In this episode, guest host Dr. Edward Mills talks to Dr. Bice Maiguashca, Associate Professor in Politics about preparing for your viva in HASS subjects.

This is the second 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, I'm your host, Kelly Preece,

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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 and The Inbetweens, this is the second episode in a series where our guest host,

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Dr. Edward Mills, talks to academics and examiners all about the viva process.

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In this episode, Edward is talking to Bice Maiguashca

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who is an associate professor in the politics department at the University of Exeter, giving her experience and advice as an examiner,

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as a supervisor,

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and reiterating some of the really excellent advice and support she's given to our PGRs over the years through our Preparing for your viva workshops.

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So it's over to you Ed. hello. Today I am speaking with Bice Maiguashca, who is a professor in the politics department,

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about her experiences as an internal and external and also as a non examining independent chair.

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OK, so could you start just by saying a little bit about yourself, please?

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Sure. I'm an associate professor in the politics department and my research, very broadly speaking,

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is on the politics of resistance and more specifically on left politics.

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So left social movements as well as left politics in Britain.

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And I tend to approach the subject from a feminist perspective. So that's my academic sort of area of expertise.

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And so what can I ask? What's your experience as an examiner then of PhD thesis?

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I have both taken on both roles.

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Well, actually all three roles.

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I have been the supervisor, a supervisor to ten students, 10 PhD students, and I have been both internal examiners and external examiners.

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And in addition, I've also played the role of independent chair on numerous occasions.

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I suppose the first thing to ask is a question that I've asked everybody I've spoken to thus far,

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which is when you're examining a PhD thesis as an internal and external examiner,

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what do you do when you when you get a thesis in front of you for the first time?

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Yeah. Yeah. Well, the first thing you do is you decide when you're going to at what point you're going to

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read it and you want to make sure when you do that you have several hours ahead of you.

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In other words, at least in my experience, in my view, you can't read a thesis

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or at least I can't read the thesis over several days in small chunks.

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So I pick up the thesis and I make sure that I have three to four or five hours to focus on it, to make myself comfortable with something.

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And I read the introduction and the conclusion, and this may be very individual,

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idiosyncratic thing to do, but for me, I need to have a general map of the thesis before I dive in

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So I want to have a sense of what the story line is.

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In other words, a thesis for me and for no academic. is never read sort of as a myth, as a mystery novel, if you like,

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where the the the the plot line emerges at the end or the punch line emerges at the end.

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We like to know what's going on, what the aims of the thesis are, what the argument is going to be foregrounded at the beginning.

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So I read the introduction. I then read the conclusion. So I have a sense of the both, if you like, the bookends of the thesis.

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I have an overall map of the thesis in my mind, and then I dive into Chapter one,

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start looking for story line as well as the evidence which is going to sustain it.

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Reading the introduction, the conclusion of the thesis. Yes, some examiners may do that.

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Some some may not. But it's interesting to hear you talk about the the storyline of a thesis.

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Could you say a bit more about what you mean by the story line?

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Yeah, OK, so I think it's very important that the introduction of a thesis does four things and they all add up.

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If you like the story line in some sense of the thesis, the first thing that the introduction needs to do,

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in my view, is establish the puzzle or the problem or the research question that the student is trying to tackle.

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So what is the thesis about and what questions is it trying to answer?

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The second aspect, if you like, of this storyline has to do with the answer to that question.

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In other words, what is the argument? Of the PhD

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What is the thesis? That the student is putting forward.

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So that's the second bit, the third part of the storyline is why that question needs to be answered in academic terms.

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What is important about that question? Another way of putting this part of the storyline is to call it the rationale of the thesis.

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What is the rationale of the thesis? And you can have two types of rationale.

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You can have an academic rationale. In other words, there is a gap in the literature or perhaps there is a gap in the literature.

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But this is an important question and hasn't been studied. And the second form of rationale that might be relevant, particularly politics students,

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perhaps to others, is that there may be a political or social rationale for doing the thesis.

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In other words, it's tackling a particularly important political or social problem that begs to be solved.

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And the fourth thing that I think a reader needs to find in the introduction is an explanation of how they proceeded to do the research.

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In other words, what's otherwise called the methodology of the thesis.

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So just to recap, in the introduction of the thesis, the reader is looking for four things.

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What is the puzzle? What is the argument of the thesis?

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Why does the puzzle and argument matter? In other words, contribution to knowledge?

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And finally, how has the student undertaken this research and why have they made the choices that they have in terms of methodology?

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Those four pillars hold up thesis in many respects and need to be foregrounded in the introduction and then perhaps revisited in the conclusion.

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I don't know how you wrote your introduction, but does that sound familiar to you?

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That sounds very familiar, particularly given the advice that a lot of people are given to do their introduction last.

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Right. OK, certainly that might sound slightly odd in the.

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Does that sound odd? This this may or may not make it into the final cut? I think I've heard people say it before, but I don't think it's realistic.

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So what I would say is that your the introduction of all the chapters in your thesis is the one that perhaps is rewritten and evolves the most.

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In other words, I think one can't write it at the end.

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One has to write it at the beginning because it's usually provides the student with a roadmap of what they intend to do.

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And I always get my students to turn their research proposals or proposals into some form of introduction.

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As they expand on the puzzle, they expand on the rationale and they expand on the methodology,

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even if they're not entirely sure about the argument itself,

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because they still have to do the research, if you understand what I mean, and they then go back and revisit the introduction as they move forward.

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So I think there are multiple iterations of an introduction.

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Go back to it at the end of the thesis when you finish the whole draft and yes, indeed, one then goes and edits it, the final draft, so to speak.

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At the end of the writing of your thesis, you need a copy, if you like,

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a draft of the introduction at the beginning as well to give you focus and direction.

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Yeah, I think that's very fair. Actually, a lot of my introduction was written in the first year of the thesis but was then quite substantially revised.

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Once the argument had become clearer.

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I suppose to an extent the kind of solution part of your four stage, your four pillars might be the bit that needs to be rewritten most.

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But that's a that's a very good point, actually. Thank you. What contact do the internal and external examiners have before the viva?

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And what do they what do they have to produce before the viva starts?

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So the internal and external normally contact each other after they've read the thesis.

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In fact, it's the been the internal job to organise the time and place of the vivaand to agree that with the external and the student,

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then the internal and external, each separately without consulting with each other.

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Write What's called a preliminary report in that preliminary report, they normally start off by summarising what they think the PhD is trying to do.

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So their understanding of what the aims of these are, the rationale and the methodology.

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So that's normally the first couple of paragraphs of the preliminary report.

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That's why it's so important in your introduction, you make sure that those key aspects of the thesis are clear.

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Then they go on to assess each one of them in some detail.

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In other words, they they offer their evaluation of how well the student has done each and then they determine a preliminary outcome.

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In other words, they recommend minor revisions or major revisions or a pass, an unconditional pass.

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Those preliminary reports are then exchanged prior to the viva, usually some days before.

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And so so that each can reflect on the views of the other.

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Then they usually meet wherever the is taking place, often over lunch prior to the viva or or over coffee.

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They discuss their agreements and disagreements before they go in to the viva

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So when you when the student enters into the room, internal and external have already met each other.

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They've already had a substantive discussion about the thesis and about their views.

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It will always be some differences and they will have come to.

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An initial view on the thesis and its quality and the recommendation they would like to make at the end of the two or three hour,

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viva students will be asked to sit out to the outside and the internal and external will deliberate once again and see whether,

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in fact, their view still stands or whether, in fact, they want to shift that view based on viva

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That's why the viva does matter.

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So jumping forward slightly, then let's just imagine you sat down with your cup of tea on the thesis, which is a lovely image, by the way.

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What would you advise a student to be to be doing in that time, this kind of awkward 70 days?

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I mean, it can be it can be a significant amount of time between the Viva and the submission and viva rather

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So what would you how would you recommend a student spend that time?

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Well, I think you normally have about, am I right, three months between submission and the actual viva.

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That was certainly the case for me. I think it can be slightly more than that.

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But also, yes, it can be more.

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But regardless of how long you have, I think the first thing you should do is actually take a rest.

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You probably will working very intensely on your project until submission point, and you're probably saturated by it.

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And I think I say that you should take a rest, not just because you should take care of yourself and for well-being reasons,

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but also because while you're taking a rest, you are gaining critical distance from your thesis.

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And I think that's very important. Before you go into the viva that you develop some critical distance from it so that when you return to the thesis,

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which you must do in order to prepare for the viva, which is worth doing.

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You know, it's not that you've forgotten what you've written, but that you can somehow see it through clearer,

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more self-critical eyes, and I think that perspective is crucial.

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So after you've taken perhaps two or three weeks off, perhaps even a month, if you can,

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it could involve a holiday, but it also could involve just doing other work.

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What you want to do is turn your mind away from the project, think about other things,

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and then come back to it afresh and you will see it with different eyes.

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And that experience of coming back to your project after leaving it for a little while is both exhilarating and exciting.

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Also a little scary and sometimes a little frustrating because you, of course,

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reread it and realise the strength of the thesis as well as its limitations.

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But I think that's very important that you go into a knowing its strengths because you might even be asked this question by a cheeky external.

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What are the strengths of the thesis and what do you think the limitations of your work are?

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So once you've, if you like, undertaken the moves to put you in that perspective or to acquire that perspective,

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and you need to prepare to answer four questions, there is no way you're going to have a viva without being asked all four of these questions.

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And of course, they're not going to be surprising because they pertain to the four pillars, if you like, of the the storyline of the.

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The first question you're going to be asked, and sometimes it comes up at the very beginning of your viva,

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is your research question, your puzzle, your problem?

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They may ask they may ask the question in different ways. Why did you choose this topic?

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What brought you to this question? Why did you think it was so important?

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But they will ask you to explain your puzzle.

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In other words, the aims of your thesis. Second of all, they will ask you.

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What your argument is. So, in fact, I have been in the viva once where I think the external I wouldn't have done it this way,

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but the external the first question she asked was, so tell me in two sentences what your thesis is.

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But you need to practise articulating the argument of your thesis in one or two sentences just in case you're put on the spot.

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Third, you're going to be asked questions around the rationale of the thesis,

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why you thought it was an important project to pursue in academic terms, and what do you think the contribution to knowledge is?

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And finally, they're going to ask you about how you did your research.

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So in other words, your methodology, the entire viva, will be structured around those four broad questions.

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And depending on your answers, you will get subsequent questions pushing you to illuminate the work that you've done.

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So I would prepare for the viva in the interim,

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I would not believe what I've heard from some students and some colleagues that the viva doesn't really matter.

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Some people would argue that in the end, what really matters is the thesis itself.

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In other words, what you've written, that is what's being tested and that what you actually say in the viva is neither here nor there,

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apart from the fact that one of the purposes, one of the functions of Avivah is to actually establish that you're the author of the.

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So that's that's that's one function.

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But I would argue that preparing for the viva is incredibly important for the outcome in two ways, one, emotionally and psychologically.

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In other words, you're more likely to have a good experience in the viva.

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In other words, a good conversation with your internal and external,

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if you know your thesis well and you're prepared to answer questions around those four pillars.

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And I think, second of all, if by any chance there is a difference of opinion between the internal and external about what the outcome should be,

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let's say minor revision versus major revision, your answers to those four very broad questions.

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can help them decide whether it's going to be minor or major.

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So I strongly advise students to prepare for the viva both so that they have fun and also so that the outcome is as good as it can be.

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There was one term that you used there, which I think a lot of people will have heard many,

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many times, but I think it might be worth spending them to unpick if that's OK.

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It's the idea of the Viva as a conversation,

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which I think is connected to what you were saying earlier about how depending on the answers you give to certain questions,

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the the examiners can go down different roads.

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So when you think of a presumably a good viva as a good conversation, what do you what do you mean by that?

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How is it different from, say, an interview, for example?

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I think conversation or dialogue as a way of describing the thesis as well as viva is, is a helpful way of thinking about the whole process.

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So let me start by saying that in many respects, a thesis or a PhD

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Is in fact, the product of a conversation, so in the rationale of your of your thesis,

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where you explain why you pursued this particular puzzle, you will need to lay out an academic academic conversation about your topic.

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It's often called the literature review.

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So the thesis itself represents a conversation between a group of academics who may agree or disagree with each other and yourself, in other words,

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when you write a thesis as a student, you are intervening or you're seeking to intervene in a dialogue amongst experts about the subject.

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When you do your Viva. Then you have a second type of conversation, you have a conversation with two experts in the field.

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About the conversation you've had in your thesis. So in other words, with your with your viva

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your internal and external are interested not so much in determining whether they agree with your

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answers or not or whether they understand how you've come to them and why you've come to them.

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Which comes itself to another point, which I think you may have raised in the discussion that I was actually in your experience.

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Is it possible to pass a viva, even if you examine it, totally disagree with your conclusions?

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I think that depends on what one means by disagree with one's conclusions.

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I'm speculating here. I'm not in the sciences, but I'm wondering whether perhaps in the sciences that may not be possible.

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In other words, if they think that you've done i don't know you've performed

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like the formulas incorrectly or misunderstood your formulas or use the wrong ones and therefore have the wrong outcomes,

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it's quite possible that perhaps you don't pass. I think in the social sciences, there's it can be a matter of interpretation.

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So in the social sciences, what they will be checking and what I would check for is the level of scholarship.

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Involved in the thesis.

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In other words, has this student engaged with the right, with the relevant literature on the subject, or have they missed certain literature?

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Do they show a good grasp of the conceptual and empirical material that's out there?

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And have they managed to mobilise evidence to sustain the argument that they're making?

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If they do all of that, and I still disagree perhaps with either the direction they've taken or,

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as you put it, the outcomes, then yes, yes, they will still pass.

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I've had a number of students who have mobilised or deployed theoretical perspectives that I don't find particularly interesting and or helpful.

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And a brilliant thesis can be written using both theoretical perspectives,

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even if I'm perhaps not enamoured with them because I think there are problems.

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So I might raise those problems in the viva to make sure they understand the limits of that perspective.

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But I'm going to be very happy passing them if they have done a good job mobilising evidence

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for their case and showing a good understanding of the theoretical perspective and its limits.

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So thank you for that.

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I think that's a really good clarification of a point that a lot of people will have heard but may not have been able to express in detail.

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So let's jump forward now to the Viva itself. I mean, with everything we've spoken about, this has been Viva to some degree, but.

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As an examiner, whether an internal or external.

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What frustrates you in a viva, I think some viva I've really enjoyed some this and I found other viva is very difficult to get through.

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I think one of the things that students should keep in mind, as I said earlier, is that viva is a dialogue.

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It's a dialogue between three people, sometimes four, depending on whether you have two externals and one internal or just one external, one internal.

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And I think students should keep in mind that although it's intimate and that there are only three of you in a room or perhaps four,

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but somehow externals and internals are people, too,

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and that they may also come to the viva with their own baggage and in fact, may feel a little bit nervous.

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In other words, it's a performance and the student is performing, but so is the internal and so the external,

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especially if there's an internal chair and internal chair presence as well.

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And so what one wants in the performance of the viva is everyone to listen to each other,

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to be respectful and polite with each other and to enjoy it.

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So one of the things that frustrates me, if you like, is and I realise it can't be helped,

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is that if a student is so nervous that they can't engage in that dialogue.

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In other words, if they haven't prepared and therefore thrown by questions about what their puzzle is or what their thesis is,

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etc., then that conversation can slowly grind to a halt.

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And that can be frustrating for for the student, but also for the internal and external.

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So, in fact, you want the students to go into the viva, not only well prepared, in other words,

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they know their thesis well, but also hopefully you want them to go in with some enthusiasm.

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Remember, the internal and the external are experts in the field.

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And therefore, this is the you should see the viva as an opportunity to have a good natter with two people in your

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field who are interested in your project and who may well in the future become referees for jobs.

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So I think I realise this is a big ask because it's normal to be nervousl, to be nervous,

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but I strongly believe that preparing for a viva can actually reduce that

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problem and help you perform in a relaxed and congenial way in the actual viva

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I think my advice to students who are going into the viva.

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Is that they to the best of their ability, and I understand it's a nerve wracking moment,

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but they must try very hard not to become defensive in the viva

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I think I have been in some Vivas where the student has become overly defensive.

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I realise it's partly because of nerves. And as a result, the conversation has become stilted and in fact, sometimes uncomfortable.

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So remember, students need to remember that the internal and external, it's part of their job.

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It's part of their mandate to critically interrogate the piece of work in front of them

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and to engage you in a robust conversation about its strengths as well as its limits.

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So while I'm not suggesting you should concede on every point raised by the internal or external critical point, you must defend the.

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You must not become defensive. You must acknowledge that there are some limits to it.

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And you must show an understanding of why those limits arose.

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But whatever you do, don't go in there defensive because it will make your internal and external examiners defensive in return.

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So would you mind saying a bit more about major correction?

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Because I know it's something a lot of people are worried about. What's your experience with major corrections as opposed to minor?

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I think there are more major revisions than people realise. Let me put it that way.

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I think students often think that getting major revisions is a disaster.

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It's not. It's not. I mean, if you look at the if you look at the what do you call it from the description of each category,

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minor revisions should arguably only involve changes to the text typos or adding references or

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perhaps adding a table and perhaps adding a little bit of research in one discrete chapter.

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Anything more than that, anything that would require you to do the cuts across the chapters, for example, will go under major revisions.

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And yet that that may be necessary and may not take that long to do so, I think a lot of students do get major.

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That's my impression, especially since I think some years ago they made a change and they narrowed minor revisions down to two very small changes.

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So I would just encourage students to to not panic.

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They get major revisions to see that is eminently doable.

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I really like your point about cutting across chapters, being major revisions, minor revisions.

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And my impression is that minor revisions should be contained, containable,

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so we can go anywhere from typos to adding sections of a chapter, perhaps even sections to chapters.

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But anything that requires changing the story line, as I put it, is usually goes under, Major.

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I mean, keep in mind, Edward, that sometimes an external and internal will decide to give the student major revisions in part,

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in part to help them out and give them enough time to make those revisions.

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So remember, the difference between minor and major is not just about quality, if you like the thesis,

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but it's also about the amount of time that the internal and external deemed to be necessary to make the changes.

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And in order to determine that, they often ask student.

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What their needs are and what they're doing and how much time they need.

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Sometimes you might have a student that's working full time, for instance, they've had to get a job and therefore,

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the internal and external might make a decision partly about whether it's minor or a major,

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partly in terms of the amount of time that they think the student needs.

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So it's a strategic decision as well. And the last question I want to ask was a specific one about the the role of the chair, if that's OK.

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So. Increasingly at Exeter, and certainly in light of coronavirus,

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we're seeing a lot of PhDs being examined with this mysterious extra person on the panel who shouldn't and

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arguably make a huge amount of difference to the outcomes of either but whose role is very important.

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So could I ask you to say a bit more about that role, this non examining independent chair position, which I understand you've done yourself?

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Yes, although I have to say that I would I would question the idea that the independent chair plays any role in determining the outcome of viva,

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and that's not their role. The role of the of the independent chair,

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the non examining that's the key non examining independent chair is simply to to assess that you

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like and to monitor the viva and make sure that it is conducted according to the regulations.

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So they will not have read the thesis, they will have no view on on the content of it.

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They will have not be asked for their view on the outcome.

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The only thing that they are responsible for is the conduct of the viva itself and that it is conducted according to the rules.

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Can I ask a related question to that?

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This is something I've always wondered myself what once the candidate is asked to step out of the room or in my case,

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to temporarily leave the team's meeting as it was, because I had, of course, virtual viva

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What kind of things are actually said between the examiners?

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This is just a personal question I've always wondered this is it kind of oh few or is it kind of a OK or does it very much depend on the viva?

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It very much depends on the viva. And sometimes there is an overview, especially if the student is either very nervous,

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in which case the conversation is stilted and that's felt by all concerned or in the case where

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a student can be very defensive or just show no understanding of the weaknesses of the case.

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In all three cases or scenarios, vivas can be painful.

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And so the supervisors sorry, not the supervisor, the internal and external can sometimes be relieved at the end.

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Usually, however, and most of the Vivas I've done, it's very rare that that happens.

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By the way, most of the five years I've done the the internal and external look at each other

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and most of the time we've enjoyed the conversation we've had with the student.

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And in my experience anyway, is often and attempt to be as generous with the students as possible, generous and supportive of the student.

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And I think sometimes there's a misunderstanding that the job of the internal is to defend the students.

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The job of the external is to be the critical interrogator.

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In my experience, that's not the case.

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In my experience, the world of the internal is really only to make sure again, especially if there's no independent chair,

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that the Viva has been conducted in a way that is consistent with the regulations.

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Apart from that, both the internal and the external are expected to ask tough questions of the students.

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And it's not the role of the internal so-called defend the student unless unless they feel that the viva is taking

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an uncomfortable turn and that the external is being overly critical or destructive in their manner.

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But apart from that, both internal and external have the same role.

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In other words, they're there to assess the scholarship of the student and to determine whether it meets the required standards.

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What's your opinion on Mock Vivas? Do you tend to encourage your as a supervisor,

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your your students to have them always is a mock or something that you're kind of doing all through your PhD?

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I would actually encourage students to go through Mock Vivas

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I think it's good practise if for no other reason that it might help students manage their nerves.

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So if they performed the viva already with their supervisor perhaps and a friend.

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So I did it once with a colleague of mine, we both sat and pretended to be the internal and external and put the student through a grilling.

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And I think it worked very well. And hopefully it helped the student prepare for the viva because they were less nervous

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when they went in and they understood the kinds of questions they would be asked. So I think mock vivas are are are to be encouraged.

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Thanks again to Bice for that really illuminating conversation and discussion,

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which I'm sure will be very useful to those of us preparing for Vivas at the moment.

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Thank you so much to Edward and Bice for such an illuminating and supportive discussion.

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Our next episode will be the last one in this mini series on the Viva guest hosted by Edward

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In that episode, he'll be talking to one of his own Viva examiners. And that's it for this episode.

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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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