My viva

A PhD is a massive undertaking.  From writing the proposal, applying for funding, recruiting respondents, facing set-backs, reading the literature, reading more literature, writing the empirical chapters, remembering why you wanted to do this in the first place, it's all hard and complicated and on many occasions it did drive me to tears.  But I believed in my research (in brief, exploring the experiences of men diagnosed with breast cancer) and I hoped it would all be worthwhile.

I won 1+3 funding, meaning I had my tuition fees paid for my MA (one year) and PhD (three years) and I also had a grant to live off.  My PhD took longer than expected, and so I went into my fourth year, also known as continuation.  This was hard, as I didn't have an income, I just had to keep going and finish it as soon as I could.  I submitted my thesis just three days before my absolute deadline, in November 2013.

Then I had to wait for my viva, or viva voce.  Translated, this means 'with living voice' but usually used as 'by word of mouth'.  The viva is basically an oral exam taken around three months after you submitted, in which your two examiners (one from inside your department, one from outside of the university but with research interests in your PhD area) ask you to defend your thesis.

I've spoken to so many graduates about their vivas, and there's a whole range of experiences.  A chemistry viva is different from a sociology viva is different from an English viva.  For anyone interested, this is my viva story.

I'd met my external examiner the day before my viva, at a conference.  He had flown over from Canada to be the key note speaker at the conference and also to do my viva, so I was very pleased he had made that effort to come along (yes, examiners do get paid plus expenses, but there is no obligation to examine a thesis, if asked).  He seemed a very friendly man, and said he was looking forward to talking to me tomorrow.  Tomorrow! Argh! At the conference (which was on men and masculinities and health, my research area) lots of people were wishing me luck, and imparting final words of wisdom, so I was feeling pretty ready for the big day...I just wanted to do it!

The night before, I read through my notes one final time (you can take an annotated copy of your thesis into the viva, plus notes) and then watched rubbish tv before I went to sleep, to calm me down a bit.  The morning of my viva I met up with my supervisor, who was pleased with my notes, and how I was holding myself together.  I walked back to my room to get changed (I was staying in one of the colleges) and get in 'viva mode'.  I wore smart dark grey trousers, black heels, a smart blue top and a black cardigan.  Nothing too formal, but smart and comfortable.  I was wearing my favourite pair of earrings, and in my purse I had my grandmother's 'touch wood teapot'.  (I'm not a superstitious person usually, but I wasn't taking any chances with my viva!)

I had received an email with the venue, the examiners (plus I had an independent chair) turned up an hour before me, to discuss how the viva was going to work, and I was due there at 2pm.  I hate being late, so I was there half an hour early.  Turned out I was in the wrong building.  How did I get that wrong?! A panicky phone call to my supervisor at 13.58 asking him where my examiners were (and trying not to cry) resulted in him coming to find me, and escorting me to my viva, which was in a building just a few doors down the road.  Thankfully my examiners were running late, so my lateness was not an issue.  But oh, was I panicky at this stage!  It was also raining by now, so I felt a bit bedraggled and my calmness had gone, somewhat.

The independent chair came out, introduced herself, shook my hand, and held it, using her left hand to touch my shoulder and give me a few moments to calm myself.  Done!  Right, bring on the examiners!

We were in a small meeting room, sat around a large square table, me opposite the chair, the two examiners on my left and right.  They were all smiling, and reassured me that it was going to be an 'informal chat' rather than an interrogation.  I suppose it was more of a chat than an interrogation (although sometimes it didn't feel that way!), their first question was about how I decided to research in this area, which is a standard opening question, to warm the candidate up and make them relax, as everyone usually knows how they ended up doing what they did!

Over the next 90 mins or so my examiners asked me lots of questions, about my theory, research, findings, my contribution to knowledge.  Some questions were about clarification, some were asking for more information, some were asking for me to defend what I had written as the examiners disagreed with my interpretation.  Once or twice I had to ask for clarification, as I didn't know what the examiners meant (they asked me about one theorist I hadn't heard of, so I had to ask what the theorist had written) and then finally the questions were done.

I was asked to step outside whilst they discussed my answers.  I went and sat in a nearby office, jumping every time I heard a door open.  After about 20 minutes the independent chair came out and called me back in.  My external examiner said that he has been told it is traditional for the examiner who has travelled furthest to give the news.

"And so, Amy, I am pleased to tell you you've passed."

How I managed to not cry at this point, I'm not too sure.  I'm getting a bit teary even writing it down!  I got minor corrections, so I can call myself a doctor but there are a few tweaks I need to make to my thesis before I can finally hand it in and graduate.  They did tell me what my corrections are (adding in this theorist I didn't know about, making my argument stronger in a particular section, correcting all my typos) although I get the paperwork through with it all written on in a few days, which is good as I wasn't really taking much in at this point!

And then it was congratulations and hand shakes all round! The examiners and chair said they'd meet me in the pub shortly, as I had some phone calls to make!  As I knew I'd just cry if I phoned my parents or Ben, I went to find my supervisor.  He was out of his office, so I waited outside, and then saw him walking across the lawn.  "Well?" he shouted at me as soon as he could see me.  "Minor corrections!" I replied.  He walked over to me and gave me a hug and he looked so proud.  He took me to the pub and I started texting people - I knew I'd cry if I phoned people.  The examiners joined us a few minutes later, and we had a drink and toasted my success.  A doctor!  Everyone had other evening commitments so after we'd had a drink, people started leaving.  As I stood outside the pub saying goodbye to everyone, my supervisor hugged me again and the independent chair said "goodbye, Doctor Amy Halls".  Doctor! Me!

I then started phoning people, and my family and friends are so proud of me, and pleased for me.  My phone beeped all night with text messages and Facebook notifications.  I'm a doctor!

I know some people have big nights out to celebrate passing their viva, but I was emotionally drained.  I headed back to my accommodation, it was pouring with rain and I didn't have an umbrella, I was absolutely drenched but I didn't care.  Doctor!  I went to bed with a book, turned the light off about 9.45, and slept for 12 hours.  I clearly needed it!

It's still not sunk in yet.  All that work I did, I did it, I've done it, I'm a doctor!  Now to do my corrections, and get some paperwork from the university so I can go to the bank and change the title on my bank cards!

Massive, massive thanks to all the people who supported me throughout my PhD...I couldn't have done it without you!


  1. A huge congratulations Amy! I knew you'd pass! :D Enjoy it now! Very happy for you.

    Jen |

    1. Thank you! It's all still a bit surreal. I was given a congratulations card addressed to Dr A. Halls and it made me squeal...that's me! Does this ever wear off? Right now, I kind of hope not!

  2. I felt tense just reading this! Congratulations on your achievement, it must feel amazing to be finished and be a Dr. My partner is in the 3rd year of his 4 year PhD and I know from watching him go through it what hard, gruelling work it can be. I have a vague plan to do an MA and PhD one day, but who knows. Not sure I could take the stress!

    1. Thank you very much indeed! A PhD is such hard work, and I know it's hard on family and friends too, my acknowledgements in my thesis were quite long but very heartfelt! I'd definitely recommend doing postgraduate research, as long as you REALLY want to do's not easy, but oh does it feel good when you've done it!

  3. Wow Amy, well done! This sounds like quite an adventure, I won't call it an ordeal, it's an're on a new path now my dear, make it a good one! :) x

    1. Thank you very much! In some places it was definitely an ordeal, but now I can see it as an adventure, time is softening the bits I found most arduous, thankfully!

  4. Congratulations Dr :-) This is a lovely post, I really enjoyed it! x


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