Examiners Are

Too many viva fears are rooted in the mistaken belief that examiners are somehow the enemy. I’ve written before about what examiners aren’t, but what are they?

  • Examiners Are Human: if they think you’re nervous, they’ll respond kindly. They know that anxiety is about the importance of the day.
  • Examiners Are (usually) PhDs: your examiners know what the viva means. They know what matters, and they have an idea of the work you must have put in to get to that day.
  • Examiners Are Interested: you’re the only person in that room who has to be there. Examiners are asked and can say no – if they’re doing it, it’s because they’re interested.

That last point gets forgotten sometimes. Your examiners are academics interested in your work. They’ll be ready for your viva. They’ll read your thesis carefully, weigh it up, and come with questions in mind.

Would you have it any other way?

Either Way

If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.

(Henry Ford probably said something like this, but he probably heard something like it from someone else; see here)

A reflection for today: if your viva is coming up, honestly, truthfully, do you think you can pass it? If you do, what are you going to do to make it a certainty? If you think you can’t, what are you going to do to get help? Either way, what are you going to do?

A Tiny Insurance Policy

A few weeks after I submitted my thesis, in spring 2008, I got a bill from my institution. It was a request for fees as my funding had finished. The request was very formal, pay now, and there was no phone number to contact anybody.

This was the dark ages of mobile internet: no wi-fi and the 3G modem for my laptop was painfully slow. It took nearly an hour to find a phone number for someone who might be able to help. When I explained and they checked my student number they immediately said, “Oh yes, the system’s sent it by mistake; you owe nothing and there’s an amended letter on the way. No problem!”

No problem – except for the stress, the frustration and the lost focus I’d had for an hour!

Most candidates I help have a fairly good idea of the format and regulations for vivas at their university. Still, unexpected requests for fees or an unexpected regulation can be stressful. You might not be able to find out everything in advance; but today you can find contact details for someone who can help if you find yourself in a tricky situation. You might not need to call anyone, but it’ll take two minutes to find them now, just in case something crops up.

No problem – save stress, save frustration and keep your focus!

Keep Doing The Work

The work is what gets you to submission. The work is important, even if you’re sick of it. The work matters. The work is a significant and original contribution to your field. The work didn’t just come from nowhere.

You did it.

When you submit, keep at it. Your focus changes but you’re not done. You have to check the work. You have to make sure you understand the work, and can explain the work. You have to defend the work. You can do all of this because it uses skills you already have.

Use what you know, use what you can do, and keep doing the work.

Onions

Peel an onion layer back carefully and there’s more underneath. Again and again, not infinitely but quite a way. It takes patience and effort to go down layer by layer.

The same’s true with your research. One can see the end result, but with patience and effort you can dig deep into what’s there. It’s built on a lot. You can ask why many times. So can your examiners. They can dig deep and explore motivations, assumptions, the fundamentals. It’s not for fun, it’s for their understanding and to show yours.

You can be ready for the viva by digging below the surface, prepare by examining the background. Test your assumptions. Remember why your work is valuable. You don’t need to go too deep though, going further and further, ad infinitum. That way lies a lot of tears.

Which brings us back to onions.

Expect The Unexpected

Hindsight is wonderful. Before my viva I worried about whether or not I would forget things in the moment; would I be able to explain this process or that proof, things I knew really well…

…what if, what if, what if…

It never occurred to me that my examiners might ask me questions that, well, had never occurred to me.

I didn’t expect that they would ask questions about the background of my field. I didn’t expect that they would ask questions to explore things which I thought were obviously true. I didn’t expect them to question why I had included a chapter exploring a topic that had produced negative results.

I didn’t expect that they would only ask a fraction of the questions that I had expected.

Your examiners will ask you questions you could plan for, but they will probably also ask questions that you can’t anticipate – because you’re not them, you think differently, have different experiences and knowledge and are approaching the viva with a different agenda.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t be prepared for them.

  • Use the valuable opportunities of a mock viva or conversations with friends to get comfortable answering questions you haven’t considered before.
  • Read through your thesis and try to imagine how someone other than you might read it. What would they be thinking? What could they ask?
  • Realise that your examiners are not asking unexpected questions for fun: they’re exploring your work to drive the process of the viva.

It’s impossible to anticipate every question in the viva. It is possible to engage with every question that your examiners ask.

Record Your Mock Viva

I came across this tip while listening back to episodes of the podcast: if you have a mock viva, record it so that you can review it later.

Listen to check whether or not you paused to think about answers. Listen to think about whether or not there were other things you could say. Listen to see if, with hindsight, there were questions which surprised you or which you might want to practise further.

Listen to hear someone who is just around the corner from passing their viva.

Highly Unlikely

Twice recently I’ve been asked, “Is it possible to submit a perfect thesis but then fail your viva?” I’ve written about the impossibility of the perfect thesis in the past, so let’s modify it slightly: can you fail if your thesis is really good?

I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s got to be highly unlikely. Right? How do you submit a really good thesis? Only by doing really good research. You have to have built up a talent for asking and answering questions. You have to have built up a talent for doing practical research in your field. Even if you don’t like being in situations like you imagine the viva to be, you’re going to be able to meet the challenge.

Can you fail if your thesis is really good?

This question comes out of worry, anxiety and fear. Find the root concern and you can address the problem. Worried that you’re treading on an examiner’s research? Find out more about it, so that you know more. Anxious that your mind will go blank? Read your thesis carefully and make summaries to help you think it through. Afraid your examiners will have harsh comments? Ask friends about the tone of their vivas to reassure yourself.

It’s understandable to be worried. Find the cause and think about how to address it. Do that, and the question will disappear.

Interrogation/Inquisition

Candidates joke about these terms to describe the viva, but I think the joke masks real fears. They worry that examiners will come in and speak harshly, treat them or their thesis with a lack of respect. They worry that they will come in with an agenda, a pre-determined outcome based on “the right way” to do research.

I can’t say this never happens. I can say that I’ve not heard of many viva experiences that match this fear. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about their vivas, and it’s not come up much. Talk to people from your field about their viva experiences. You’ll find that there are ways that examiners generally behave. They’ve generally prepared well, read your thesis carefully and have fair questions in mind to drive a discussion.

Listen to stories and get it settled in your head: if your examiners disagree with an idea, a method, a conclusion, they will treat you with respect and they will be open to your explanations. They’re not interrogators or inquisitors.

Inevitable

If you’re doing a PhD, the viva is coming. It will happen. It is all about your work, your ideas and what they all mean. The viva reveals things, to your examiners and to you. Your examiners have read your thesis and are exploring something new to them; they’re exploring it with you, the researcher who did it.

However you feel now, today, there’s time to get ready. If your viva is two years away, you have time to explore good examiners. If your viva is tomorrow, you have time to make quick summaries or use questions to unpick your argument. If your submission is six months away you have time to review your thesis structure and explore if there’s any way to improve it. If you submitted a month ago, have time to carefully read your thesis.

Doing a PhD? Your viva is inevitable. But you can be ready when you reach that day. You have time.