Reflections on a Successful Viva Voce

In this short blog post I will share general tips on preparation for the final PhD defense, as well as ideas on publishing en route to the PhD. I believe these tips contributed to my result of ultimately passing without corrections. I will not share the specific line of questioning that arose in the defense, since this is not particularly important, other than to indicate that it focused largely on philosophical debates around theoretical and methodological choices centered on, for example, Bourdieu, diffraction, post-humanism and new materialisms. From my post-viva standpoint it now seems to me that the focus was on identifying the threshold at which my knowledge on the subject ended in order to challenge me to think beyond the limits of my philosophical and methodological approach –  all the while remaining grounded in the literature, my methods and the data without presenting unsubstantiated claims. It was a challenging, humbling, constructive, and exhilarating experience.

Prior to the viva I expected that I would have at least minor corrections. To overcome my anxiety and prepare for the final viva voce, I followed four avenues of preparation to ensure that I was as calm and prepared as possible. I now believe that these four steps in part led to the positive result of no corrections – as the oral defense was strengthened through practice. I followed these four steps:

First, I watched three YouTube videos concerning a PhD defense. Each had a different focus: one on how to speak – in terms of inflection in the voice and how to position oneself in the room in terms of engagement, e.g., sitting upright in the chair and avoiding casually leaning backwards – and two more substantially on how to respond to questions, particularly those for which you are uncertain of the answer. You can find these here: The Perfect Defense, Oral Examination,  and How to Defend.

Perhaps the most important point I gathered from the videos was to listen carefully to the question (which may sometimes go on for several minutes prior to an actual question being asked). Once you are certain of the question, then pause and think for a few moments followed by a confident response that is supported by the data from your study – do not exaggerate – and then ‘zip it’. In other words, the videos suggest that you should not allow yourself to speak so much as to casually begin to editorialize points not supported by the study. In addition, if you didn’t understand the question at first simply ask for clarification rather than going off on an unrelated tangent. Asking for clarification will give you the time to prepare a more thoughtful response.

Another great tip in the videos explained that if at any point you are uncertain of the answer then focus on what you do know. For example, state, “You asked me, and I am not certain, but I think…” Or, “If I knew X, I would say Y.” Or, “I don’t know, but that question has interesting implications, for example….” I watched the videos several times over the two-week period leading up to my examination, reflecting each time on the main points outlined in the videos, and I certainly did use some of these strategies (presumably well) in my viva.

Having watched tips on the defense, the second thing I did one week prior to my viva voce was to re-read my thesis once with a fresh mind. I wanted the main argument and flow to be clear to me again. It had been over two months since I had submitted the softbound copy to the famous Red Door. Once I had done this, and I was confident that my work was defensible, and that I now knew strategies for responding to questions, I then began to answer a standard set of queries asked in various PhD defenses.

  • What motivated and inspired the research?
  • What are the philosophical assumptions?
  • What is the theoretical framework?
  • Could you have used a different framework?
  • What published work is closest to yours?
  • How is your work different, i.e., what does it contribute that is new to the field?
  • How did you translate the research questions into a data collection method?
  • What were the alternatives to this methodology?
  • How did you recruit your sample?
  • What are the weaknesses of your sample?
  • How did you deal with the ethical implications of your work?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your data?
  • Do you think the data collected were most appropriate to answer your research questions?
  • Can you explain your methods of analysis?
  • Did you combine induction and deduction in your analysis?
  • Can you describe your main findings in a few sentences?
  • How do you know your findings are correct?
  • What are the contributions to knowledge of your thesis?
  • How do your findings relate to literature in your field?
  • Do the findings confirm, extend or challenge any of the literature?
  • How does your research connect to your examiners?
  • How did you decide to order your thesis?
  • Where are you in this study?
  • What would you do differently next time?

(I did not generate these questions; I received them from a colleague. The original source is unknown.)

Although these questions did not arise verbatim in the viva voce, related questions most certainly did. My preparation of these points prepared me to confidently answer the varieties asked in the examination, and this put me at ease.

Third, the next natural thing for me to do in preparation was to practice speaking my prepared responses. This helped iron out the rigidity of the written responses and made them more fluid in speech. I participated in two mock viva sessions the week of the defense: one with my supervisor and one with a supportive colleague. These mock sessions assisted me in articulating my responses more succinctly and substantially, and they allowed me to practice the points covered in the videos that I had watched. Having done this, my supervisor then suggested that I also read my examiners most recent publications. The point was to be familiar with the types of academic debates to which they frequently contribute, so that the viva could become (as I presume many examiners wish) an intellectual conversation rather than a test.

Fourth (and please check with your supervisor first on this approach), in the months leading up to the viva I prepared and sent several chapters of my thesis to peer-reviewed journals (as well as to many close colleagues), so that I could get critical reviews to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of my work. The points raised in the papers reviewed – by both the blind reviewers and colleagues – helped me tremendously to identify the weaker (and stronger) sections of my argument, and to gauge the sorts of areas I might be questioned on. Indeed, I eventually was questioned on many of these areas.

Bilde1

Kevin Kester 

Furthermore, all of the papers reviewed were subsequently published (click here for the papers: JTED, GSE, and EPAT). This prepared me better for the viva, and it also taught me much about the publishing process. The positive by-product of this approach was that, in addition to strengthening my thesis, publishing during the PhD has jump-started my postdoctoral academic career (see also Cora Xu’s blog post). I would highly recommend this approach to all of my colleagues.

Finally, upon reflection on the viva itself, I have learned several points that I will share here. First, I now believe it matters immensely how the work is defended. It is not merely a formality, as I had mistakenly presumed. The defense gives the examiners the confidence (or not) to pass you, or request substantial changes, due to the responses provided. These are compared with the examiners’ initial impressions from their reading of your thesis. They might be debating whether to give minor or major changes, or no changes at all. The verbal explanation in the defense could confirm or challenge their previous impressions, and it could mean the difference between passing straightforwardly without corrections, with minor corrections, or revise and resubmit. In other words, you have the beautiful opportunity in your viva to convince your examiners of your depth and breadth of thought on the subject.

Second, you most likely cannot guess the specific questions your examiners will ask, as part of the exchange (at least from my experience) is to take you into uncharted territories, but you can prepare for the standard set of questions, which may form a variation of the actual question. The usual set of queries I reviewed above, along with the tips from the videos, helped prepare me to be confident and thoughtful in my responses during the examination.

Third, undoubtedly the viva is a narrative that you will share numerous times with colleagues, friends, family, and perhaps future students, whenever you discuss your PhD journey. Do prepare well (and be proud of) this story that you will inevitably share with many others. For me this has meant at least two dozen times in the first 10 days after the examination. Make the examiners and yourself the protagonists in the story.

Finally, these are obviously tips from just one person’s experience, and everyone’s viva will surely be different. I do hope, however, that you might find what I have shared here valuable in your preparation for the final viva. Whether this year, next or beyond – good luck for a strong and successful conclusion to your PhD! Do feel free to be in touch should you have any questions.

 

Kevin Kester completed his PhD in the Faculty of Education in 2017 with Dr Hilary Cremin. He is currently chair and research assistant professor of International & Area Studies in the John E. Endicott College of International Studies at Woosong University in Daejeon, Korea, and a research associate at the Institute for Development and Human Security at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. His research interests lie in the sociology and politics of education with a focus on the international system, social theory, and qualitative research methods. He teaches courses on the foundations of international studies; modernity, globalization and education; and peace and conflict analysis. To find out more about his research and teaching, see his Research Gate profile. Contact him at kkester@endicott.ac.kr.

 

 


If I were to do my PhD again …

Before 2011, I had never thought that one day I would choose to do a PhD.

But I did it! I have not suffered from ‘Permanent Head Damage’, though it is true that I find it a ‘Probably Hard to Describe’ experience. What I hope to share with you are some of my thoughts when I look back on my journey 2 years after my PhD viva.

I am not going to talk about the sacrifices that one has to make or the hardship that one has to endure (C’est la vie! Life is like a box of chocolate, and you know some of them are more bitter than others).

But I have drawn a list of:

1) things that I am glad that I have done;

2) things that I wish I had done

If I were to do my PhD again, this list can serve as a sweet reminder, and I hope you may also find something that resonates with you. Please feel free to comment your thoughts.

What I have done and would still do if I were to do my PhD again:

  • I would still start a PhD as a happily married couple

You would understand what I am talking about if you are doing a PhD and already have a lovely family. Of course, you can’t fully plan out your marriage or relationship status. But a romantic relationship and family support can often help you go through difficulties.

I know quite a few tough, highly resilient PhD students who have managed both their academic and personal life well. However, I know more PhDs who would find it impossible to make it on their own, and some even find inspiration while spending time with their children.

What I am trying to say is that having a family or a partner will not influence your PhD study in negative ways. On the contrary, you will enjoy being with your beloved ones while working on your beloved project.

  • I would still host/organise an academic conference and set up a reading group

Cambridge is full of wonderful resources and opportunities, not only in a pure academic sense. My experience of organising the annual Kaleidoscope Conference was really rewarding in that I had the opportunity to practise my communication and event organisation skills. It was indeed a challenging task, as I needed to arrange peer review of submitted abstracts, design the conference poster and programme, invite keynote speakers, coordinate a team of volunteers, contact catering staff, and not to mention the logistic on the day. But I received the support and help of other FERSA members as well as the Faculty of Education. It was one of those exhausting yet exhilarating periods.

Similarly, I organised a reading group on Dewey’s Art as Experience. Though it was a small group of only 3-4 regular members, we were all glad to have the chance to push ourselves to finish the book on schedule and to exchange ideas and discuss our views on the details and theoretical implications of such a hard-to-chew-yet-classic piece. I started it simply by pasting a small poster on the faculty board. FERSA is always there to offer help, and the faculty and colleges have plenty of rooms that can be booked for meetings. If existing academic events do not fully match your demands, why not set up something new yourself?

  • I would still stick to something that can take my mind off serious work

I started to cook during my master’s study in the UK. At first, I cooked my own meals for two simple and straightforward reasons: 1) to save money; 2) to reward myself genuine home style food that I could not possibly find in college cafeterias and restaurants. But later, I discovered that it was also a soothing and relaxing experience, as playing around with ingredients and kitchen wares helped to take my mind off academic work from time to time and forced me to leave my desk and engage myself in a different kind of ‘creative’ task.

  • I would still write and publish journal articles

I did not plan to write and publish journal papers at first, as I had not thought about finding a job in academia and it was not part of the requirements for the degree. My supervisor had encouraged me to do so in a subtle way, and once showed me a ‘call for paper’ notice of a special issue whose topic had some relevance to my research. I talked to another research staff in our faculty and co-wrote the paper with him and my supervisor. The paper was accepted and I got some very useful feedback from the editor and then revised it for final submission.

It can be  good to push yourself to write something other than the thesis. It also helps you to gain a sense of achievement, as the turnaround time is much shorter (than a thesis). And you can always start practising by submitting to a student-run journal and gradually build you way to high-profile journals.

  • I would still read books and go to academic events outside my particular area

It is always helpful to go on a ‘wild safari‘ and get to know current research in different areas. Who knows? Maybe one seminar about studies in another discipline can stimulate your ideas and offer unanticipated inspiration, which you might never get by just reading books on your own topic.  Visiting a new and unfamiliar environment is itself a gesture of ‘stepping out of your comfort zone’ and can often bring surprises.

  • I would mark and follow a few academic-related blogs

You won’t feel that ‘lonely’ when getting to know that others have been in the same situation as you. Some scholars also offer very practical advice as well as insights on their blogs. Patter is my favourite one. Why not find the ones you like and keep a bookmark folder for these blogs so that you visit them regularly?

  • I would still keep a blog

On my PhD-related blog, I wrote random thoughts, little poems, and reflections on life. The blog helped to alleviate pressure and to document instant ideas. And what was best about writing such a blog, was that it helped me to free myself from academic-style writing for a while. It was liberating and empowering, and it offered me time and space to listen to myself and to express myself in a freer way.

  • I would still make a critical friend

A critical friend is someone who can switch between writing with you and offering you critical, constructive and detailed feedback that you don’t usually get (even from your supervisor). Who can offer you advice when you are frustrated? Who can mark out grammatical problems in details for you? Who can give you critical comments in a not-too-polite way? And who expects you to simply ‘pay’ him/her back with some of your comments on his/her work?

A critical friend can be someone whose research is in a similar but different area, and it works best when you can meet regularly to read each other’s work and talk face to face (ideally once in a month or every two months).

  • I would grasp opportunities to gain teaching and outreach experience

Whether you decide to stay in academia or work in other industries, it is essential to cultivate the ability of transforming your own expertise into more engaging and understandable language and formats. The faculty offers opportunities for PhD students to supervise undergraduates; the university recruits volunteer and workshop leaders for two festivals (Festival of Ideas and Festival of Science); some colleges also need people to work on access programmes. And try to explore other things that you are interested in as well!

  • I would still attend workshops and events offered by the Careers Service

The Careers Service offers a wide range of workshops, talks and activities. They are extremely patient and professional and can offer you insights into improving your job application profile and planning your career.

Curated a Cabinet at the Museum of Cambridge

Selena Yuan

What I have not done and would encourage you to do:

  • I would keep a more detailed log during my PhD

I did have a blog. I did finish the PhD log as required by the faculty.

But beyond that, I really wish that I had kept a ‘muse’ diary where I could have made ‘mind maps’ at different stages of my PhD research. It would probably have contained some handwritten notes, illustrations, collages, etc. It would definitely have facilitated my own thinking process and would also have served as a precious ‘souvenir’.

  • I would join a student society and go to events more regularly

Well, you know how all these societies sound really amazing, and I filled out a few forms and signed up to a few newsletters. And then I got drowned in all the academic work and never made it to the events …

But I know if I had truly committed myself to just 1 or 2 of the societies, I would have learned something and met some new friends with similar interests, and not to say the pure fun of it! Many of the activities are free and low-cost compared to what you can find outside of campus.

  • I would learn more about the history of my college and of Cambridge

It is true that I went to some walks arranged by my college. I also did some basic research in order to introduce Cambridge and its colleges to overseas groups when I was working as a part-time tutor in summer and winter schools. But I truly wish that I had gotten to know the history and interesting facts about Cambridge and particularly my own college. After all, it was expected from my friends and family, who would love to hear those stories from me, someone who lived in this lovely town for 4 years! I was later able to get first-hand resources and link that to my own experience. I should have kept a database on this, ideally during my PhD.

  • I would try more formal dinners

‘Formal dinners’ can seem posh, but they really are a unique experience that you will never get outside of Oxbridge. They are so ‘surreal’ as well.

If I had gone to more formal dinners, I would have had the chance to try different kinds of food, and visit different formal halls built in different times and in different styles (for example, the formal at Queens’ College’s old hall was really a treat! The food was ok, but I got to see the interior design by William Morris).

  • I would indulge myself to more work-free days

Sometimes, you feel stressed and can even suffer from anxiety. We all know that! And we can push ourselves too hard. My supervisor occasionally encouraged to me talk a stroll and just leave work aside for a whole day. That was good advice! I just wish I had spent more work-free days enjoying what nature offers, or going on more short trips. After all, life is not just about doing fieldwork and writing the thesis, right?

 

Selena Yuan completed her PhD at the Faculty of Education in 2015. She worked as an Assistant Professor at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences in 2016 and is now a freelance educator and independent researcher based in Shanghai. If you want to find out more about Selena or her research, which touches upon museum education and arts-based methodology, please contact her at dreamingselena@icloud.com or visit her profile on Research Gate .


How to manage your time during the PhD: Balancing the thesis, writing for publications and gaining teaching experience

During my PhD career at Cambridge (September 2012 to July 2016), I spent around 95 per cent of my time in a magical sphere called the University of Cambridge Writing Group. In this space, I wrote nearly my entire thesis, published three peer-reviewed journal articles, won a Best Paper Award and landed a job as Lecturer in Education immediately after graduation. I now have friends who write to me from time to time to get my advice on time management, on job hunting and on work-life balance. While I keep emphasising to them that publication is the most important, I feel obliged to tell the ‘truth’ behind all these ‘hard facts’ or what some people would call ‘achievements’.

photo

Cora Lingling Xu

The truth is, when my current Head of School asked me how I found my experience at Cambridge, I told him that these have been the best four years of my life so far. This is the truth. Yet this is not all the truth. There were difficult periods throughout my PhD, moments of doubt, agony, and despair—this is no news to anybody pursuing or holding a PhD. What I want to share in this post, therefore, is how I have survived all the difficult moments. I want to offer three reflective moments.

Moment 1

Venue: Tea Room, Sociology Department, Free School Lane

Date: 31st December 2012

Attendees: Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma

Event: This was probably the second Writing Group session that I had attended. Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma were all senior PhD students finishing their PhD theses. These were the people that I later looked up to and often sought advice from. During one break, Moira made a comment about minding her ‘authorial voice’. This little phrase stuck with me ever since. I started to realise that the PhD experience (at least for social sciences) was really about developing an academic identity that is primarily represented by one’s written work.

Moral: This revelation was pivotal in that I made a conscious decision to frequent the Writing Group, because this was so much more than a writing space. It was a place for me to get inspiration, seek advice and develop friendship; it was my support network and my ‘security net’. I am not asking everybody who reads this post to join the Writing Group (although it is a worthwhile idea), but rather I am suggesting that buddies at the Writing Group were the ones who helped me survive all the self-doubts, agony and despair. It is essential for PhD students to feel secure and supported among like-minded friends. So, your first task is to seek such a space and grow with it.

Moment 2

Venue: Barbara White Room, Newnham College

Date: April 2014

Attendees: Writing Group buddies

Event: I received a notification from the European Educational Research Association (EERA) that my article had won the Best Paper Award and that it would be published in the European Educational Research Journal (EERJ).

Moral: Start publishing as early as you can. I learned about the EERA Best Paper Award competition when I attended the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) in 2013. The prospect of publishing a paper at the EERJ was appealing. I carefully studied previous winning essays and prepared my article while I was conducting fieldwork. At that time, I only had some preliminary analysis of the first round of interviews. However, I wrote up my analysis and got helpful feedback from my supervisor Professor Diane Reay and my friends, including Dr Erin Spring, who was then a PhD student. This was my first article, published in early 2015.

When I nearly finished my first phase of fieldwork in March 2014, I wrote another article for a conference in Denmark. This article was based on more comprehensive analysis of the bulk of my empirical data. Although the analysis was relatively crude and broad-stroked, I gained some valuable feedback at the conference and my article was included in a special issue, published in October 2015.

As I was writing my findings chapters, I began to write my third article, which was submitted to the British Journal of Sociology of Education in early 2015. I received reviewers’ ‘ruthless’ feedback in July 2015, which, when I look back now, was hugely beneficial to strengthening the rigour of my analysis. I submitted my revised version in September 2015 and the article was accepted in February 2016.

To summarise, it is never too early to write for publications during your PhD. I began writing for publication as soon as I had some data at hand to analyse. I was constantly thinking about the next article and how I could make sure that I had a worthwhile message to communicate to readers of my targeted journals. My motto, which I have inherited from my wise Writing Group buddies, is that you write (a lot) to become a good writer and similarly, you write (a lot of articles) to become a good published author.

What I found most beneficial was that I had supportive but critical colleagues to comment on my drafts. At Cambridge I co-organised a reading group with Dr Selena Yuan in which we regularly critiqued on each other’s works and helped each other publish more effectively. Cambridge is a gold mine of talented and critical friends, so start building a network to support each other’s publication journeys.

Moment 3

Date: Some time in 2015

Venue: Origin 8 Café, FOE

Attendees: Elizabeth and Pu Shi

Event: I came out of GS4 and ran into Elizabeth and Pu Shi, who were having a meeting at the café. Upon learning that I was acting as a Teaching Assistant to facilitate a Master’s research methods class, Elizabeth commented that I was career-oriented.

Moral: Yes, I was quite strategic about gaining teaching experience during the PhD. Since 2013 I had been supervising Tripos Sociology papers and Research and Investigating projects. However, I ensured that such teaching did not take up too much of my time. Now that I think about it, I spent around ten to fifteen per cent of my time doing supervisions and acting as a teaching assistant. I also gave some guest lectures at different universities, such as the University of Northampton and the Open University of Hong Kong. These experiences proved instrumental for informing my pedagogical understanding and helpful in allowing me to construct a coherent narrative about my repertoire of teaching experience.

To return to what I set out to answer in this post: How did I manage my time during PhD in order to balance finishing the thesis, writing publications and gaining teaching experience? Firstly, I established an important network of support from which I gained inspirations, friendship, and a sense of security. Secondly, I began writing for publication as soon as the early stages of my data collection, and I kept writing for publications throughout the PhD journey. Lastly, I strategically sought opportunities to gain teaching experience, while ensuring that teaching did not take up too much of my time.

Dr Cora Lingling Xu graduated with a PhD from the Faculty of Education in 2016. Her doctoral thesis examined the identity constructions of tertiary-level border-crossing students from mainland China to Hong Kong. She is currently a Lecturer in Education at Keele University. You can follow Cora on Twitter @CoraLinglingXu and find out more about her research on Academia.edu and Research Gate

On 2 May 2017, Cora is organising a British Sociological Association funded Early Career Forum event on Transnational Education Post-Brexit at Keele University. You can sign up for this event here.