My viva was on 20 July 2006, in a massive heatwave. Railways were buckling, roads were melting – it was much like today. I like heat. As far as I could tell, my examiners didn’t. My main examiner mopped his bald and sweaty head while I made a joke about being the one in the hot seat. It was his colleague’s first viva as an examiner and I think she was more nervous than I was.
I was nervous, though. Nervous enough not to want to drive myself the 100 miles from my home to the Open University campus in Milton Keynes, even though it was a route I knew well, because I wasn’t confident that I could keep my mind on the road. My lovely partner kindly drove me there and tolerated my disjointed gibbering along the way. Although I am comfortable in hot weather, I was also glad of the air conditioning in our car, which meant I arrived looking cool rather than a bedraggled dripping mess.
I arrived two hours early, as planned. I had a half-hour chat with my supervisors and was then delivered into the care of a kind member of the department who was assigned to look after me until the appointed hour of 2 pm. She was astonished when I demanded lunch. ‘People can’t usually eat before their viva,’ she said. ‘I’m not likely to perform well if my blood sugar is low, am I?’ I replied, quite logically I thought, and proceeded to demolish a baked potato with tuna mayo (fish! brain food!) and salad. Then we sat on the grass under a tree and chatted until it was viva time.
My examiners greeted me warmly and my main examiner told me straight away that I would be awarded a PhD, but that they wanted to discuss my thesis and some possible amendments. I didn’t know that could happen and from my point of view it was a great opener. I’d had several mock vivas and was well prepared for most of the questions, but one threw me. ‘What surprised you in your data?’ he asked. I did soundless goldfish mouth. He leaned over and tapped my copy of my thesis. ‘Pages 225 and 231,’ he said kindly, and gave me time to review what I’d written before discussing it in more detail.
Both examiners really engaged with my thesis, which was a great experience for me. They made some helpful suggestions about things I could add. After a few of these, I could see they were getting a bit over-enthusiastic, and (although I didn’t mention this at the time) I didn’t want to do more extra work than was absolutely necessary. So I gently pointed out that I was up to the maximum word count already, and while I could see the point of all their suggestions, I would also need some guidance from them about what I could take out to make space for the extra work they were recommending. They were surprised by this and checked with my supervisors, who were sitting behind me and confirmed what I had said. We discussed some options for removing text but I hadn’t waffled or included extraneous material so they rejected all of those and backpedalled on the number of amendments they wanted me to make.
My examiners each asked some of the questions, and after every question the examiner who had asked it checked with the other examiner about whether there was anything they wanted to add. Each time the other examiner said a hot and weary ‘no, that’s fine’. I truly don’t think I’d have got off so lightly if the weather had been cooler.
After just 45 minutes we were done. I had to do the statutory wait in the corridor, but only for about 10 minutes, and then it was back in for congratulations, hand-shakes, and off to the department for champagne in plastic cups. Then my partner drove me home while I rang and texted everyone. Two of my friends had kindly made a party for me while I was out; they’d questioned the wisdom of this, given that the result was not a foregone conclusion, but I felt fairly confident, and reasoned that if my confidence was misplaced I’d need distraction, sympathy, and a chance to drown my sorrows, so a party would work either way. As things turned out, it was a celebration, and for the first and only time in my life I drank champagne all evening as people kept turning up with bottles of the stuff and insisting it was for me.
Then two days later I went to Canada for a three-week holiday. Guess what I’m doing the day after tomorrow, for the first time in ten years? Yep, holiday on the horizon! So this blog will be quiet for a while. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my viva experience – and the viva experiences of others – I recommend Nathan Ryder’s Viva Survivors podcasts. I hope you all have a wonderful few weeks, and I’ll see you, refreshed and rejuvenated, in mid-August.