,

 

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extending the forefront of the discipline and it merits publication.

 

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That's that's the first criterion. The second is a showing a systematic acquisition and understanding of a substantial body of knowledge,

 

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again, at the forefront of an academic discipline. You need to show the general ability to conceptualise,

 

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design and implement a project for the generation of new knowledge and the ability to adjust the project design in light of unforeseen problems.

 

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The fourth is a detailed understanding of applicable techniques and advanced

 

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academic enquiry and finally a satisfactory level of literary presentation.

 

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So basically candidates, when they submit their thesis, the preliminary reports, look at whether or not the thesis.

 

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Meets these criteria. So is there something original about it?

 

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Is does it advance our knowledge in the discipline?

 

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Is it is it written in a high form of academic discourse or not?

 

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I think the Vivais really important because it gives the candidate a chance to expose.

 

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What he or she has been working on for many, many years and for examiners to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of that approach,

 

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to give feedback, to give ideas for how this might be shaped into a book, that kind of thing.

 

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Believe it or not, for me, the Viva is meant to be much more of a friendly process.

 

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I know that it probably didn't feel like that to you, but by the time you are at the level of submitting a PhD thesis,

 

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it means that you're entering into a different circle, if you will.

 

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You're becoming a peer as opposed to a student. So I was wondering if we could just sort of fast forward a bit.

 

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You've the candidate has just walked into the viva or logged on.

 

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If we're doing things in the covid format, you have produced a preliminary report that you have discussed with the the external examiner.

 

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You've come to a sort of preliminary conclusion. Is that right?

 

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That's right, the preliminary report really just says something like this, this thesis meets the criteria for these reasons,

 

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there may be these issues or I anticipate the viva dealing with particular maybe problems.

 

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So it's kind of a brief evaluation. So obviously that brings us quite neatly onto the Viva itself.

 

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It's clearly a very stressful experience for the candidate when they're sitting there or logged on

 

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there with two experts in the field being being grilled or at least being asked challenging questions.

 

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What? Do you hope to see from candidates during during that viva process?

 

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I think one of the hardest things for. Candidates is listening.

 

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I think there's so much stress that sometimes candidates find it very difficult to properly listen to to what the examiner is asking,

 

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and if you can remove yourself slightly from the fact that this is your work and think about as you're being asked questions.

 

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What's useful about that question? I mean, I think examiners are not trying to, again, trap you or trick you or anything.

 

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We're really there to improve the work.

 

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And so sometimes I've found that candidates are really, really stressed and not always paying attention to what's going on.

 

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This isn't always the case. It certainly wasn't the case when you were doing your viva

 

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But I think you need to be open to the conversation going in directions that you may not have anticipated.

 

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What I like to see as a student or a candidate who is responsive to what's being said and

 

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what's being asked instead of kind of turning your wheels on and rehearsing arguments.

 

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And I mean, in other words, if we're asking a question and you give the same answer that you gave in your thesis,

 

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you probably want to elaborate a little bit more, because if you're asking the question, it means that you haven't done quite enough in writing.

 

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And we want a little bit more in in your oral expression.

 

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And this presumably comes back to what you can do to do prepare for the viva as well.

 

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You can go through and you can annotate these points that you thought might be

 

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asked about in the viva and develop them further than in preparation for.

 

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That's right. You it's good to think about. Well, what kinds of ideas could I have elaborated on that maybe I didn't as as thoroughly as I might have.

 

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And obviously the viva itself can go on for quite a length of time.

 

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Our one was was four hours, which I think is the maximum that allows.

 

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It's often said that the length of the Viva does not necessarily correspond to how well the candidate does.

 

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So a 90 minute Viva doesn't mean an excellent candidate necessarily and a four hour viva

 

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Doesn't necessarily mean, you know, a candidate nearly failed.

 

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Would you say a little bit more about the sort of the length of time?

 

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Because I know that from my experience, your vivas tend to be quite long ones, don't they?

 

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I guess I'm always really interested in what I'm reading and I always have a lot of questions.

 

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I would agree that the length of the Viva doesn't reflect at all the quality of the thesis or the quality of the Viva

 

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Again, I wouldn't assume that if you're Vivir is over in an hour and a half that you've completely done a terrible job.

 

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Typically we give you some sense at the end of the viva of how we thought it went.

 

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So you get immediate feedback, at least informal feedback.

 

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I remember you telling me at the end of my viva I was quite a fighter, if I remember correctly, which was an interesting term to use.

 

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I think you were sort of I think that was a compliment or it was.

 

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Yeah, in the sense that I was kind of I was able to defend my points,

 

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but it was and that's I think that's the kind of feedback that you're referring to, that when you say informal feedback, is that is that fair to say?

 

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Yeah, that's right. And actually, that kind of you have to be really careful because what you did in your viva in your Viva and the

 

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way that you were a fighter was that you answered the questions in in such a way as to be persuasive.

 

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You didn't rehash your thesis where there might have been weak points.

 

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You were actually you actually really broadened the perspective in a way that was effective.

 

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Thank you for saying so. Saying that someone was a fighter could be one of two.

 

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It could be complementary, but it could also be you haven't really been listening to what we're asking in our case.

 

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In your case, that that wasn't what was going on.

 

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I was I thought I thought you might want to clarify that, because I can see It could definitely be argued one way or the other.

 

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So that brings us rather neatly to the possible outcomes.

 

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I think of the viva. I mean, in my view, you know, I got minor corrections.

 

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That's one of four possible outcomes that you can have. You mentioned that you have had experience of examining candidates who got major corrections,

 

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which is something that I know a lot of people are afraid of.

 

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It's unlikely that you'll end up with major corrections.

 

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But I was wondering if you could say a bit more about your experience with that and whether it was the the end of the world

 

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as as some candidates seem to think definitely for this particular individual was not it was not the end of the world.

 

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I think it was it was shattering at the moment for the student

 

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I think the student was was really not anticipating this as a as a potential outcome in hindsight.

 

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And this is where hindsight is always so.

 

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Great, the work was significantly improved, so much so that I'm really hoping it's going to come out as a book.

 

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I think, again, the purpose of viva is to allow you to elaborate on areas that you may not have done

 

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so well for you to get feedback on your thesis and try to work out how to make it better,

 

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how to make it into something that will actually be read by other people and not just by your examiners.

 

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So it might feel like a kind of a violent process.

 

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But if if you can sort of de-stress and think this is only for my thesis to be better,

 

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stronger, more persuasive, publishable, you'll be a lot more at ease.

 

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And I think you you'll have a different experience of the Viva

 

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I know that from my experience, you were kind enough. I know this may not happen in every case.

 

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You and Jocelyn my external, were kind enough to provide me with sort of two levels of corrections.

 

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So while I got minor corrections at the thesis level,

 

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you made some more sort of substantial points that I'll need to consider as and when I look to publish this in book form.

 

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And I think that's a really, really interesting point to end on, actually, is that the thesis you mentioned this earlier is a living document,

 

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and the Viva aims to look at it not just as a thesis, but also is it fair to say to give you advice going forward with it?

 

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Absolutely. It might be that your thesis will be divided up into articles that you'll send out.

 

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It might be that you you will have just a couple of chapters.

 

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You'll add a couple more and that will be a book.

 

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And what you didn't include in your thesis will be an article where really we're think we're training you to be academics.

 

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When you get a Ph.D., we're assuming that you're going to be entering into this academic world.

 

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What do you need to do in order to be be a part of this academic world?

 

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You need to publish.

 

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And so part of the purpose of the Viva is to give you feedback not just on what you've produced, but on what you might do with what you've produced.

 

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I mean, obviously, not everyone will go into academia after a Ph.D., but of course,

 

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it's it's very useful to know that that's what the the the the beauty viva is at least that

 

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of preparing you for and training you for that is part of a part of a massive pipeline.

 

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You know,

 

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it may be that there are parts of your  of your PhD thesis that you decide you want to put onto a blog or to send to a newspaper publication.

 

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Again, thinking about who your audience is and how you might need to disseminate that information for more of a lay reader.

 

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And, you know, even if even if you don't go on in academia, if you decide that, you know,

 

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teaching in a university is not your dream job after all, think about the kinds of transferable skills that you've learnt in writing your thesis.

 

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You've you've learnt how to research. You've learnt how to evaluate other scholarship.

 

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You you know how to situate your ideas. You know how to express your ideas in a persuasive way.

 

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These are important skills for any any field.

 

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Is the process of submitting your thesis of going through the Viva is admittedly an inherently stressful, but it really is designed to.

 

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Make sure that your work is the best that it can be, and that's what we're aiming for.

 

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I certainly found in my experience with you as my internal that that was that was what I got out of.

 

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It was very stressful beforehand. I was I was incredibly nervous going into it.

 

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May have may have walked the entire circumference of the small room I was in about 50 times beforehand.

 

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But coming out of it, I definitely felt like the comments that I got had the potential to make the thesis better.

 

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And the list of comments that I got, which I then went away and put into an Excel spreadsheet,

 

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really were a crucial tool when it came to revising the thesis and making it better, I think, to to come back to a term that you've used the you know,

 

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the other thing about viva that's really, really lovely and amazing is that you're having a discussion about your work

 

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with two experts and you might have a four hour conversation about your work.

 

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Very well. Yes. And how how how rare is that?

 

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I mean, how it's so unusual that you're able to get so much feedback and have to be engaged in this really intellectually stimulating conversation,

 

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not just for half an hour, but for four hours on a subject that means so much to you.

 

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So I think I think there is something really special about the viva, because it really is all about you and all about your work.

 

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And that kind of attention is and isn't always so common.

 

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And I think that's a really positive note to end on, actually, given all of the concerns that many of us have about the viva

 

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it's great to hear a bit more there about how it can actually be a really rewarding and positive experience.

 

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Thank you so much to Edward and Michelle, but also to John and Bice for what I think has been a really,

 

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really rich trio of episodes about the process of the Viva

 

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It's something that causes a huge amount of anxiety to PGRs.

 

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And I really, really hope that the insights of these three academics and the level of reflection and compassion

 

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with which they spoke will really reassure you in the supportiveness and integrity of this process.

 

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And that's it for this episode. Don't forget to like, rate and subscribe and join me.

 

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Next time we'll be talking to somebody else about researchers development and everything in between.

 

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