8 Thoughts About Viva Questions

I’ve written a fair bit about viva questions before. I’m exploring different angles on the topic at the moment for future posts and workshops.

Here are eight short thoughts that might be useful:

  1. There are lots and lots of lists of common viva questions. Google it. There’s no reason for anyone to go to the viva ignorant of what could come up.
  2. There are lots and lots of questions you could be asked about your thesis which won’t be on any of those lists.
  3. You can’t practise every potential viva question.
  4. You could reflect and practise a few in particular on explaining your research or methodology.
  5. You can practise answering unexpected questions so you get comfortable in thinking through questions you’ve never considered before.
  6. You don’t have to answer a question immediately without pause or asking for clarification.
  7. You don’t have to answer a question without making a note of it first.
  8. Every question in the viva is being asked for a reason.

Number 5 is important. You can gain confidence by knowing that you can answer questions in viva-like conditions. Mock vivas, conversations with friends, giving seminars – there are lots of opportunities. Go find them.

Salmon Swimming

I had an idea for explaining the PhD process, a picture in my head that I described to my wife:

Me: “PhD candidates are like salmon, swimming upstream to the source of ideas. It’s a difficult journey, long and tiring, but at the end-”

Mrs R: “They’re eaten by bears? Are examiners like bears?”

Me: “Erm, no. Well, I guess you could say-”

Mrs R: “I think a lot of salmon don’t make it. I’m sure I read that. Swimming against the current kills some salmon just for trying.”

Me: “…”

Mrs R: “And then some of the salmon that make it get eaten. By bears.”

Me: “…”

There are lots of metaphors and analogies that work in describing the PhD journey and the viva. They’re useful because they give us something to hook into. They can set expectations or help us through tough times. Find one that helps you.

But please don’t be a salmon.

Flaws

You can’t expect your thesis to be perfect. Your examiners don’t expect it to be perfect. There might be typos or clumsy writing, something vague, but nothing too awful.

But what if there’s a flaw? What if there’s something which is just wrong? A hole in your logic perhaps, or maybe a result or reference that doesn’t support your argument. What then?

First, read your thesis carefully before the viva. Then you can be sure of what’s in there. If you find a flaw you can figure it out. You’ll know how to respond to comments about it in the viva. If you don’t find anything, then you’re probably fine.

If your examiners find something you didn’t, then talk it through with them. Ask questions to get as much information as possible. Think it through. Talk through each point in turn, make notes and see where your discussions lead you.

A flaw can be a tiny imperfection, not a big deal at all. No thesis is perfect. Not every problem is a problem.

Improbable

How many times have you answered questions about your research?

How many times have you read a paper and increased your knowledge?

How often have you made a contribution to your field?

How many times have you had a discussion with someone about your work?

How many times have you checked your work?

How many times have you thought about your thesis and how best to write it?

So…

How likely is it that you will be faced with an unanswerable question in the viva? How likely is it that you will freeze or go blank? How likely is it that you’ll realise that something you did is fundamentally wrong? How likely is it that you’ll face one of the nightmare scenarios that people imagine and torture themselves with?

It’s not likely, right?

You did the work. Do the prep. Thrive in the viva.

Diamonds

You need pressure to make diamonds. It’s cheesy, but maybe you need the pressure of viva questions to find certain insights. I’ve lost track of the number of times someone has told me that they found new ideas through talking to their examiners. Sometimes a new connection or way of explaining something.

Viva pressure can produce amazing results, but it can seem overwhelming, particularly as the day draws near. If you feel nervous or anxious, remember that you also need time to make diamonds. Viva questions might seem pressured sometimes, but you can take time to answer them. There is no need to rush to respond. Listen to the question, think about it, make a note: you don’t have to have the whole answer when you start to speak. Start, and see where the discussion goes.

Soundbites

It’s cool when you can summarise your research in a tweet. I loved the challenge of explaining my work so that a layperson could understand.

I explore ways to tell apart complicated knotted structures. For my PhD, I found several new processes and results using maths!

There might be some value in breaking down your chapters or key results into soundbites, as a reflective exercise. You could start off with 100 words to summarise a chapter, then try to do it in 25. Could you explain a chapter in ten words? You’d lose something, but it could help you to think through what’s important.

Just remember: this might help you to reflect on your work, but you’ll need more words to tell your research story to your examiners. You can’t predict all of their questions ahead of time, but you can be sure that they want more than a quip.