Vying with the viva

This week’s Times Higher Education‘s cover feature is “Lighting The Way“, on the theme of PhD supervision. Along with five other academics, across a range of disciplines, I was invited by Paul Jump to contribute my thoughts on the role of the PhD supervisor. The editorial (by John Gill) sums up my central point as “the fundamental responsibility [of the PhD supervisor] is still to nurture independence such that the doctoral candidate ceases to be a student and becomes a peer.” That’s a fair summary. I also reiterated my commitment to referring to PhD researchers, rather than PhD students, in line with Jeff Ollerton’s important suggestion.

I’ve had the “Vying with the Viva” title of this post stuck in my head for a little while now and the publication of the Times Higher article seems as timely a moment as any to jot down some tips for PhD students  researchers who are preparing for a viva voce examination. I should first say that just about everything you need to know about doing a PhD is covered in a wonderful book by an alumnus of the Nottingham Nanoscience Group, James Hayton, whose PhD it was my absolute pleasure to supervise. I cannot recommend that book highly enough (and not only because it demonstrates that Dr. Hayton managed to survive my supervision and come out the other side relatively unscathed, if perhaps swearing a little more often than is strictly necessary.) James also has a great blog, website, and series of videos on the many peaks and pitfalls of doing a PhD.

I thought, however, that it might be helpful for those about to undertake a viva to hear from someone who has examined PhD candidates (as both external and internal examiner) at the rate of about three or four per year (on average) over the last couple of decades. At this point in my career, I have also been primary supervisor for a total of twenty-six students. (Twenty-two have completed their thesis to date. The remaining four are in 1st year (Oli), 2nd year (Joe), and the final year (Alex and Filipe) of their PhD project, respectively.)*

I should stress that what I write below is UK- and Ireland-centric and is from the perspective of a condensed matter physicist/nanoscientist (although I could also just about get away with calling myself a chemical physicist/physical chemist, given the research we do.) The examples chosen obviously reflect my research background and examining experience but the advice is, I would say, broadly applicable for all disciplines.

My own viva, back on a snowy January morning in 1994 — with the wonderfully-monickered Iggy McGovern, physicist and poet, as my external examiner** — was very similar in style to those I’ve since attended as examiner rather than candidate. The PhD researcher sits on one side of a table, with the examiners — one from a different university (the external), the other from the same university as the candidate — seated opposite. Sometimes (though very, very rarely in my experience), the PhD supervisor will also attend, and in Ireland it’s more common to have a moderator in place to ensure that the candidate and examiners don’t come to blows. (Joke. Usually.)

OK, on with those tips for a successful viva (in no particular order)…

1. Have a practice viva.

2. Have a practice viva.

3. Have a practice viva. Excuse my hammering home the message quite as bluntly as this but if I were forced at gunpoint to give only one piece of advice it would be the following: ask your PhD supervisor to do a mock viva with you and do not take “no” for an answer. If there’s another academic member of staff or postdoc willing to be involved, all the better — they can take the role of the internal examiner and your PhD supervisor can pretend to be the external. They should aim to grill you mercilessly. And if it takes two or three attempts at the mock viva to fully prepare you for the real thing, so be it. (The mock need only take an hour or less. That’s enough, generally, to identify where there might be issues.)

We do this in our group at Nottingham for every PhD researcher (a couple of weeks before their actual viva) and we do not hold back. They leave the mock viva feeling somewhat shell-shocked but that’s entirely the point: it’s much better to come to terms with key gaps in knowledge or understanding before the actual viva. And in the end, most of our alumni find that the real viva was a piece of cake compared to the mock.

4. Every word in your thesis is examinable.  Do not simply rearrange the words in a textbook or a review article when it comes to writing the background material. Know what those words mean. For example, if you’re an experimentalist, don’t write about particular functionals used in density functional theory (DFT) if you have absolutely no idea what a functional is (and how it differs from a function). Or, if you’re a theorist, don’t wax lyrical about phase errors in a phase-locked loop if you haven’t a clue as to how a PLL does what it does. (These are both examples I’ve encountered when I’ve been external examiner.)  And it goes without saying that you don’t cut and paste from that article or textbook. That’s plagiarism. Even if it’s just one sentence. And, no, “I couldn’t word it better than it was written” isn’t an excuse. But you know that.

5. Don’t ramble. If you don’t know the answer, just say so. Obviously, try not to reply to each question you’re asked with “I haven’t a clue” but you are not expected to know the answer to everything. Indeed, the examiner is often asking because they don’t know.  If you start rambling you can very easily start digging yourself a hole out of which it’s sometimes difficult to crawl. I certainly did this in my own viva because I chatter when I’m nervous.

6. Don’t neglect the fundamentals. This is where most PhD candidates come unstuck. There seems to be a perception that the viva will focus on the minutiae of the most arcane technical detail in your research over which you have probably lost many nights of sleep. The overwhelming odds are that your examiner won’t even have noticed this aspect of your work. They’ll focus on the much bigger picture. (See also #7.)

If your PhD is on simulating intermolecular interactions, for example, be damn sure that you are completely au fait with those pair potentials due to Morse and Lennard-Jones that you covered all the way back in Year 1 or Year 2 of your undergraduate degree. Similarly, if you’ve been determining forces from a potential energy landscape measured by an atomic force microscope, ensure that you have slightly more than a passing familiarity with scalar and vector fields. Dig out those undergrad vector calculus notes and make sure you understand how force and potential are related, for one.

You can’t, of course, prepare for every question. But it’s worth thinking carefully about which key principles of physics/chemistry underpin your research. (We’ll take the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics as given. You can, of course, state the 1st and 2nd laws with confidence, right?) In the case of my viva, Prof. McGovern took me from vibration isolation for a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), to the eddy current damping exploited in most STMs, to Faraday’s law of induction. (Thanks for that, Iggy.)

7. Think big. I tend to start the vivas I do with a simple question along the lines of “Why did you do a PhD?” or “Which aspect of your work is the most important/you’re most proud of?” or “Explain your work in a few sentences and in language that a GCSE student could understand.” My aim is to try to put the candidate at their ease. This backfires sometimes, however, because the candidate clearly is not expecting a general question of this type. Sometimes they are completely flummoxed.

A key part of the viva process is to ascertain the extent to which you understand the broader context of your work. Why is it important? Why should anyone care? What value does it have in terms of pushing your field of study forward? You need to sweat the small stuff, to borrow a phrase from our friends across the pond, but you also need to be able to see the wood for the trees.

8. “My supervisor told me to do it” is never, ever, ever the right answer. You’re being examined to assess your ability to be an independent researcher. If you don’t know why you did a particular experiment or calculation the way you did, find out right now. And ask yourself whether that really was the best way to do things. (I should note that I’ve been given “My supervisor told me to do it” as a reply on significantly more than one occasion.)

9. Forewarned is forearmed. Look up your examiners’ group web pages and publications. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the research they’ve done. Unless something has gone badly astray in the examiner selection process, their research area is not going to be light years from yours. Do your homework and you might even be able to preempt a question or two.

10. We are almost always on your side. Yes, there are one or two complete bastards out there who are deeply insecure and unpleasant individuals; they’ll take pleasure in attempting to humiliate a candidate during a viva. I’ve not encountered one of these (thus far) but I’ve certainly heard from postdocs who have had to suffer arrogant, patronising, and, in the worst cases, bullying PhD examiners.

To put this in context, however I have now done somewhere between sixty and seventy vivas (as external or internal examiner) over the course of my career to date and I’ve not encountered this type of behaviour. I would also very much hope, of course, that I have not made any of the PhD candidates I have examined feel as if they were being patronised (or worse.) We examiners want you to pass!

11. Try to enjoy yourself. Despite receiving quite a grilling from Prof. McGovern, I enjoyed my viva. It’s nerve-wracking, of course, but when you’re talking about the research you love with someone who is genuinely interested in the work, it can also be exhilarating.

No, really. It can.

I’ll leave you with a wonderfully affecting Sixty Symbols video that follows my friend and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, James Clewett, through his viva experience…

To quote James,

“In the end…it was a very comfortable… very enjoyable experience. It was something that, in hindsight, I’d do it again.”

Oh, and that reminds me…

12Don’t wear shorts.

* Thank you Mike, Mick, Li, Rich, Fiona, Matt, Andy, Manu, James, Adam, Pete, Cong, Rosanna, Haya, Sam, Julian, Cristina, Ioannis, Morten, Jeremy, Simon, Alex, Filipe, Joe, and Oli.

** It was a lot of fun to work with Iggy seventeen years after my viva on this video:


When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]

There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:


My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))


If I hadn’t failed my exams, I wouldn’t be a professor of physics

I started writing this post a little after 06:00 am this morning, the time at which schools and colleges were officially permitted to start releasing A-level results to hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I vividly remember the stomach-churning sense of dread thirty years ago as I awaited my Leaving Certificate results (the ‘Leaving’ is the Irish equivalent of the A-level system), and empathise with all of those students across the country biting their nails and pacing the floor as I write this.

By far the best advice for A-level students I’ve read over the last week was an open letter by Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI school, to his Year 13 students, published in the TES on Tuesday: “Worrying about A-level results won’t help. They are out of your control“. Barton’s article resonated with me for a number of reasons, not least because I’m an undergraduate admissions tutor. It was the following paragraphs, however, that really hit home:

I know this because it happens each year, and it happened to me all those years ago when I failed one of my A-levels.

And what 30 years of experience has shown me is that if you end up not getting your first – or even second – choice of university place and have a tense couple of days on the phone sorting out new plans through the clearing process, then you will look back on this as something positive.

I ended up at a university I had never visited. It proved to be the best thing that happened in my education. And, like me, each year students come back at Christmas from their first term at university telling us that the unexpected change of plans has worked out to be brilliant.

Fortunately, I didn’t fail any of my Leaving Certificate exams — extreme exam failure was to come later on in my academic career — and I went on to start my BSc in Applied Physics degree at Dublin City University the following month. DCU was a small university at the time and I made my choice to go there not on the basis of prestige or national/international ranking  — in any case, the pseudostatistical, pseudoscentific, faux-quantitiative nonsense of university league tables hadn’t yet been spawned back in 1985 — but solely on the sense of excitement and, indeed, ‘belonging’ I felt when I attended a DCU Physics open day. (I’ll not bang on about the dubious value of league tables again, except to repeat that many A-level students show a healthy and laudable cynicism when it comes to the numerology of university rankings.)

Barton’s point about exam failure is particularly well made. I’ve been a personal academic and pastoral tutor for undergraduate students at Nottingham for the last eighteen years and it is always heartbreaking to have to tell a tutee that they have failed exams or, worse, can’t progress on their preferred course. This, of course, feels like the end of the world to them: how can they ever recover from what they see as abject failure?

So I tell them that I failed Year 3 of my four year BSc degree in Applied Physics at DCU.


Appallingly badly.

For a couple of exam papers I did little more than write my name on the cover sheet. This was because I was rather more focused on the band I was in at the time, returning home to Monaghan at weekends to rehearse/play gigs and using my revision time to write riffs, lyrics, and songs.

Not clever.

But if I hadn’t failed my third year exams, and had to resit the year, then I am absolutely certain that I would have similarly drifted through my fourth year and graduated with, at the very best, a low 2.2 or, most likely, a 3rd class degree. Failing my exams, in the words of a band whose songs we used to cover at the time, hit me “like a battering ram”. I repeated 3rd year and went into my final year with many orders of magnitude more motivation and commitment. I graduated with a 2.1 (the pass mark I was ‘carrying’ from my third year due to the resits didn’t, let’s say, work in my favour) — enough to take up a PhD.

Less than a year into my PhD I knew I wanted to pursue a career in academia. (For the reasons discussed here).

I recount this story to tutees and students who have failed exams to echo Barton’s advice that it really isn’t the end of the world when things don’t go to plan. I certainly don’t recommend failing exams as an effective study skill or as an efficient strategy for career development. Nonetheless, a failed exam or two can often act as a catalyst to improve a student’s overall motivation and performance.

But that’s enough about me. My secondary school and undergraduate days are so far in the past that my memories of those times have a subtle reddish hue. Let’s instead hear from Jason Patrone, who graduated last month from Nottingham with a thoroughly well-deserved 1st class hons BSc in Physics (and is featured on the front cover of the School’s most recent newsletter):

I got a C, D and E grade at A-level. I then worked for six years in a job I didn’t find rewarding, before making the decision to return to university in 2011. I did the Foundation Year because of the `non-standard’ A-level grades, getting an overall mark of 81% for the year. I then transferred to the BSc and for each year of the degree I secured a 1st class mark.

The second year of the BSc I found the most challenging. Would I have put the same effort in, come the 2nd year crunch time, if I had sailed through A-levels? I doubt it.

Whether it means a kick up the arse for a bogey year/bad results, or facing the harsh realities of a crap job, any glimpse at what bad results leads to — or even just a blunt reminder that you didn’t do what you know you are capable of — works wonders.

Or, as Barton so eloquently puts it in his open letter, “the reality is that sometimes it’s the unexpected events in our lives that are the richest and most rewarding.


[Edit 13/08/2015, 11:03 — Drat. Forgot to mention that the cartoon above is from the wonderful xkcd and that it’s made available under a Creative Commons licence.]