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.

The Challenging Questions

Two types of questions can seem challenging: unexpected questions and tricky, topic-related questions.

You can’t prepare an answer for an unexpected question, but you can be prepared to answer. You can build confidence through a mock viva or by just finding situations where you can talk about your work and take questions. You’ll never predict every question, but you can at least get comfortable with thinking in those kinds of situations.

Tricky, topic-related questions could be more challenging to some candidates than unexpected questions. Tricky questions are the ones you’re aware of, or the aspects of your work that leads to them. They can seem challenging because there’s something there to focus on, something to worry about. Maybe it’s how you explain something, or a contentious detail, an idea that’s not 100% proved.

You can build your confidence for unexpected questions through practice, and you can improve how you think about tricky, topic-related questions through reflection and writing summaries. Take the topic apart, explore it and find the bits that you need to address. Thinking is good, but writing will help you shape those thoughts into something concrete.

Both types of question – the unexpected and the tricky, topic-related – can be challenging in the viva.

Thankfully, both types of question can be prepared for.

Why You Didn’t Do More

You didn’t read that paper because there are lots of papers, and you can’t read them all.

You didn’t run that experiment because you ran a hundred others and it didn’t seem like that one would make a difference.

You haven’t thought about that, but you’ve thought about lots of other things.

You haven’t thought about this, but you can think about it right now and offer an opinion.

You didn’t do the thing your examiners suggest because you have reasons.

You didn’t do the other thing they’re thinking about because your supervisor told you it wasn’t worth it, and you agreed.

You didn’t do more because there is only so much time, so much effort, so much focus, so much thought you can put into a PhD. It’s big, but you can’t do everything.

When you think about why you didn’t do more, just pause and get your reasons in order. You will have them. You’ve not acted without thought. Put your reasons across. Maybe your examiners will want to talk more about it, maybe not.

Finally, you couldn’t do everything, but you can reflect on everything you did do. Remember your reasons for everything you have achieved, and don’t get bogged down in all of the things you haven’t done.

The Secret About Viva Questions

They’re not always looking for answers.

Viva questions aren’t unfair, but they might not always be asked with the expectation of a definitive answer. It could be they simply start a discussion.

You might not know, your examiners might not know, maybe no-one knows “the answer”.

But you might have an idea or two. Or you might know why you don’t. Or you could discuss the topic with your examiners.

Another secret: you’re among the best people – possibly the best person in the world – to discuss the questions that are asked in your viva.

Standby Answers

It’s really tempting to have a couple of answers tucked away for the viva, ready for the obvious questions you’ll almost definitely be asked.

But how do you know you’ll definitely be asked those questions? If you’re not, you’ll be asked different questions – questions you’ve not prepared answers for! So then: best to find more questions to have answers for, get them prepped, ready to deploy when the examiner says this or that.

So how many questions to have ready then? 10? 20? 100? More?!

It’s ridiculous when we take it to these extremes, of course.

Preparing answers to every question is a bad idea. Too many plausible questions could come up. You’ll be asked a small number of these in the viva, and probably several more you couldn’t anticipate. Better to focus on answering questions generally than specifically: get comfortable with being asked unexpected questions, rather than happy at being able to recite something for many specific questions.

The exception that proves the rule: make sure you feel happy answering “What’s the contribution of your research to your field?”

What Are Your Plans?

My examiners didn’t ask me what I was going to do after my PhD, but I know candidates who were asked in theirs. Had I been asked, I probably would have been stumped by the question. No idea. The thoughts that lead me on to my current path came months later. It might have been useful to have some ideas that I could have shared in the viva, had it come up.

(the only ideas I had about future plans were related to how I might develop my thesis research, what directions or improvements could be made with more time, different resources, etc)

Being asked about plans can be scary, but remember: it doesn’t have to be final.

A plan doesn’t have to commit you. A plan is potential. A plan is a sequence that you could follow, not one that you are following or even one that you will. You don’t have to have the best plan. You don’t have to have all of the ideas worked out. You just need something.

So: what’s your something? If you don’t know, maybe a better question to think about and answer is “Post-viva, what do I want?”

Details

They matter. But the little things that evade memory or fast recall probably don’t matter as much as you think they do.

You’re primed to notice the little things you forget more than you notice all of the things that you easily remember.

If nerves about remembering everything before the viva appear, banish them by thinking about all of the things you do know, rather than the tiny fraction of details that don’t snap into focus.