Who’s In The Room?

It’s your viva day. There’s you, your internal examiner, your external examiner. At some institutions there’s an independent chair too, someone making sure that the viva is fair. Many universities also allow a candidate’s supervisor to be present.

Did you hear that?! That was the sharp intake of breath of a thousand PhDs around the land.

My supervisor could be at my viva?! Noooooooo!!!

If your supervisor came to your viva they would be there only as an observer. If they came to your viva they couldn’t ask any questions or comment on your responses. If they came it would only be because you allowed it.

But if they came they would be able to make notes on your behalf. You’re free to make any notes you like, but that could be tricky. Your supervisor, if you wanted and if they were willing, could keep a record of interesting questions or observations. This information could be pretty useful after the viva. But it’s all up to you. If the thought of your supervisor coming adds pressure, then just say no.

Opening Line

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

A good opening line captures a reader. Authors can take a long time to figure them out, so they get just the right way to start a story.

PhD candidates can take some time too and figure out how to start their viva. It’s likely that they’ll be asked a question to give some kind of overview of research, or to talk about the highlights of their results. If you’re in that position, viva coming up, think about how you would start. How would you summarise what you’ve done? How would you break down your results? How would you hook your examiners?

Maybe not it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

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.

Interview

It’s not uncommon for researchers to be preparing for their viva at the same time that they’re applying for jobs and going for interviews. And vivas and job interviews are often compared to one another. I think there’s a superficial comparison to be made (people tend to dress up, the candidate is asked a lot of questions by a panel) but the focus is quite different. In a job interview, someone is being asked questions to discover if they’re a good fit for an organisation; in the viva they’re being asked to demonstrate what they’re claiming to have done during their PhD.

However, I think there could be an overlap between the kinds of areas of preparation that could help both vivas and interviews. If your viva is coming up and you’re applying for jobs then think about your skills to begin with: what have you developed in the last few years? What’s your best evidence? What can you do now that you couldn’t do at the start of your PhD? Think about times that you’ve shown initiative. Think about times when you’ve solved problems. Reflect on what you can do that others find hard, because that’s valuable.

Vivas and job interviews might not be the same, but they get to the core of what you do well. Reflect on how you can share that.

Random Questions

At the start of my workshops I ask people for their questions about the viva. Anything and everything, procedure, practical stuff, advice, fears, really anything. My philosophy is “once people have an answer, they can move on, they don’t have to worry about that question any more. Even if they need to do something they know what they need to do.” I collect the questions on Post It notes. I’ve been doing this for seven years and have been recording them all for over three years.

Last month I got an odd question:

“Is anything in a session like this really applicable? Does it [the viva] simply depend on personalities? (randomness)”

If I’m honest, I felt a little… Irked. I was kind of thinking, “Huh. Someone decided to come… But then questioned the premise of what we’re doing? And right before we’d got started they decided to ask this?” It felt a little cutting, but that might not have been their intention. Maybe it was just their personality…

Back to the question. I don’t think the viva simply depends on personalities. An examiner could disagree with you, and that might not be an easy question or comment to take. An examiner could be really tired, or really grumpy, and so could you. The tone of the examination could be influenced by personalities, but none of that is predictable or within your control.

However, you can control what you do to prepare for the viva. What you read or re-read, what you learn about your examiners, the notes you make, the steps you take to remind yourself of everything you’ve done and can do. That’s all up to the researcher. If a session on viva prep shares some ideas about those sorts of things it will be pretty applicable, I think.

Last month I felt irked. Today I feel good. Questions help, even questions that seem left field or perhaps snarky. Maybe I read it wrong. Maybe they asked it wrong. When you get a question in the viva, try not to make assumptions about where it’s coming from. You can always ask why or for more details.

There could be a touch of “randomness” in the viva, but you can bring a lot of order in with you.