25th January 2017

Former SCCJR PhD student Jamie Buchan gives a personal account of the viva experience.

The viva is a complex, unusual and stressful occasion; for most, it is also literally a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. This is a brief account of my own, which was held at the University of Edinburgh in November last year.

Having started as a part-time lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University shortly after submitting my thesis, I had relatively little time to prepare. I read over the thesis and considered likely questions but hadn’t carried out a ‘mock viva’, as many sources advise. Fortunately, because my thesis had come together quite quickly, its structure and key points were all fairly fresh in my mind. It also helped that I knew both my examiners already.

I had imagined a cavernous wood-panelled room, but on the day I discovered that, because of ongoing refurbishments to Old College, my viva had been allocated a tiny space in Buccleuch Place, a street of Georgian houses converted first into flats and then university rooms. With my supervisors sat behind me, I shared a small round table with two examiners and the Chair, having to balance my thesis awkwardly on my lap. I found this quite jarring, and I would recommend anyone preparing for a viva look at the room beforehand and avoid surprises like this.

At one point, in what might have been a desperate play for time, I downed the full glass of water in front of me

Despite the friendly and reassuring manner of the panel members, I had a shaky start. The first few questions are meant to be fairly open and straightforward, but I remember thinking – in a detached but not a calm way – that I was clearly struggling even with these, and should have made more time to prepare. At one point, in what might have been a desperate play for time, I downed the full glass of water in front of me.

The panic subsided after about 10-15 minutes. There was a real sense of a turning point as I went from fighting a rearguard action to responding substantively to the questions. The viva became an interesting and comprehensive expert discussion, as we discussed key aspects of the thesis and I gave explicit reasoning for the decisions that had shaped the project – to give what I was afterwards told was a ‘spirited defence’ of the thesis.

After about an hour it became clear that I was approaching the final stages and I began to relax a little more. The questions ended, and we adjourned for the examiners to deliberate; my supervisors and I had a cautiously optimistic, discussion in the nearby café. The deliberations were brief – I walked back with them still chewing the last bit of brownie.


A post-viva Jamie celebrates


At the start of the viva, the chair had listed the possible outcomes; now, the external examiner told me I had passed with minor corrections, to be completed within three months. I was very glad to hear it – I think this was about the best I could have hoped for, considering I had had to put the thesis together quite quickly after losing time in the first couple of years due to access troubles and changes of plan. After explaining the corrections, the examiners suggested ways I could develop my research in subsequent work, including publication possibilities.

I left the building soon after, exhausted but relieved. It was a mentally and emotionally exhausting experience, but definitely an enjoyable one.

If you have an idea for a blog, or would like to contribute something, we actively seek SCCJR PhD student reflections on their experiences and research. Please drop us a line to enquiries@www.sccjr.ac.uk.