No Guarantee

I knew what troubled me before the viva. I couldn’t explain the background of a particular chapter in my thesis. I understood the results perfectly. I didn’t understand the set-up. I tried to avoid thinking about it.

Methodology, results, conclusions, longevity of research – there are lots of areas that set people on edge, lots of directions tricky questions can come from. I don’t have a silver bullet to solve this problem. The only thing I can think of is practice: find opportunities to practise answering tricky questions. It’s not a plan with a guarantee. It doesn’t mean that you’ll answer questions perfectly. You will answer them better and I think you’ll have less anxiety.

What kinds of questions do you feel you might struggle with in the viva? What can you do to answer them well?

As I said, I knew what troubled me before the viva and I tried to avoid thinking about it. That’s not a winning strategy.

Examiner Profiles

You can ask your supervisors for guidance. You can talk to colleagues about your ideas. You can even ask your non-PhD friends for help. You can’t ask your examiners anything before the viva, but you can do some work to get insight and feel confident about answering their questions.

Follow this seven step process for each of your examiners to get a sense of where they might be coming from:

  1. What papers have they recently published?
  2. Are there any themes, topics or ideas that they are consistently exploring?
  3. How does their research connect with your thesis?
  4. What are their declared research interests (on their staff page)?
  5. How do their research interests overlap with yours?
  6. What do you know about their reputation?
  7. How could their opinions help you?

Work your way through these questions for each of your examiners, either researching to find out information (like their papers or interests) or reflecting to see what it means for you. The last question is important particularly if you’re working towards an academic career. Your examiners will be part of a small group of people who have read all of your work. Their opinion could give you a helpful steer or fantastic idea.

You can’t ask them for help before the viva, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some help from them anyway.

SWOTting Up

SWOT is a neat thinking tool: rather than just throw ideas around to try to unpick a problem or situation it uses words to direct attention. As an acronym it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. For example, if you had an idea for writing a book and wanted to analyse it you might think about the following:

  • Strengths: what resources do you have? What knowledge can you pass on?
  • Weaknesses: what will you struggle with in the writing? What is difficult to share?
  • Opportunities: can you use the same material for something else? What doors might it open?
  • Threats: why might this not work? Is there a potential downside by doing it?

I love tools based around framing words and SWOT is a really flexible tool. It works well for reviewing a PhD thesis during viva preparation too:

  • Strengths: what are the highlights of the thesis? What might others find valuable?
  • Weaknesses: what parts are difficult to explain? What are the limitations of what you’ve done?
  • Opportunities: how might you extend your work? What can you do now?
  • Threats: how might someone criticise what you’ve done? Are there any potential problems?

What else can you do to look at your thesis a little bit differently?

Whys

My daughter will be four in the autumn. For some time now, “Why?” has been the most-uttered expression in and out of our house. Why is the sky blue, why did you say that, why are we having pasta for dinner, why can’t I go in the garden if it’s raining, why why why… It can make you a little crazy some time, but it’s how kids make sense of things.

For similar reasons, “why?” is also one of the most useful questions you can ask yourself before and during the viva. Come across something you don’t understand? Why? Is a sentence a bit vague in your thesis? Why? Question from your examiner not making sense? Why?

Even if your examiner disagrees with you, the best thing you can do to start discussing the topic with them is ask: why?

Four Questions For Your Supervisors

First, far in advance of submission, who would be good choices for examiners? Get their feedback, be a part of the discussion. Ultimately your supervisors will get to nominate.

Second, after the hustle and bustle of submission is done, what would they say is the most problematic part of your research? It won’t be anything that is wrong, and it might not be anything controversial, just something that needs a little extra thought.

Third, and once you’ve thought about it for yourself, what do they think are the strongest results or outcomes of your research? They will see everything you’ve done, but will have a slightly different perspective and that’s useful to know.

Finally, when the dust has settled and your viva is done, what can you do better now? There will be a lot of ways that you have grown during your PhD, but it can be difficult for you to spot them day-to-day.

What else might it be good to ask? Have a think, see where your ideas take you.