Questions You Might Not Know

A question you have not considered. A question that surprises you. A question that does not seem relevant.

These questions could be scary: if the goal of the viva is to engage in discussion then a question you have not considered could be terrifying.

But an unknown question does not mean the answer is unknown. A question you’ve not thought of before can still have a response.

You got to where you are by answering questions you didn’t know at some point.

You know a lot, you can do a lot. Answering questions is part of your skill set.

Responses and Answers

I try to be careful in my choice of words. Recently I’ve started to use the word response instead of answer when I explore viva questions with PhD candidates. Because of talks, quizzes, game shows, tests and the basics of conversation, we expect that questions have answers.

When someone asks, you answer. When your examiner asks, you need to answer…

…except what if you don’t know?

What if you’re not sure?

What if there is no “True Answer” to a question?

A question might not have a definite answer, but you can always give a response.

Your response could be a hunch, a theory, an idea, a gut feeling, a reason, a piece of evidence. It could be saying, “I don’t know, and here’s why…”

Not every question in the viva will have an answer. Every question can be responded to.

What could you do to respond as well as possible in the viva?

Patience

Patience is a virtue for a PhD candidate.

It takes time to explore literature.

It takes time to think and work your way to write up a thesis.

It takes time to complete a PhD.

It takes time to prepare well for the viva.

Patience gets you through difficult days, hard times and trying setbacks.

Be patient in the viva too. Don’t rush. It takes time, even a little, to respond well to questions.

Take the time.

Possible Future Plans

At the time I went to my viva, just over eleven years ago, I didn’t know for certain that I was finished with my research. I was 90% sure that I wasn’t going to get any kind of academic position, 90% sure that my research was done and I wouldn’t do more. And yet I had to be ready to talk to my examiners about what I could do with my research, or rather, how someone else could continue the work.

I talked about special cases that might be of interest. The utility in making a better computer program of an algorithm I’d developed. Other problems where my methods might be applicable.

But I was clear: I might not be doing this. These are just ideas.

You might be in a similar position. Or perhaps you know that when you’ve finished your PhD you’re leaving academia. You don’t have to lie, you don’t have to fib, but I think you do have to have something in mind. There are many reasons why people leave academia after the PhD. But there’s a natural line of questioning in the viva, “You did this, what could you do next?” Even if your examiners look to you with an expectation that you’ll tell them of your plans, you can reframe that sort of question with general ideas, as detailed as you think appropriate.

Possible future plans are just that: possible. Start with why something might be a good idea, say how someone might do it, what they might do. But you can be clear, if you want to, that that’s not the road for you.

Blank, During and Before

Going blank in the viva isn’t a big problem. The potential for it might feel worrying, but typically it doesn’t happen that much. If it does happen there are things you could do. You can take your time, you can think and something will come. Going blank doesn’t mean you’re not talented, it means you’re human.

Your viva isn’t a test of perfection.

If you go blank in the viva, sit with it, pause, relax and try again.

Going blank before the viva is also a small problem. If you realise you don’t know much about your examiners, or you’re unsure about the procedure for the viva, those are small problems. If you try to think about a certain chapter or theory and your brain doesn’t supply ideas, you have a small problem.

Small problems often have many solutions – generally either thinking, reading or asking.

If you go blank before the viva, ask yourself what could make it better, and the answer to that question will probably resolve things.

Convinced

You might be.

Certain, no doubts, no wavering.

Or your examiner might be.

100%, thought about it, no alternatives.

When someone is convinced, the best thing you can do is ask why. Once you know the why, you know what you need to think about.

If you’re convinced of something, ask yourself why. Arrange your reasons, be sure they are correct and your thinking is sound.

If your examiner is convinced of their opinion, and thinks differently to you, ask them why. Listen to them generously, be sure you understand what they’re saying, then explore how your differing convictions meet.

One of you might be wrong.

Maybe both of you are wrong.

You won’t know until you ask.

10 Opportunities For Sharing

Both before and after you submit your thesis, one of the best things you can do to prepare for the viva is find opportunities to share your work.

Telling others about what you’ve done helps you think about how you explain your work. It can give you space to practise structuring your research. It can lead to questions, which then help you to think again and fill in the blanks for your audience, whether it’s one person or one hundred.

There are lots of ways you could talk or write about your research. Here are ten opportunities for sharing just off the top of my head! You can probably think of more that would be relevant for you:

  1. Give a talk, big or small, in your department or at a conference.
  2. Share your work via outreach.
  3. Go for coffee with a friend.
  4. Have a meeting with your supervisor.
  5. Write a paper and submit it for publication or preprint comments.
  6. Write a blog post summarising your progress.
  7. Send an email to a contact at another institution.
  8. Tweet something short, sweet and simple! #awesome
  9. Be a guest on a podcast about research (@PlanetPhD is a new one I found recently!)
  10. Find some friendly first-years who want to hear from someone with experience.

None of these are free: they always cost something, particularly in terms of time. Coffee with a friend might be an hour, a blog post could be a few, but a paper or a talk could be days or weeks of work.

Think of it is an investment rather than a cost. Every time you share your work, the return on the investment will be greater than what you’ve “spent”. Every opportunity you find or make will give you a chance to improve.

Publications, Posters and Presentations

“Do publications mean my examiners are more likely to pass me?”

Yes, but not for the reasons that I think are behind the question.

Candidates asking this are really wondering, “Will my examiners add those papers into the balance of material that help decide whether or how I pass the viva?” The answer is no, the viva is thesis examination; you and the thesis are being examined, not publications, posters and presentations. It’s on the merit of the thesis that the viva is decided.

But…

…the publications, posters and presentations all help. They help sharpen your thinking every time you do one. They help bring your ideas and arguments together. If you reflect on the experience you have from them, you’ll see that you’re a really good candidate when you come to meet your examiners.

Your examiners don’t pass you on the basis of prior publications; you pass because of all of your PhD experiences.

Different Opinions

Your examiners are allowed to have a different opinion to you.

They might favour a method, prefer an author or think that your results mean something other than your conclusion. They’re allowed to because they’re experienced: they view your work through the prism of their knowledge and talent.

That doesn’t mean they’re right. Depending on how they frame their questions and comments, you have to think and decide whether there is just your way of seeing things or if something is open to interpretation.

And if it is you have to share why you think your interpretation is the right one. Why are you convinced? What makes you sure? What could dissuade you? What possible criticisms could someone make? What might your examiners think?

Ask some of these questions before the viva and you’ll be better able to defend your research when you talk with your examiners. Why-How-What could be a useful framework to start your reflections.