The PhD is not a linear experience, and getting to know your subject and be comfortable with your results takes time. Some days you might feel really excited about the results and think you understand, then be faced with a complex question that you can’t answer. And then the entire project seems to collapse and those exciting new results don’t seem so great anymore.
Did I do enough? Could I have done more? Frankly, yes. But, hardly needed to pass. For some reason, most PhD students dread the viva. Perhaps it’s the feeling that there is no control over it and not know what to expect. But guess what, if you have gone through the PhD and attempted to write a thesis, you are ready for the last stage of the process. Here are 5 reasons why you should be excited for your PhD viva.
1. Break the silence.
Let’s face it, up to the night before the viva, you might be thinking about your thesis and the overall project. Your non-PhD friends may not understand your fixation on it. In fact, some friends might still be questioning your decision to study for a PhD. There comes a point when even your family doesn’t understand what your project is about, but then again, have you really tried explaining it to them? From the moment you start to write the thesis, it’s been sitting in front of a computer screen working on that one sentence that doesn’t sound right. And then two hours later, you see you’re still on that opening paragraph. At some point, you are expected to explain your reasoning to why you decided to conduct your research. The viva is meant to draw you closer to what you have written. It’s a discussion, rather than a test, amongst people that are genuinely interested in your research and just want to know that you understand the broader implications. If you never presented your work to a large audience, this might be the last time in your PhD to accentuate the important parts of your research. You might not reach as many people as you would if you were to present at a conference, but it will ignite some interesting discussions.
2. The spotlight is on you.
That being said, the spotlight is on you. If you ever felt isolated during the PhD, this is the chance to show what you know your stuff. The examiners are not going to judge you, and instead try to understand the decisions that you have taken during the PhD project. In fact, they want to access your competency as a researcher.
3. It’s your last chance to talk about your work to people who have to listen.
The further you get into a PhD, the less people will know about your research. This is because a project will likely start investigating a general area and you must specialise on something original around the second year. While most scientists will be familiar with the methods you chose to use or can understand the data you present (subject to it being clear), the implications and how it fits into current knowledge may not be initially clear. Your examiners should have read your thesis and apart from you, they should be familiar with your research. I even would dare to say that your supervisor does not give the thesis the same amount of attention as your examiners do. If you are truly passionate about your research, you need to see the viva as a chance to convince two people why your research is worth doing and why the results matter.
4. Your chance to go through the limitations of your project.
We’ve all been there. Sometimes those new results seem not to matter when you realise not enough statistical tests were done. But what is enough? Enough describes the best attempt to clearly divide your results from those results that could have occurred by chance. If that means reporting the standard deviation, you already have a good measure of how your data deviates from the mean. If you want to compare values against a control, maybe you perform a t-test. But that doesn’t mean that every single data point must be statistically evaluated with every test possible. However, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be asked why you didn’t do extra statistical tests. In fact, it is a good possibility that they ask you just that!
Other limitations might include your choice of methods. Again, you can’t possibly answer your research question with every method out there. They trust that you used the right tools and resources to answer your research question. Again, that is not to say they won’t test your knowledge of what else you could have done. If you truly want to be a researcher, you should look at limitations as expansions to your research and not as negative obstacles that make your data less credible. In fact, if you show that you understand how to improve your data, your examiners should be happy.
5. You’re the expert in the room.
That might be the greatest understatement, considering you are in a room with presumably two professors with at least 15 years more experience than you. While they may be more experienced, they are not the experts in what you have done. Let’s draw the line between experience and expertise. Your expertise might be very specific, and it is that which you must be able to clearly explain. It could be anything, it does not need to be something that will change the way science is conducted. It could be something you repeated over and over again, that you perfected over time or were able to teach to someone else. For example, I worked with plants and have experience growing and harvesting a large variety of grasses. However, my expertise is working with one specific grass called Setaria viridis. I know how to get the best germination rates and know its developmental timings. It might not help the overall goal of the project, but at least I am comfortable in one very specific area. Another example might be more specific to data analysis. If everyone analysed and interpreted data (or observations) the same way, there wouldn’t be any new developments—think about the discovery of penicillin. Just be confident.
Hopefully I have convinced you that the viva should be something you should be excited about and not overly stressed about. After the stress and worries of the PhD and the thesis, the viva should not amplify these emotions, but instead be the adhesive that brings together your experience, expertise and original ideas. If you are still worried about it, sum up your project in at least two significant and original contributions to science (as specific as they might seem), think about what implications they have and how to improve your research. Remember that the examiners are trying to access you as a scientist and establish whether you are worthy of the Dr. title, in whichever career you may choose. Also, don’t forget about the broader aspect of your project. After all, your thesis is a formal scientific document and while it may sit on a shelf and occasionally be glimpsed by a stressing final year PhD student, it contains new knowledge that is attributed to your hard work and passion.