Standby Answers

It’s really tempting to have a couple of answers tucked away for the viva, ready for the obvious questions you’ll almost definitely be asked.

But how do you know you’ll definitely be asked those questions? If you’re not, you’ll be asked different questions – questions you’ve not prepared answers for! So then: best to find more questions to have answers for, get them prepped, ready to deploy when the examiner says this or that.

So how many questions to have ready then? 10? 20? 100? More?!

It’s ridiculous when we take it to these extremes, of course.

Preparing answers to every question is a bad idea. Too many plausible questions could come up. You’ll be asked a small number of these in the viva, and probably several more you couldn’t anticipate. Better to focus on answering questions generally than specifically: get comfortable with being asked unexpected questions, rather than happy at being able to recite something for many specific questions.

The exception that proves the rule: make sure you feel happy answering “What’s the contribution of your research to your field?”


What did you not put in your thesis?

As my submission got closer there were several ideas I worked on which didn’t make it into my thesis. One little project was just too big in the end, and I couldn’t find a way to explain it concisely. One I chose not to pursue because it was just a restatement of ideas in a different way. And one section was a nice idea that just wouldn’t add much to the overall value of my thesis.

Reflecting with years of hindsight: the reasons why I didn’t include something stand in stark contrast with the things that I did include in my thesis. My thesis made contributions to my field. I judged, with support from my supervisor, that the things I left out did not make a meaningful contribution compared to the things I kept in.

If you’re finishing your PhD, what are you leaving unwritten? Why is it staying out? How does it compare with the work that makes up your thesis?

Fired Up

What could get you enthusiastic for your viva? Not just “not stressed” or “prepared” but ready.

Would a piece of music do it?

Exercising in the morning?

A motivational talk from someone who believes in you?

I meet very few candidates who are excited about their viva or even looking forward to it. I think sharing expectations and viva stories can help change perceptions – but, on reflection, that won’t make many people fired up that their viva is coming. They’ll be prepared, not scared, but not excited either.

What might do it for you? Even if you can’t get super-excited, what steps are you going to take to get you further away from worry, closer to happy?

Why-How-What For Examiners

Long term readers will know that I like Why-How-What as a way to frame and explain ideas. I share it a lot in workshops when people ask me how they can explain what their research is about. I think it’s also useful to generate questions and unpick aspects of the viva process that worry people, and one of the biggest sources of worry for PhD candidates is the examiners themselves.

What do they do? What will they ask? How will they behave? What if….?

Instead of aiming at the worries, let’s start with three questions.

Why are they examining me? A basic one to start with, but important. They’re examining you because they’ve been chosen. They’re examining you because you’ve done something special. They’re examining you because that’s how PhDs are assessed in the UK. They’re examining you because they are supposed to.

How will they examine me? Professionally. There are rules and regulations. There are expectations. They’ll try to live up to them, and seek help beforehand if they need it. They will be asking you questions, but they don’t come to the viva with a malicious agenda. They’re not there to tear you or your work apart.

What will happen in the viva? A discussion. A series of questions that drives conversation and leads to a conclusion. They’re not there to torture you. Your examiners want the best possible outcome they can find for you, given your thesis and performance. They want you to pass as well as you can and they want your thesis to be the best representation of your research that it can be.

There are other ways that we can take these questions; different people might answer them differently. There aren’t full details about rules and regulations, about outcomes, about what the examiners will do to prepare, but that information is out there if these starter questions and answers do not comfort you enough.

If something about your examiners or how they conduct the viva troubles you then your next actions are to find out more, do more, so that you can get back to what’s important.

Why? How? What?

Ten More Top Fives

Earlier this year I shared a list post, Top Ten Top Fives, that had ideas on how to get started with thinking about the viva and viva prep. A simple setup, prompts to get ideas flowing and start making notes.

Today seemed like a good chance to add some more prompts:

  1. Top Five Academics Who Would Be A Good External!
  2. Top Five Tips You’ve Heard For Viva Prep!
  3. Top Five Expectations For Viva Day!
  4. Top Five Questions You Think You’ll Be Asked!
  5. Top Five Help Requests You Can Make!
  6. Top Five Questions For Your Supervisor In Preparation!
  7. Top Five Challenges You Overcame In Your PhD!
  8. Top Five Annotations You’re Going To Make In Your Thesis!
  9. Top Five Unanswered Questions From Your Research!
  10. Top Five Things You’ll Do To Celebrate Passing Your Viva!

There’s inertia to overcome with thinking about different aspects of the viva. A little nudge, a good prompt, can get things moving.

Looping Thesis Reflections

I like Pat Thomson‘s recent post about looping. In it she describes a useful writing method to quickly expand on a topic, then reflect to distil down, before expanding again. It seems like a nicely structured approach to get yourself started on a topic, or begin exploring new ideas.

It strikes me that it would also be really neat for reflecting on your research as the viva gets closer:

  • Pick an aspect of your work and just write freely about it for fifteen or twenty minutes.
  • Then take some time to reflect: What have you been writing about? What are you getting at?
  • Summarise your reflections in one sentence.
  • Now use this sentence as a starting point for a new period of writing.
  • Reflect and repeat until you feel satisfied.

I like Pat’s idea of reading through and thinking about everything that’s been written at the end too. An hour or so of writing and reflecting in this way could do a lot to get you exploring your thesis in a new way at the end of your PhD. A neat method for shaking off the cobwebs and seeing what else is in your work.

Pat’s a very generous academic, and shares brilliant ideas every week on her blog. I’d recommend you take a look at her past posts because I’m sure you’ll find something useful!

Before, During, After

Before, you could be nervous. During, you’re engaged. After, you’re relieved.

Before, you can practise. During, you’re doing it. After, you’ve achieved.

Before, you’re the candidate. During, you’re the expert. After, you’re Dr Somebody, PhD.

At different times you can think and feel and do and be different things.

At all times around the viva, at the end of your PhD journey, you’re where you’re supposed to be.

What’s In A Name?

Most commonly it’s “the viva” but I’ve also heard people refer to it – the event, the exam – as thesis examination, thesis defence, defending your thesis and of course the full viva voce.

I’ve also heard people call the viva, for various reasons: the interrogation, the End, the final hurdle and “I can’t even say it, I’m just dreading it!”

All of these people are talking about the same thing, but all from different personal perspectives. Whatever label they attach, whatever word they use, influences and reinforces how they think about it.

If you label your viva as “my interrogation” then I can imagine you won’t be looking forward to it. “Thesis examination” is quite neutral, neither hot nor cold. If it’s “the End” it’s possible you’re not being negative about it, but maybe you are. The label – the name – you give to your viva, influences how you think about it…

…but you can change the name. It’s a choice. So if you feel negative about it now, perhaps finding out more about the viva can change that feeling. Getting better expectations – both of the event and how you could be prepared – can help you to find a better name for it.

It’s OK if you just name it “the viva.” It’s fine if you call it something else. But the name always means something.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is: pick the most helpful name that you can.

A Viva Prep Sandwich

Heard of the feedback sandwich?

It’s when you tell someone something good about their presentation/book/paper/whatever, then offer something constructive or negative, followed by something good. Good-“bad”-good.

A feedback sandwich – it has another name, but this is a polite sort of blog…

This good-“bad”-good construct got me thinking about viva prep, and I wonder if there’s a useful sequence we could follow when getting ready for the viva. As a series of activities, maybe something like the following would be useful.

  • Start with something that digs into something good about your work: say, reflecting on the value of your contribution or exploring ways that you could continue your work.
  • Follow that with something trickier, more difficult or potentially negative: how do you know your methods are valid? What might your examiners or someone else find contentious? What about your work could be “wrong”?
  • And finally consider something else about your work that’s good: take a positive step to annotate your thesis well, ask yourself some more reflective questions or make notes on the papers that support your thesis.

A viva prep sandwich, of sorts.

And perhaps tastier than the feedback sandwich, because you get to decide what it is made of?