The best form of [viva] defense is chilling the fuck out


So, as of 4pm, October 5th 2016, I’m now officially Doctor Tennant! Or Doctor of Dinosaurs, whatever.

I want to try and offer some advice/experience here about how the viva was. Arguably one of the highlights/lowlights of any PhD, it’s a crucial point that essentially decides the ‘grade’ you get at the end – pass, fail, minor revisions, major revisions etc.

So, the viva..well, the viva was ok. I know it varies from university to university and between countries, but the format for mine was to have two examiners – one internal and one external – basically grill me and discuss various aspects of my thesis. The purpose of this was two fold: to see if the work presented was indeed my own, and whether I had developed a sufficient mastery of the field to attain the title of Doctor.

So, how was it?

Well, to begin with it was tough. Your mind beforehand will tell you all sorts of things. What if the examiners are assholes? What if they find flaws in my work? What if I can’t remember every detail from my work? What if they ask me something I don’t know? Have I revised enough in advance??

I’ll tell you now that whatever your brain is trying to convince you of, to panic you or make you nervous, it’s all rubbish. The best thing you can do is relax. This will increase your focus, and allow you to think more clearly and freely about everything. It can be difficult, and for me it was – I was panicking quite considerably in advance until someone told me this stuff. So I’m passing it on!

You know your work better than anyone. It’s all in there, even if you don’t recall every detail right away. Rather than thinking about this as a test of your ‘worthiness’, consider it as a final step in your training. A test of what you have achieved in the last 3-4 years or so. The evidence of your achievement is right there, in your thesis. Embrace your success, and you’ll pass the final hurdle with ease.

It’s also fine not to know everything. The viva can still be a learning experience. Even professors don’t know everything – research is always a learning process, no matter what stage you’re at. It’s ok to say you don’t know something, but use these opportunities to develop your thinking and explore new space. Never be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. No-one likes bullshit, and people can smell it from a mile off.

Letting go of the concept of perfection is useful too. No paper is perfect. No thesis is perfect. That’s why we keep doing research, and we keep publishing. Research is a exploration of the imperfections in our knowledge – don’t expect to be different. Don’t try and be different. You will make mistakes, we all do. Your examiners will have to be pretty douchey to make you feel bad about that, though. Hopefully, they won’t! There is ALWAYS room for additional work, and acknowledging this is a very useful step.

Getting published in advance?

Getting thesis chapters published in advance for me proved to be quite valuable for several reasons.

  1. Firstly, you get to use the peer review experience to enhance your work, and gain new perspectives and insights that you might otherwise not had if you kept your work private. Having extra sets of eyes on your work as early and often as possible is always a good thing, especially if your lab group is essentially non-existent for open discussion and feedback (as was the case for me – cue world’s smallest violin).
  2. Secondly, it is more difficult to ‘refute’ something once it has been formally published. Published papers are never perfect, but usually it means that all or most of the creases and holes have been examined and ironed out, which is about as close to bulletproof as your work can get at this stage.
  3. Thirdly, and certainly a rare scenario, is that one of your examiners might have already peer reviewed your work. This was the case for me, and it meant that we had already had a thorough and critical debate about the core aspects of my research. Whether or not you agree is irrelevant – it simply matters that you know where each other stand on your work, and what the issues and potential solutions are. Assuming that the peer review process was civil, anyway. Mike Benton was my external examiner, and is without a doubt one of the top people in the field of palaeontology. In short, he knows his shit. By having him peer review essentially the core of my thesis (it’s open!), it meant that many of the issues and arguments he could throw my way had been dealt with mostly prior to the viva. Having Mike peer review my work in advance (note that this was also an independent decision made by the Editor, after we had invited him to be my examiner) was the most intellectually grueling experience I’ve had as a researcher, and it strengthened both me and my research to go through that process. As it should.

So yeah, another reason why publishing throughout your PhD is a valuable experience.

I guess the final thing to say is thank you, to all of you! I value every single one of you who I’ve engaged with in some form or another over the last 4 years – you’ve helped to build me as a researcher and a person, and I don’t take that lightly. I count this as an early first step in the ‘Journey to nowhere‘, and am looking forward to seeing how I can use this to help build myself, others, and contribute towards making the world a better place 🙂

Disclaimer: As always, your experience may vary. This is just some advice (?) for those about to take the plunge.


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