Tuesday, April 19, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: a viva at Imperial College

Today, Syed Anas Imtiaz from Imperial College talks about his viva at Imperial College for the "Defenses around the world" series. Anas is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London where he completed his PhD in November 2015. Earlier, he did MSc in Integrated Circuit Design at the same university. His primary research interests include biomedical signal processing, intelligent algorithms development and design of wearable EEG systems for long-term monitoring and automatic diagnosis of several neurological conditions.

I finished the final version of my PhD thesis in the first week of September. It was a huge relief and I felt like my PhD is complete. A week later, I submitted the PDF to be printed and dispatched to the examiners. I was also quite confident around this time of having no difficulties in the viva. This aura lasted until I received an e-mail on 7th October 2015 notifying that my viva is exactly a month away. This is when I went blank. All that confidence was gone. I started panicking. After a couple of hours, I steadied myself and sat down to make a plan on what to do in this one month prior to the viva. This included reading the thesis again in fine detail while making notes and writing down questions that the examiners may have.

For those unaware, the viva voce exam in the UK generally takes place behind closed doors. Apart from the candidate being examined, there are two or three more people in the interrogation room. This includes an external examiner, an internal examiner (from host institution) and, optionally, the candidate’s supervisor.

On the exam day I bumped into my supervisor just outside our department building and instantly told her how nervous I was. Her reply was: “You will be fine. It’s going to be a walk in the park for you.”

Fifteen minutes before the clock struck 10.00, I gathered my stuff and made a move towards the examination room. I took the well-annotated copy of my thesis, a small notepad, a pen and a list of corrections that I wanted to make in order to rectify some minor errors I noticed while re-reading the thesis.

At 10.03, the two examiners arrived with my supervisor and took their seats after a quick handshake. The external examiner sat right across me, my supervisor next to him on the left side while the internal examiner was slightly towards my right side. I saw that the copies of my thesis that the examiners brought had a lot of post it notes. This meant only one thing: lots of questions!

The internal examiner briefly explained the rules of the game and then external examiner kicked off the formal proceedings with the standard question asking me to summarise my research. I had prepared for this one so started off confidently. However, around the midpoint of my tirade I was cut off abruptly and the external examiner asked a couple of questions for further clarification. Both examiners then opened the first page of my thesis and began a monumental session of page-by-page discussion of my work.

My thesis was over 250 pages with lots of text crammed, which meant there was a lot of stuff to be covered. There were quite a few questions in the first two chapters which included the introduction and literature review. I think we spent more than 90 minutes discussing these two chapters. The questions were coming rapidly and I found myself on the defensive. I started getting increasingly nervous as the examiners criticised certain sections of the thesis which I was initially quite confident about. In fact, I was so defensive and nervous by that point that I couldn’t even understand a comment jokingly made by the examiner and starting defending it. As an example, the first citation in my thesis was referring to a book authored by the external examiner however its formatting was incorrect. He asked me to turn to that page in the thesis and pointed it out in a very candid manner and smiled thereafter. I, on the other hand, started explaining how this was a LaTeX issue and not my fault. At that point I realised I wasn’t handling the viva correctly. I was defending everything and was getting too sensitive about small issues. I used a little pause in questions to open the sealed water bottle next to me and slowly filled a glass. During this small water break I composed myself and decided that I will only defend the key sections of the thesis and agree to make amendments in sections which were not. I felt much more comfortable talking about my work in the next 100 minutes mainly because this was a purely technical discussion.

After about 200 minutes in total, all of us breathed a sigh of relief as we reached the end of my thesis. All this time I avoided eye contact with my supervisor for the fear of getting any negative feedback. I was asked to leave the room while the examiners deliberated my fate. I left quickly and sat outside the room. I felt mentally exhausted but I knew I had done well. I was quite certain that I’d pass with minor corrections since the examiners did not raise any major concern regarding my methodology or the results.

Fifteen minutes later, I was invited back to the room where everyone was now smiling. I was promptly congratulated and was told that I had passed with minor corrections. There was a discussion for about 10 minutes where I was given some very useful feedback and then later a list of amendments that I was required to do within three months which would be audited by the internal examiner. It took me about a ten days to do these following which I had a meeting with my internal examiner in which they were approved.

In the end, I found the whole experience of viva to be rather stressful. The main reason for this is that I was nervous and unable to relax. It certainly wasn’t a walk in the park as my supervisor had earlier suggested. I think it was more like a walk in a muddy field with lots of falls before reaching the end.

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