Experiencing Pushback

Your examiner can not like something in your thesis. Maybe they don’t get it. Maybe they believe there was a better approach, or a different way to understand something. They’re allowed to have a different opinion; if they share it with you, you can respond.

Perhaps you’re certain you’re right; maybe you’re sure they’re wrong; possibly your pride is wounded. You could feel you have to say something. And you can.

That doesn’t mean you have to. Ask yourself:

  • Is this a big deal?
  • Are they asking for significant corrections?
  • Are they saying there’s a problem?
  • Why are they saying what they’re saying?

The last question is particularly important to answer. If you don’t know why they think something then you can’t be sure that you can adequately respond to them. You need to know what’s at the root of their comments before you can push against them.

Again, that’s if you feel you really need to. You probably need to acknowledge a critical comment; you don’t necessarily have to spend much time replying to it.

What did they say? How do you feel? Why? Why have they said that? How do you feel about that? What do you need to say? Why?

The Problem With Pass Or Fail

“Pass or fail” is too simple a story for the viva. Two outcomes plants the idea that both have equal likelihood. Even when a candidate knows that’s not the case, having a binary outcome allows for one (the negative one, of course!) to rest heavily in the mind.

There are many outcomes – minor corrections, major corrections, resubmission, no corrections… If we tell the story that the viva is pass or fail, the real outcomes confuses the matter. I’ve had many candidates ask me “Is major corrections a pass or not?” because they think the viva is only pass or fail.

Check the outcomes at your institution. Check what they mean. Focus on the fact that most people get some corrections to do, and that’s not a problem. They’ve not failed.

“Pass or fail” is a nice, simple story, but it’s not accurate. There are many outcomes, not just two, and most of them are a pass. There are conditions to the pass, and there are reasons why candidates get those outcomes. Find out why. Learn more. Understand the situation.

Not “pass or fail” but “pass and why”

Why Examiners Ask

No questions, no viva, no PhD. That’s fundamental, but there are many reasons for particular questions in the viva.

Your examiners might ask you that question because they need you to make something clearer. Maybe there is a typo and they want to check what you meant. A question may be exploratory, there’s something interesting to discuss. They might want to check a detail is correct or that you understand something.

A question might be asked because they think something is wrong; they’re asking to give you a chance to explain it more. A question could be an invitation, a way to start a conversation. A question could be used to change topic or pause. A question could be an opportunity for you to get excited and talk about something you love.

Particular questions have reasons. You might not be able to see those reasons in the moment, of course, but they are there. Your examiners use them to drive the discussion, to help you speak, to address their concerns and demonstrate that you did the work.

Questions give you the chance to show your talent.

Important

The viva is important. Passing is important. Lots of things in life are important.

Getting your dream job.

Passing your driving test.

Publishing a book.

Being on TV.

Finding true love.

Living a long and happy life.

Going around the world.

Seeing falling stars on a summer’s evening in the middle of the French countryside.

Watching a dust devil swirl and twirl.

Seeing night turn to day in the middle of an intense electrical storm.

(seeing the previous three things on one holiday!)

Finding a problem.

Finding a solution.

Being reliable.

Being a parent.

Sharing things.

The viva is not the most important thing you will ever do. Wouldn’t it be a bit sad if it was? That would mean everything that came before, especially the research you did, would be a bit blah in comparison. And the same for everything that comes afterwards!

Let go of your viva being the most important thing ever. Then you can find and focus on what really is important about the viva, and get past it to whatever important things come next.

Niches

It’s only recently, when reflecting on my PhD, that I realised my research niche wasn’t my topic.

It wasn’t skein invariants of knots, or two-variable polynomial properties of three-dimensional links; that was my topic, but my niche was edge cases and little results. During my PhD I looked for small problems; I searched for opportunities to apply methods to specific restricted cases. I proved a couple of open theorems, but I really loved finding processes for calculating things. My niche was algorithms, not knot theory. My niche was the questions I was asking, not the part of my field that I was exploring.

So what is your niche? How would you describe it? What does it mean to you? Do you have a neat way of telling others about it?

And do you have a useful way of describing it in the viva, if your examiners should ask?

One, Two, Three

Years ago, my friend Dr Aimee Blackledge shared with me one of the most useful rules for receiving feedback I’ve ever come across. There are lots of models and ideas about giving feedback, but not so many concepts for receiving feedback. The model Aimee shared with me is one I’ve found helpful for a long time.

If one person tells you something, that’s their opinion. If two people tell you, that could be coincidence. If three people tell you, you should listen!

One, two, three – opinion, coincidence, listen! This has been really helpful for me; I know it’s helped many more people Aimee has shared it with, particularly when receiving negative feedback (constructive or otherwise). Sometimes a piece of feedback is just one person’s opinion. They didn’t like it, maybe for really valid reasons, but that’s just their opinion.

For the viva, this is useful when considering feedback directly – from your supervisors in advance, from your examiners on the day – but I think we can also connect it to expectations as well. If you hear bad things about the viva, who told you? How many people have told you that they had a bad experience? How many people have told you that their viva was fine? What have people said about the details, the format, the structure?

Pay attention to what people say about viva experiences. One person’s detail is just a single experience. If two people tell you about a certain feeling or question that comes up, that could be coincidence. If three or more people tell you about the same aspect of the viva, then you need to listen.

And maybe you need to do something.

Yesterday

If you’ve already submitted your thesis, then yesterday was the best time to start preparing for your viva.

The next best time is today.

But start small. You don’t have to do a lot today. Spend five minutes. Gather together your thesis and some stationery. Figure out how many days until your viva. Sketch a plan of when you can prepare. Make a short list of things that might help. Decide what you’ll do next. Then stop, that’s enough.

Yesterday would have been great, but today is fine to make a start. Later, you can really get to work.

Comfort, Stretch, Panic

Three useful words for experiential learning. Before setting goals or planning out a project, it’s good to think about how you feel about different aspects of the work or the possible outcomes.

  • Comfort: what do you have no problem with? What would feel fine?
  • Stretch: what would be a challenge? What would be new to you, but feels within your capabilities?
  • Panic: what would make you afraid? What would be terrible for you?

These words are useful to frame planning and review of a project. They help with lots of parts of the viva too! In preparation, what feels comfortable about your work? What might stretch you while you review your research? Do any parts of your thesis make you panic?

On the day, how can you get comfortable or feel confident? What could be a stretch in the viva? Do you feel panicked at the thought of any particular questions? After the viva, take time to reflect and review. When did you feel comfortable in the viva? What questions stretched you? Did you panic?

(I hope not!)

Responses and Answers

I try to be careful in my choice of words. Recently I’ve started to use the word response instead of answer when I explore viva questions with PhD candidates. Because of talks, quizzes, game shows, tests and the basics of conversation, we expect that questions have answers.

When someone asks, you answer. When your examiner asks, you need to answer…

…except what if you don’t know?

What if you’re not sure?

What if there is no “True Answer” to a question?

A question might not have a definite answer, but you can always give a response.

Your response could be a hunch, a theory, an idea, a gut feeling, a reason, a piece of evidence. It could be saying, “I don’t know, and here’s why…”

Not every question in the viva will have an answer. Every question can be responded to.

What could you do to respond as well as possible in the viva?