How To Answer Difficult Questions

In some cases, you won’t be able to.

The viva is not a question and answer session or a quiz. Some questions won’t have memorisable facts that you can serve up to your examiners; instead, you will have to offer another contribution, a response – a detail, an opinion, an argument, a feeling, a hunch, a question – in order to keep the discussion moving forward.

Your response may not be the entirety of everything you want to say. It may be that you have to pause and reflect first, make notes, stand up and draw something, or ask for clarification.

You may not be able to answer a question, but after a little thought you will always be able to respond.

If the question is difficult, then you owe it to yourself to think a little more, pause a little longer, take a little more care, even ask for a little more, so that you can respond as best as you possibly can. That response could be an answer (truth, or an argument with a lot of evidence), but it could be something else that is just as much what your examiners could be looking for.

Every question, not just the difficult ones, deserves a little time, a little space, a little thought in order for you to give your best response.

The Last Little Thing

I had read my thesis. I had made notes, lots of them. Read papers by my examiners. Had six or seven hour-long conversations with my supervisor in the almost-two months leading from submission to my viva. My viva was 10am on a Monday morning, and I had a weekend free and clear to rest, relax and check anything else I needed to check.

Which I did!

And then at 9:45am on Monday, with fifteen minutes to go before the start of my viva I knocked on my supervisor’s door and said, “Hi Hugh, can I just go over the definition of a genus 2 handlebody one more time? Thanks! It’s when…”

A basic definition was perhaps not the best thing to be checking just before my viva. It was a minor point, but a worry point – something I kept checking again and again because I was sure I was misremembering something, or that something fundamental wasn’t quite sticking in my mind.

What minor points concern you? Even little things can add up to a big worry or a heap of nerves. You don’t have to start your prep by tidying away small concerns, but nor is it a good idea to finish your prep with them either.

Every Day Is A Restart

Not just the 1st of January. Not the 2nd, once you finish celebrating New Year’s Day!

Every day is a chance to look at what you do, how you do it, why you do it and think, “What else…?”

What else can you do to help build your talent?

What else can you do to steer your confidence?

What else will you need to be ready for your viva?

What else can you achieve in this new year?

Here We Go Again

Deep breath.

Get ready.

However much of your PhD is left, whatever 2020 did to you, take what you’ve got – of your research, your thesis and yourself – and build on it.

Find what’s good and do more good.

Find what’s hindering you and steer away from it.

Find what you need to help you get to submission, to the viva and beyond.

If your viva is this year, even if it’s months and months away, just reflect, “What could I do to help myself be ready?” Tuck those thoughts away, and come back to them when it’s time to prepare.

One more time, survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances“.

My wish for you for 2021: Keep Going.

Best of Viva Survivors 2020: Surviving

2020 hasn’t been an easy year, has it? 2021 feels like it’s going to be tough too.

There are still challenges and changes ahead of us all. As with the viva, to begin with, we’re called to survive – which means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances“. 

  • Interesting Times – I wrote this post on March 16th, before the first lockdown in the UK, but after we had started our own family lockdown. This was an extra post for that day, written out of a need to share something.
  • New Expectations? – the viva is all online now, for now at least. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad, but it’s different.
  • No Hurry, No Pause – not a post explicitly on surviving, but the linked resource resonates, as do some of the questions which are mentioned.
  • Fortunate Positions – I share a story that explores both why and how people survive in the viva…
  • By The Numbers – …and some questions to explore that idea a little more.
  • Is Survival Enough? – a question I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately.

Surviving might be uncomfortable sometimes. It might be at odds with your preferences or skillset. But there are reasons you’ve got this far; reasons that have helped you through these difficult circumstances. Remember them and keep going.

Best of Viva Survivors 2020: Short Posts

We head towards the end of the year with today’s look back at some of the shortest posts I’ve written and published in 2020.

Short posts are fun to write. Sometimes they come from a great big idea that I can express concisely, sometimes I realise that fifty words is simply enough. I’ll be thinking a lot in the coming months about shorter posts, and maybe some way to share a collection of them.

Tomorrow we finish the review of the year’s posts with a topic that has been on my mind a lot: surviving.

Best of Viva Survivors 2020: Long Posts

We continue the review of this year’s 350+ blog posts by exploring a handful of the longer posts I’ve written. Most days, the posts are between 150 and 200 words, but occasionally I go into greater depth or length on a point!

Brevity is good, but I really like having the space to reflect sometimes. Have you read any other long posts on the blog that you liked?

Tomorrow: we get back to keeping things brief, and I share the best of my short posts from this year!

Best of Viva Survivors 2020: Viva Prep

Every year on the blog I finish by sharing a few days of my favourite posts from the year. We start 2020’s round-up with the important topic of viva preparation, and posts that cover many different aspects of getting ready for the viva.

What will you be doing to get ready for your viva? And have you read any other helpful posts on the topic on Viva Survivors, or elsewhere, that you could share with someone who needed help?

Tomorrow: the best of my long posts from this year!

Happy Christmas!

Very best wishes from my family to you and yours, wherever you are. I hope you take a break in the coming weeks, rest, relax, recover a little. I plan to!

Viva Survivors is on a break now for a few days; service resumes with four “Best of 2020” days from Monday 28th December 2020. These list posts from the year that I think are particularly good. From Friday 1st January 2021 we’ll be back to regular new posts every day.

You can catch up on any or all of those later though. For now, rest. If your viva is coming up in January, it can wait for now. It really can. Take a little time for you and your loved ones.

Happy Christmas!