Review of Rowena Murray: How to Survive your Viva, Open University Press, Maidenhead, 2003, pp.156, ISBN: 0 335-21284-0 (pb); 0-335-21285-9 (hb)

Dr Sara Mills, Sheffield Hallam University


Read in conjunction with Murrays How to Write a Thesis, this book constitutes a real survival guide for research students. The book aims to dispel some of the mystique about the viva process, explaining clearly to students what to expect in the viva and how to prepare adequately for it. Murray maintains a fine balance between portraying the viva as a productive moment when you can critically evaluate your years of research and as a tense and stressful examination situation which you need to manage carefully. She does not overly stress the nightmarish stories which all of us have heard about what happens in vivas behind closed doors; instead she tries to provide tactics for dealing with questioning which might be considered aggressive or undermining.

Because of the lack of uniform regulation governing the conduct of the viva itself, it is clear from Murray's account that there is wide variation in practice, with some examiners seeing the viva as an informal discussion of the content of the thesis, whilst others view it as an important element in the passing or failing of the thesis. The relation between the thesis and the viva is a very complex one and Murray tries to tease out the ways in which the two are interrelated but distinct. However, she stresses throughout the importance of making sure that you know what your institutions and examiners views on each aspect of the viva are. Because of the variation between institutions, it is hard to make general statements about the viva; however, Murray does manage to come up with criteria for what constitutes good practice.

One of the most useful elements in the book is the chapter headed Countdown to the Viva, in which she suggests that postgraduate students set themselves a timetable for their preparation; rather than, on the one hand, leaving everything until the day before the exam, or on the other, doing extensive new research and reading after finishing the thesis, she suggests that there are various tasks which students can do at various stages before the examination: from the start of the doctorate right through to thirty minutes before the viva. This meticulous attention to the right task at the right time is very useful for postgraduates who are often left with little sense of what they can do to prepare apart from read their thesis from start to finish.

This book suggests that the most important element to getting through your viva is a research orientation to the thesis and viva itself: taking a critical and analytical stance to one's own past research history and the way that the thesis has taken shape. She suggests that it is important to disaggregate your thesis that is, to analyse the thesis in terms of its smallest components: the questions and answers, the assumptions on which it rests (p.85). This process of analysing the smallest components enables the student to be able to talk about their research more analytically and critically. However, she stresses the importance of making explicit and clear to the examiner the links that there are between these components. That notion that ones completed research can necessarily be viewed productively as incomplete and flawed and that you can position yourself as having progressed since your thesis is excellent advice and seems to capture one of the most useful elements in the viva process. Murray characterises the viva as a process whereby the examiners will identify ambiguities and contradictions in the thesis and... tease them out with the student, in order to establish that the student can see these contradictions and perhaps revise their views accordingly (p.29).

The book is a very rhetorical approach to the viva, seeing it as a communicative event which, with sufficient analysis and practice, can be turned to the students benefit. The book is illustrated throughout with quotations from people who have survived vivas as well as those who have researched the viva process. It is also full of strategies for successfully defending the thesis, such as the define-defend strategy, which aims to prevent over-defensiveness in response to aggressive questioning. There is adequate coverage of how to fail, because even though there are many differences in practice, and even though examiners generally try their best not to refer candidates, there are ways of performing linguistically in vivas which will lead to a thesis being referred and Murray draws attention to these in order to offer alternatives.

The demystifying element of this book is important; for too long the viva has been shrouded in mystery. Here students are informed about the process whereby external examiners are appointed, the form of the pre-viva report that has to be written by externals and internals, how decisions about whether the viva has been successful are arrived at, the range of options there are available to the examiners, and so on. All this is to the benefit of the viva candidate. The viva should be a productive moment in a postgraduates research career and this awareness of the process does a great deal in transforming the viva from a ritualised ordeal to an intense scrutiny of ones work.

Whilst the slightly American self-help style is not always to my taste the emphasis on closure, journeys, moving on, and so on and occasionally the very short paragraphing and style jar a little, the very practical approach to what can for some be a very difficult event is excellent. What this book aims to do is change ones orientation to the viva: rather than seeing it as something to be endured in a passive way (and that is why the title of this book is misleading its not about just surviving), it is about taking an active role in managing the examination.