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When I submitted my PhD, I was newly pregnant. For context, I'm 34, and my husband and I had been trying to conceive for quite some time, so we were extremely excited.

At around ten weeks, a sonographer explained that I'd had a "silent miscarriage", meaning although I had no complications or symptoms of a miscarriage, the fetal heartbeat had stopped. Obviously, this brought on a lot of emotions and follow-up appointments, and for about two weeks, my world seemed to kind of stop.

The day before I had surgery to remove my pregnancy tissue, I found out that my viva had been scheduled in less than four weeks' time. I've mostly jumped back into real life since then, but I am still struggling with hormonal issues - dizziness, brain fog, forgetfulness (sometimes I can't remember words, other times I've forgotten that dinner was in the oven until I smelled burning), a lack of focus, feeling like I'm on the verge of tears, etc.

With about two weeks until the viva, I'm really nervous that these issues will have me stumbling over words, forgetting scholars' names and theories, and ultimately, caving under the pressure.

So, would it be unprofessional to explain to the examiners beforehand that I've just recently suffered a medical trauma and ask that they bear with me if I need an extra moment to gather my thoughts? I certainly don't want to overshare or make them feel uncomfortable, but equally, I want them to be aware that if I become emotional or have trouble focusing on a question, it's not because they've done something to upset me or that I've come to the viva unprepared.

Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

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  • 1
    Who is part of the viva at your university? Your committee? Outside examiners? I am asking because I am trying to figure out if you can “back door” this information in advance.
    – Dawn
    Oct 13, 2023 at 14:47
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    Have you or your advisor tried contacting the disabilities office at your university? You do have a temporary disability. Oct 13, 2023 at 14:52
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    Can't you get a sick note and reschedule?
    – DonQuiKong
    Oct 14, 2023 at 12:17
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    I'd try to reschedule my viva / defense given the circumstances. Is that not a possibility for you? So, seconding @DonQuiKong's question, but even without a "sick note".
    – einpoklum
    Oct 14, 2023 at 18:36
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    @yo9cyb I know. But op is unable to perform the task and therefore unfit to work aka sick. That happens. People break a leg, get Covid or have whatever else. The correct way to handle such a problem is to call in sick and reschedule, not to ruin your grade by going through due to some false sense of obligation of not being sick.
    – DonQuiKong
    Oct 15, 2023 at 19:56

10 Answers 10

23

Too long for a comment.

First: how awful for you and your husband.

Is there someone in your department who knows about your medical situation or who you would be comfortable revealing it to who can help? Someone who could arrange a postponement, or quietly let the examiners know enough about the problem so that it would not influence their judgment.

In many universities the viva is really just a formality. Your advisor and your committee know what's in your dissertation and have approved it.

Good luck.

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    I just want to add to this to say that in the UK system the viva is very often not a formality. Examiners are completely independent from advisory teams and vivas can be failed. It is true that the contents of the thesis are more important, but for borderline cases the viva is crucial. So I would treat this as any other exam, which means raising any possible extenuating circumstance as early as possible. Oct 14, 2023 at 8:21
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    Yes. (Yes!) it is much better if others say these things on your behalf than if you say them yourself. Use what allies you have.
    – Buffy
    Oct 14, 2023 at 19:08
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It sounds like you are in the UK, or at least in somewhere that follows a similar system. If so, it is acceptable (and reasonably normal) to contact the internal examiner before the viva and explain your situation/concerns. If you are not comfortable doing so yourself, it is also quite acceptable to ask your advisor (or another faculty member from your department) to 'have a quiet word' on your behalf.

In most institutions, the internal examiner has responsibility for organising the viva, and considerable flexibility in how it is run. In general, you would not communicate directly with the external - the internal examiner would handle passing on any necessary information - but the situation is a little blurrier if (as you write in a comment) you have a relationship with the external outside the examination process.

18

I am very sorry for your loss.

In the UK at least your graduate school will have a procedure for any extenuating circumstances that could affect your performance at an exam. You should check what the procedure is with them or in their documentation.

Speaking personally if I was an external examiner I would want to know if something had happened that would affect a student like this and I would expect guidance from the university on how to handle it. I would expect the communication to come from the school or the internal, not from the student directly, and I would hope they only share the necessary detail.

We all want students to do as well as they can do.

With best wishes.

7

I am sincery sorry for your loss.

In line with some comment, I suggest to hand in a sick note and to reschedule the viva. What you describe are defintely health issues and you should have the time to take care of yourself and to deal with the loss instead of having to prepare for a viva. Take this time and prepare for the viva, afterwards.

What you communicate to the examiners?

This strongly depends on your relationship to them. If you have a good relation to your advisor, you could tell them. Most advisors that I know care a lot about their phd students and would be grateful to learn about issues of their students. They most likely such would support and help you in this situation as much as they can.

Even for a purely professional connection it can be ok to share a reason for a sick note, although at least here (Germany) this is not mandatory.

If you have a bad relation to your supervisor, you probably want to take the way over the institution, as other answers suggest

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    +1 for spelling out that this situation is clearly the size of health issues that should lead to answering no on the famous (at least where I am) "Do you feel fit [health-wise] to do the exam?" Oct 15, 2023 at 11:34
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my heartfelt heartfelt condoleances and sympathy! I am a professor at at US university, but I have been a committee member on vivas in France, UK, and Switzerland.

In EVERY VIVA (or thesis defense, for that matter), when the committee deliberates (without the candidate present), the thesis advisor gives the rest of us some background on the candidate. This is especially true if the candidate has had problems. At the risk of saying something widely known: the advisor/committee chair is your advocate (yes, in addition to being one of the examiners) in this case. They will also know how much to share with the committee from what you shared with them.

I have been on a committee where the candidate had a difficult health situation very similar to yours. The student was not hospitalized, but was unable to put in the usual amount of thesis/defense work for months. It happens. Thesis work is demanding on the mind and body (again stating the obvious). The advisor (NOT THE STUDENT) explained the student's situation to the committee in advance of the viva. This helps an examiner, because it's not always easy to see a student's emotional state from outside when you meet them for the first time.

So, you need to talk as soon as possible with your thesis advisor about this.

You can first talk to the staff member who is in charge of the graduate program (it's called Graduate Program Administrator in the US) and ask about procedures. But keep in mind that procedures are a framework in which there is much flexibility, and the GPA rarely knows what kind of flexibility a committee can afford. The GPA can tell you for example if you will need a doctor's note to reschedule, and who must approve it, but the committee chair can advise you if that's optimal. As it was already said in other answers, committee members have a long experience and have seen other cases when the student had serious problems.

A viva with external members is very hard to schedule in first place. It may delay your graduation for a long time. That's another reason to address any issues early.

If you are not comfortable speaking to your advisor about this. (1) If you feel your advisor would not be supportive: talk first to the professor/faculty member/dean who is overseeing theses/program completion in your school or department. The GPA can tell you who that person is. The "dean" can sit in when you talk to your advisor, and can keep an eye on the situation. (2) If you are uncomfortable talking to your advisor due to your particular medical problem (I am a woman and I can see myself being uncomfortable), I suggest that you ask your husband or a trusted friend to break the news to your advisor. Then you and the advisor can discuss what to do (without the friend present).

It is not a good idea to tell the committee at the viva about a medical problem. First, if you know about the problem, waiting until the viva is ongoing is too late. Address it (talk to your advisor) as soon as possible, to give everyone flexibility.

Then, sharing a personal issue with a group of strangers, all at once, will make it very difficult for everyone. I don't expect the committee to be other than sympathetic. But they will have to very fast go into problem solving mode, with a problem of a kind they weren't expecting. And the examiners are human, such kind of news will affect them emotionally too. Plus: the examiners often don't know each other, they are in a different time zone sometimes. I'm saying all this to highlight that the committee's decision making process may be impaired in the circumstance. And you want them to decide optimally for your own sake.

[A parenthesis here: If during the viva you happen to be "stumbling over words, forgetting scholars' names and theories," it's okay to excuse yourself. You can say "Please may I have a moment to collect myself." You don't need to explain anything else. Nobody wants you to "cave under pressure", the viva is about all the good work that you did, not about how you handle stress. I was in a room once with a student presenter whose voice was literally strangled by stress. He said: "Now I will pause to take a deep breath." That's exactly what he did, and in a moment the exam went on. I made a mental note to tell my students to do the same. In fact, I wrote a short presentation for students in my department about how to handle a situation in an exam when they are asked a question they can't answer. But this is off topic so I won't include it here.]

So, dear Meg, I encourage you from my long experience advising students to discuss with your advisor. Nothing can repair the loss you have suffered. But a thesis viva is a milestone to cherish, and, with support from your more experienced professional colleagues (yes, your committee is a group of colleagues) it can be a positive experience to last a lifetime.

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    Actually, in the UK vivas where I acted as an examiner, the advisor was not present during any part of the viva (not the presentation itself, and definitely not during the deliberation). And, the committee chair is explicitly not one of the examiners (they are typically from a completely unrelated field, and are just there to make sure the viva procedure is correctly followed). So I would tend to disagree with your claim that this happens for EVERY VIVA
    – penelope
    Oct 16, 2023 at 14:39
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I recommend you seek a deferral on your viva

Firstly, I'm sorry to hear of your loss. That is very sad and I hope you and your husband are able to have a child successfully in the future.

As to your academic problem, I recommend that you put in a formal request to have your viva deferred until such time as you are properly recovered from your present pregnancy-related issues. The university has standard mechanisms for students to get special consideration (including deferral of assessment items) in the event on medical issues. From your description, it is clear that this event has impacted your preparation and it is still affecting you. Under such circumstances it is better to use the formal mechanisms for seeking deferral and special consideration rather than ploughing ahead without these but then seeking to raise them informally. It is not unprofessional to do the latter, but it does create some problems and it is not the optimal method.

In addition to seeking a deferral, it is up to you if you want to disclose this issue directly to your examiners. You are under no obligation to disclose medical issues to staff outside of the formal process, but if you would like them to know of your circumstances then you can disclose this if you want. Many academics are parents and some have also experience miscarriages (and in any case, irrespective of whether an academic has children they will be sympathetic to your situation). No-one is going to think you are unprofessional for having experienced adverse academic impact from a pregnancy and miscarriage.

2

Sorry, this is truly unfortunate and part of the horrible reality that PhD education has become longer and more stressful, with more students doing phds after pre docs and with work experience, meaning that studies coincide with starting a family. It exacerbates existing gender discrimination.

The viva in the UK is not a formality as it is in other places. Examiners don't deliver written reports to the advisor and student ahead of time. However, your written work should speak for itself. Your job will be to clarify and show that you understand the methods you used. You can (and should) notify your advisor and internal examiner. If you're not up for the task at the moment, you should postpone. It's likely not a big deal.

Another thing to consider: depending on the institution, the outcome of the viva might be pass, minor corrections, major corrections, or fail (usually with a possibility to resubmit). When corrections are requested, there might be a time limit (eg six months). If you don't think you'll be able to do this, better to talk about it with the advisors before hand and discuss the options. The details will be specific to you institution, field and dissertation.

Good luck!

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    I disagree with the 1st paragraph. This is a horrible reality of life. But it is also something that a university has to deal with exactly as with any other medical (or life) issue that happens to affect an exam. Which is something that given the large numbers of exams that take place at universities happens regularly. While probabilities for particular issues differ with gender, sex, age, ... that is no whatsoever business of the university exam office illness regulations - they must deal with each individually regardless of whether OP has a rare issue or a common one... Oct 15, 2023 at 14:32
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    Another thought: Personally, for the sake of ending discrimination, I prefer issues to be treated in as neutral a fashion as adequately possible. The viva-related question here is of administrative nature and can appropriately be answered in a gender-neutral, sex-neutral and age-neutral fashion. (Neither do we consider OP's skin color etc.). IMHO while OP chose to disclose some details, it is it not our business here whether OP is close to 50 or almost 20. Whether it is the viva or the Bachelor thesis defense (or even Abitur). Oct 15, 2023 at 14:48
  • Nor would my answer differ had OP said her (!)(or his) girl-friend suffered a miscarriage and they cannot focus thoughts and feel at the verge of tears or get into rage without provocation and they don't know whether they'll be fit for their viva 2 weeks. Oct 15, 2023 at 14:50
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    I don't think we disagree about what universities need do to help out students: my point is more that PhD norms are really for unattached young people that can dedicate 100% to studies. That's not the case anymore (and never did have been).
    – Ian VL
    Oct 19, 2023 at 8:14
0

If a viva is close to a "defence" in France, it is expected to be for the to-be PhD and an opportunity to formally be knighted into Academia.

It is quite relaxed and there is zero possibility for it to go wrong. The jury has to play the jury game but everyone knows the rules.

With all this said, it would be a good thing for everyone involved to know that you are going through a tough time. They could arrange for you to make it quicker if you wish, or not - and everyone would know why you react the way you react.

If I was part of the jury, I would prefer to know (and had a similar, though much lighter, case) to help arrange things if the situation goes south.

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0

My condolences as well.

As @Broele and some other have already said, your situation right now clearly falls into the category of health-wise unfit to do the exam.

I gather from your question that you cannot predict whether you'll be sufficiently recovered to do the viva in 2 weeks.


Common wisdom would advise that right now is not a good time for you to do far-reaching important decisions, and I'd extrapolate this to mean also that it is not a good time for exams that you take very seriously.


Time frame

Since you write that your issues are caused by the abrupt hormonal changes, what does your MD say about the expected time frame? They may tell you should reschedule your viva and they should then also give you an attestation saying that.
(Remember that there are medical conditions where one oneself doesn't properly sense/realize that one shouldn't e.g. do exams)

I'd recommend to notify your advisor and/or the head of your exam committee and/or the exam office ASAP since for the examiners it is much better to know 2 weeks earlier that the exam needs to be rescheduled. Particularly if the committee has external members that need to travel.

So, tell them that health-wise, you'd not be able to do the viva now, and that you cannot expect to/predict whether you'll be sufficiently recovered by then.

If you think this is better for you*, you can of course try to negotiate/decide together with the head of the committee to give it a try and see and either do the viva as planned if you are lucky and recover faster than it looks now or postpone it last minute. This option is fine if everyone is fine with it - it is unlikely to work if you have an external examiner coming from far away.
Openly and transparently deciding to give it a try will automatically also make them aware that you have health issues that may affect your performance.

* Maybe your recovery will be faster if the pressure of the viva is not lurking in the future - regardless of whether you reach your full (when healthy) potential (=> grit teeth and over with it in order to put that additional obstacle out of the way of your recovery). Or maybe your recovery is hindered by the pressure of the closely approaching viva or potentially later by a hindsight regret that you may have done better in the viva had it been postponed (=> get this obstacle out of the way of your recovery by canceling it for now, and reschedule when you are sufficiently recovered). Or ...
Only you can judge for yourself which way to go. But both options are fine in general.


Not oversharing

Usually, I'm personally very much on the side of not sharing medical details since making this the default ensures a practice that protects those who need this privacy.
So I hope for you that you do not feel pressure to explain or even justify yourself any further.

However, in case you do feel pressure, defend yourself - and that includes the possibility to reveal information that you feel less bad about revealing compared with the pressure (or e.g. danger of rumors) that you perceive. This is about your recovery, so choose what is overall best for you.

Revealing information about your situation is not a black or white choice, you can control the level of detail:

One possibility may be to reveal that you had a surgery and recovery is not as fast as one would wish for: "As you may have noticed/guessed/know, I had to have a surgery some time/2 weeks ago. Unfortunately, recovery is not as fast as I had hoped/there are complications, and I cannot predict whether I'll be sufficiently recovered for the viva in 2 weeks".

I certainly don't want to overshare or make them feel uncomfortable

You being uncomfortable with oversharing is an important feature that protects you. Be friendly to yourself and listen to your own guidance :-).

Someone else being uncomfortable with details they may hear from you is an additional protection for you. I'd say it is a 2nd line of defense that we have built-in (biologically or culturally?), in case your own do-not-share protection isn't working well, e.g. due to sickness or in case you cannot not share because illness or disability is obvious*.
Thus, their comfort is not yours to need and worry about. (And anyways, I expect your comfort with sharing should stop you earlier.)

They are professionals and have been in exams many times and thus have experience dealing professionally with life (and death :-( ) as it happens to affect exams and other aspects of professional life.

Note: if all works as professionally as expected and noiselessly, you rarely hear about this unless you are affected.


Sharing to get accomodation

* The whole question is of course far more complicated, since sharing can be prerequisite to getting help from others. People with chronic illness or disability need to dig into this and take the time to getting to a good strategy. For acute situations like yours now, giving yourself more time to recover and then hopefully doing the viva like anyone else is likely better.
(Personally I also think when a chronic disease or permanent disability is still as new as 2 weeks, it's likely too early for important long-term decisions.)

-3

It is your research work not you that is being evaluated. Knowing people's names is not of value, except if it means you don't know some critical peice of work. And nobody knows everything. You simply need to explain what you did, but how and your reasoning. Nothing more nothing less. Like someone already mentioned. It's a formality. Don't belive the people who make a big thing of it. The big thing is all the work during the phd and what you learned writing it up.

That job is already done. Now go enjot the fibishline.

I have personally never heard of anyone being allowed to do a viva and not passing.

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