Politics

How to prepare for a social science PhD viva in pandemic times

I have just passed my PhD viva, I figured it would be of great help to other PhD students to outline my preparation for the viva and offer my tips and rules.

I have just passed my PhD viva for my thesis entitled; “Examining the impact and effectiveness of Facebook on party campaigns”. Having read quite a few tips and tricks around the internet, I figured it would be of great help to the wider body of social science PhD students to outline my preparation for the viva. I survived it, it was very challenging in parts and overall a really fantastic experience. I have minor corrections to now undertake before I become Dr. Hotham.

I hope to all others in preparation for their viva that this article will help them to have as fruitful an experience as I had. It really is so cool to be able to discuss something that you have spent so much time on (and care about) with people who have dutifully and carefully read your work. I had to do my viva via Zoom and given the current worldwide pandemic I feel I have a few useful tips to offer others going through the same experience.

I study social media and election campaigning and as such my field is very much social science, however I feel this article will be of use to other fields also, given my research covers areas of data science, statistics, law and information technology.

Tip 1 – Don’t spend too long preparing

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You wrote the damn thing, don’t flog a dead horse by needlessly rereading what you already know. Instead do quality reading of your thesis and read around your subject, especially checking out your examiners work. In my viva we focused a lot on methodology and structure, areas that require a broader view of the research. As such you don’t need to get so hung up on small thesis details, unless it is a clear area of weakness (in which case you should record it), your thesis reading should focus on the bigger picture. I didn’t even have a printed version of my thesis, instead reading a pdf version of the thesis. To reduce thesis boredom I even had Microsoft Edge read me my thesis using neural network driven voicing that is now surprisingly natural.

Tip 2 – When you are preparing, make it high quality

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I did a lot of short burst revision mixed with hobbies or other work. I used a Google Doc so I could switch across desktop and laptop and move room to room. This kept the revision fresh and the information more able to be held. Given the huge amount of time I have spent on the thesis, and the fact that I am very locked down, I needed to reduce fatigue by limiting revision time and mixing up my daily schedule.

Keeping preparation time high quality helped me maintain a clearer focus on my research. This clarity can help you pass your viva and maintain your enthusiasm for your work. Make sure you keep that enthusiasm for the viva, as you are their to defend your thesis, you are the thesis’ lawyer and it will need an energetic defence!

I spent a lot of time distilling my thesis down to a few bullet points, this really helped. I also fit my research around who my examiners were, so make sure to research and appreciate who your examiners are, this can help you frame your review of your work.

Finally, I spent some time recording my voice. Working from home alone during a pandemic in a Tier 3 area means you don’t need to speak to people much, as such I practiced recording myself responding to some of the questions seen later. This helped me a lot as it also assured me that I could still communicate relatively normally.

Tip 3 – You don’t need a mock viva

Other options are available apart from a formal mock viva. I had an informal discussion with my supervisors where they fielded me a few questions on the thesis and ran through what the viva was going to be like. You don’t need to sit through a whole fake viva through Zoom in order to do well in the real viva, in some ways it may make you seem overprepared and not genuine. I also feel like it devalues somewhat the actual viva, as it is meant to be a natural affair, a discussion and examination between you and your examiners.

Tip 3 – Iron out potential hiccups

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If you are doing your viva remotely as I am (due to this coronavirus pandemic), then it is vital you make sure you are as set up as possible. We did a pre-viva video test and got kinks sorted, even then we had some issues. So make sure you get the technology, those involved and yourself sorted. I also got effective kit that helped me communicate well, I got a proper microphone and webcam that meant I sounded and looked good. Make sure that you can understand your examiners and that you sound good. It is definitely worth spending money on a microphone as you will be talking a lot during the viva, and when you sound good you feel good.

Tip 5 – Prepare answers to key questions but don’t expect to get them

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I got a mixed bag of questions, a few were akin to those you will find below. However, a key rule is to appreciate that the examiners have actually read your thesis, so apart from a few general questions, most will be technical. As such, do prepare some of these common questions, especially the original contribution or summary questions, however remember that the viva does not follow a set path. Therefore read widely and explore your thesis broadly looking for weak points rather than trying to tick boxes through answering identikit questions.

KEY QUESTIONS

  • What are the contributions to knowledge of your thesis? Theoretical, methodological and empirical.
  • Can you start by summarising your thesis?  Do a 5 min and 2 min version
  • What motivated and inspired you to carry out this research?
  • What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work? Cover theoretical, methodological and empirical areas.

OTHER QUESTIONS

  • What motivated and inspired you to carry out this research?
  • What were the crucial research decisions you made?
  • Why did you use this research methodology? What did you gain from it?
  • What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD?
  • What is the idea that binds your thesis together?
  • What are the main issues and debates in this subject area?
  • Why is the problem you have tackled worth tackling?
  • Who has had the strongest influence in the development of your subject area in theory and practice?
  • How did you deal with the ethical implications of your work?
  • Which are the three most important papers that relate to your thesis?
  • What published work is closest to yours? How is your work different?
  • How does your work relate to [insert something relevant]?
  • What would you have gained by using another approach?
  • How do you know that your findings are correct?
  • To what extent do your contributions generalise?
  • What is the relevance of your work to other researchers?
  • What is the relevance of your work to practitioners?
  • Which aspects of your work do you intend to publish – and where?
  • Which of these findings are the most interesting to you? Why?
  • How do your findings relate to literature in your field?

Tip 6 Relax and give yourself a break

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The final tip is to chill while doing all of this as much as possible. For me, I played a lot of guitar and computer games, you should do what makes you happy. You are never going to be able to prepare for every eventuality, and given the huge stress levels this global pandemic has exerted upon ourselves, it is imperative you give yourself a break. There is no perfect thesis nor a perfect viva. The viva will work better if you are in a healthy mental state and in a good place. Doing some preparation whilst also keeping your cool means you can waltz into your viva with confidence and hopefully enjoy it.

Finally, make sure you celebrate. Although difficult to do in these times, for me given Tier 3 I can’t even get a victory Pub pint. Instead I opened up a delicious Bowland Brewery beer and phoned my parents, while later enjoying some classic Futurama. Although its tough at the moment you deserve whatever victory feeling you can get!

Best of luck to those on their journey.

My name is Tristan Hotham, I am a researcher and writer. I research social media and politics, I consult upon digital media’s impact upon the world and how to research social media. I am the Founder of the Social Media Research Centre, a research house and consultancy that seeks to make social media research better.

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