For a PhD student, the viva can elicit strong emotions.
A quick scan of online forums gives a taster, with one postgraduate student posting ‘I have my viva… and I feel physically sick’ and another that ‘I’m experiencing a really quite overwhelming fear over my PhD viva’.
However, if you are getting tense about your viva, spare a thought for Ali Sastroamijoyo. The future two time Prime Minister of Indonesia was, in the late 1920s, studying for a law degree in the Netherlands. He was also a political prisoner, having been arrested for activities related to his involvement in the Indonesia Association (Perhimpunan Indonesia). Yet this did not stop him sitting his oral examination. He describes the occasion in his memoirs, Milestones on My Journey: The Memoirs of Ali Sastroamijoyo, Indonesian Patriot and Political Leader. The account is remarkable, bringing into stark relief the scholarly discussion of legal theory with the stark realities of colonial repression. Yet it is also remarkable for the impression that it gives, that the oral examination created an anxiety that seemed in some ways to exceed his concern about the prospect of a lengthy jail term:
On the morning of the examination I was taken to Leiden, accompanied by two members of the secret police, in a prison vehicle. When we arrived, the two guards and I went in through a back door into the basement of the university in Rapenburg, from where we went straight to the “sweating chamber”, a room near the examination room, where behind a green table the Faculty of Law professors who were concerned with “the Law of the Dutch East Indies” were already seated. All the professors who were at that time famous in Holland were there: Professor C. van Vollenhoven, Professor Hazeu, Professor Andre de la Porte, and Professor Scheltema. University examinations of this type were usually open to the interested public, who would be seated behind the candidate being examined. But in my case nobody was allowed to be present except for two secret police who were guarding me.
For approximately two hours I had to answer the questions put to me by the professors. I must explain here that from the questions and attitudes of the professors one could not even get the slightest indication that my status at that time was that of a political detainee. Their attitudes and actions were completely scholarly. This calmed me down a great deal and enabled me to concentrate completely on the examination. I forgot all about other things, I no longer felt even the watchful eyes of the two guards at my back. Without my being aware of it the examination passed quickly. I was asked to wait outside the examination room in order to give the professors an opportunity to make their decision. After a short wait, I was asked to come back in again, and the president of the faculty announced that I had passed and qualified for the degree of master of laws. I was filled with a feeling of relief, and full of sincerity I gave thanks to God. Now I would be able to concentrate more calmly on the accusations made against the four of us, and I felt as if I did not care whether I would be sentences to a number of years in prison as a result.