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.

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.

The Four Elements

There are four elements of practical viva preparation, four key modes of activity to pay attention to:

  • Thinking: specifically, reflecting on your work, how you did it, what it means.
  • Reading: your whole thesis, carefully, and any papers that you need to remind yourself about.
  • Writing: adding annotations to your thesis and creating summaries of your work.
  • Talking: making and using opportunities to practise answering questions about your thesis.

None of them requires you to learn radically new skills. Investing time in these areas will be rewarded by your increased confidence as the viva comes around. There are lots of things that you can do in each of these areas:

  • Thinking: use a questions list; explore your contribution; reflect on why your thesis matters.
  • Reading: don’t skim the first read-through; look for vague passages; target the good and bad.
  • Writing: make important parts stand out; write overviews of your chapters; find new ways to explain things.
  • Talking: talk to friends; have a mock viva; give a seminar and take questions.

You might not have done any of these things during your PhD, but you can do all of them. You only have to find expressions of the four elements to match your personal preferences: for example, not everyone will want a mock viva, but every candidate will benefit from practise through answering questions.

Find ways to think, read, write and talk that build confidence for your viva.

Red Alert!

I love Star Trek. I love the visions of the future, the philosophical explorations and wonder of seeking out new worlds.

I also love it when someone shouts, “Red Alert!” Two words that signify danger and excitement, but not panic: they’re an instruction to the crew to focus. There are procedures to follow. It’s not an everyday occurrence, but they’re hyper-competent. Bad things may be happening, but if they can pull together they’ll get through it.

“Red Alert!” could be a good mental picture to paint for tough questions in the viva. Maybe not danger exactly: a call to focus, but no cause for panic. There are procedures you can follow. You’re good at answering questions, and something tough just requires more attention. Most questions will not be too hard, but like the crew of the Enterprise you are hyper-competent – you’re an experienced researcher! It could be tricky, but if you follow your talents and think you’ll get through it.

A Manifesto for Questions

Treat every question as interesting, important, a chance to learn and an opportunity to demonstrate your talents.

  • If you treat a question as interesting, you’ll do a courtesy to the person who asked it.
  • If you treat a question as important, you’ll think it over and not rush to answer.
  • If you treat a question as a chance to learn, you’ll be open to new ideas while you think.
  • If you treat a question as an opportunity to demonstrate your talents, you’ll prime yourself to answer well.

Good for most days, great for the viva day.

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…

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?

Short

In a workshop a few weeks ago someone asked, “How can you keep the viva short?”

I took a long pause before answering. My answer: “Not much.”

You can answer questions well – providing the information or analysis requested, explaining things and so on – but that doesn’t mean that you will shorten the viva. I’ve heard stories from people who had short afternoon vivas and knew their external had a pre-booked train to catch. It’s all anecdotal though.

I missed a more important question in that session. I could have asked the person, “Why do you want to keep the viva short?” I wonder now what was at the root of their question. Vivas take as long as they take. They vary in length for a host of reasons.

There’s no need to rush: you can take the time you need to answer questions well. Many people tell me they feel their vivas took no time at all, My four hour viva went by in an eyeblink. It’s all anecdotal though!

My advice? Focus on being prepared, don’t worry about how long it will take. You can’t influence the length of the viva, but you can steer how well you will perform.