Surviving the Viva

Now Ask About My Thesis

As the year comes to a close, I am extremely and happy and proud to report that I will cross the threshold of 2015 having attained my PhD! My viva was held at the end of November. I was lucky in that my teaching responsibilities were primarily in October and December, which meant that I had enough time to dedicate to the process of re-reading my thesis, chapter by chapter, making notes, corrections, and identifing possible weaknesses, and then to try to prepare answers to some of the questions I was likely going to be asked in the viva. Including, of course, the dreaded yet essential question: What is your contribution?

Come viva day, I felt like a boxer, prepped and ready for the fight of their career. I had eaten a hearty breakfast, my brain was awake and alert, and the combination of excitement and focus was like none other. However, due to a travel delay for the external examiner, the start time of the viva kept being pushed back – first by an hour, then by another half hour, then by ten minutes! The havoc this wreaked on my nerves was incredible. I decided I could not cram any more information into my head and after a quick trip to the coffee shop, I spent that last ten minutes pre-viva in my office, in half-moon pose, just trying to stay calm and keep the blood flowing.

Finally, they let me into the room (which just happened to be next door to my office). We sat down, the examiners introduced themselves, and they started off with a broad question: What brought you to be interested in this topic? I shared some of my history of working in youth and arts organisations, co-founding and directing Youth Speaks Seattle, and explained that this led me to a Master’s and eventually a PhD in entrepreneurship. But that was the end of the nice, easy storytelling. The next two hours, the examiners went systematically through the chapters of my PhD and asked probing questions that compelled me to defend the choices I had made in the thesis. As in, “In Chapter 2, page 47, from where did you derive this information?” and “The definition of gender doesn’t arrive until Chapter 3. Why was it not present earlier?” My favourite one arrived when we reached the methodology chapter. The external said, “You don’t just wake up one day as an ‘intersectional cyberfeminist critical realist’. How did you arrive at this particular methodology?” I actually laughed in response, and said “Don’t you mean an intersectional cyberfeminist critical realist with a standpoint epistemology?” Sometimes these labels sound so ridiculous you just have to laugh. But, in a serious response, I discussed why I had systematically eliminated both empirical realist and post-structural perspectives and chosen critical realism (because the methodology must be directed by the object of inquiry – this is always the right answer), and then explained how intersectionality and cyberfeminism informed my assumptions about the nature of the social world and about technology, and the Internet in particular. I can only say that I was relieved when she seemed satisfied with my explanation!

This grilling went on for a couple of hours, during which time I had a low-blood sugar moment in which I felt a bit faint and asked for a 2-minute break, which they graciously granted, during which I drank a bit of juice and had a quick bathroom break! We started back up, and I kept talking, as my supervisors had advised (“the more you talk, the fewer questions they get to ask you!”), and they made recommendations along the way – add these citations, switch the order of these two chapters, strengthen your discussion of class, highlight your contributions further. All very constructive stuff. Eventually, they came to their last question, which was “What have you learned during the process of your PhD?” I told the truth, which was that I am a different person now that when I started. The PhD has transformed my processes of thinking, analysis, argumentation, and writing, and most of all, expanded my intellectual horizons. I left them to discuss their conclusions, ran upstairs to the library to pick up a book to distract myself from any more waiting, and about five minutes later I came back to the viva room. The external shook my hand, saying as she did so, “Let me be the first to congratulate you, Dr. Dy.” They recommended 3 months minor corrections, which I hope to finish by the end of January, with graduation to come in July.

And that, my friends, is the story of how I survived my viva.