Verena Brähler, one of our Researching Security Fellows, is sharing with us her experience of defending her PhD thesis in the United Kingdom.
Thesis defence procedure in the United Kingdom
Contrary to most other countries in Europe, the PhD thesis defence in the United Kingdom is not a formality. The thesis defence in the UK is called viva voce (“with the living voice”). It is an oral examination with two examiners and may require a substantial amount of preparation. Usually you will have one internal examiner from your university and one external examiner. Unless you request otherwise, your supervisor(s) will not be present during the examination and neither will be any members of the public. That is quite nice actually because the examiners will focus on discussing the most important aspects of your thesis, rather than asking tough questions “to entertain the audience”. The examination can take between two and four hours and these are the most common outcomes:
- Pass: I personally do not know anyone who has passed the viva straight away but, theoretically speaking, it is possible.
- Pass with minor corrections: This is the most common outcome. You get 3 months to make minor amendments to your thesis, based on what was discussed during the viva.
- Major corrections: This seems to happen to very few people. It means that you get another 18 months to make substantial changes to your thesis.
- Fail: Theoretically speaking, there is a possibility that you can fail but I have never heard of anyone who did.
Given these different outcomes, it is smart to prepare for the viva. In my case, I submitted my thesis in March 2014 and had six weeks to prepare for the viva in the beginning of May. At the time, I was already working in Vienna and doing an internship with UNODC. I used the two weekends prior to my viva to read the whole thesis again (you wouldn’t believe how many typos I still found) and think about how I would answer the following questions:
- What is original about your thesis? What sets your work apart from others?
- What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?
- What were the crucial research decisions that you made? How did you resolve any issues which arose in the course of your research?
- How did you tackle the ethical implications of your work?
- Who is your audience?
- What is the agreed methodology in your discipline?
- Do you anticipate publishing the material? And, if so, what aspects?
- What researchers would be interested in your work?
- What are the theoretical underpinnings to your work?
- Who would be most likely to agree/disagree with your findings?
- How long do you expect your work to remain innovative? Do your contributions have a limited timescale?
- Do you think that your recommendations are feasible?
One the day
My examination was in London. On the day, I felt pretty calm and well prepared. I always thought that I am a bit better in speaking than in writing, so I felt confident but not exactly über-enthusiastic. When I walked into the room, my two examiners welcomed me and started the viva by asking two ice-breaker questions:
- How did you come to research this topic?
- Do you have any plans to publish some of the materials?
Then in the following 40 minutes, the examiners went straight into criticising my main argument (“oligopoly of security providers in Rio de Janeiro”) and it was quite challenging to defend my research choices. The rest of the viva continued in a similar format. One of the professors would give a “mini-lecture” on a certain aspect of my thesis and I then had the opportunity to defend myself and explain my arguments. The whole process was quite exhausting but I also enjoyed it because it showed that these two very distinguished and well-known professors had read and analysed my whole thesis (a good 290 pages) in a lot of depth.
After the examination, I had to leave the room quickly so that the professors could decide on the outcome of the viva. When I was asked back into the room, they told me that I had passed with minor corrections and explained the changes I needed to make over the next three months. I was very happy with this result and felt relieved. We called my supervisor and together we had a glass of champagne and then went for dinner.
After defending the thesis
On the next morning, I had to go immediately back to Vienna to continue with my work at UNODC. The next day at work I felt that I must be one of the smartest and dumbest interns my department ever had. Smart because I had just passed my PhD viva and dumb because here I was, 28 years old and doing an unpaid internship. Two weeks later, I received the official report by the examiners. It was quite a lot of pages so I panicked a bit and then not looked at it again for the next two months while finishing the internship.
Upon my return to London, I immediately started working on the corrections and it took me a good three weeks. I must say it was quite difficult because after a few months of working outside academia, it felt like a huge step backwards to work on the thesis again. I also felt under a lot of pressure to find a job and sometimes I felt that the thesis corrections were getting in the way of my job applications (or the other way around?). All in all, I must admit though that the thesis has been hugely improved by doing the minor corrections and I am grateful that I was forced to go through this rite of passage.
For those preparing for the viva, I would recommend to watch these videos by Imperial College London which explain the examination process quite nicely. And if I can just give you one piece of advice: write your thesis as best as possible before you submit it! Little inconsistencies in your arguments, a weak theoretical framework or unfeasible policy recommendations may backfire at you during the viva. From my own experience, I can say that making changes to the thesis after the examination is a lot harder than before, simply because your mind will already be in another world.
To read more on this topics, read “Defending your PhD thesis in… Spain” by Jorrit Kamminga.
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