Why Examiners Ask

No questions, no viva, no PhD. That’s fundamental, but there are many reasons for particular questions in the viva.

Your examiners might ask you that question because they need you to make something clearer. Maybe there is a typo and they want to check what you meant. A question may be exploratory, there’s something interesting to discuss. They might want to check a detail is correct or that you understand something.

A question might be asked because they think something is wrong; they’re asking to give you a chance to explain it more. A question could be an invitation, a way to start a conversation. A question could be used to change topic or pause. A question could be an opportunity for you to get excited and talk about something you love.

Particular questions have reasons. You might not be able to see those reasons in the moment, of course, but they are there. Your examiners use them to drive the discussion, to help you speak, to address their concerns and demonstrate that you did the work.

Questions give you the chance to show your talent.

The Best Way To Say I Don’t Know

I don’t know could be your answer to a question in the viva, but it doesn’t have to be all of your answer.

Say why.

It can be as simple as “I didn’t do that” or “I didn’t read this.” Or perhaps, “I’ve not thought about it that way, but let me have a think…”

If your first thought is “I don’t know,” say why and engage with the question.

Needles & Haystacks

We all know looking for a needle in a haystack is a fool’s errand.

I understand why PhD candidates are interested in being well prepared for questions in the viva. Too often though the desire is expressed as wanting to prepare perfect answers, or anticipate all the questions that might come up. But this is looking for a needle in a haystack. There are thousands of questions you could conceive of that are relevant, interesting and possible for your viva…

…and you won’t be asked most of them.

You can’t think of every possible question. There’s not enough time.

You can’t prepare answers to all of the questions you can think of. There’s not enough time.

You can’t prepare perfect answers, full stop!

What you can do: find opportunities to practise answering unexpected questions. Have a mock viva. Chat to friends over coffee. Give a seminar. Email colleagues and ask them for their questions.

Stop looking around in haystacks for every question. Start finding opportunities where the questions come to you.

Good Answers

Good answers don’t just appear on the day.

Good answers to your examiners’ questions happen because you’ve done the work.

Good answers happen because you know things.

Good answers happen because you’re talented.

I think great answers in the viva come when you give yourself a few extra seconds to think…

…what else do I know?

…is that the best thing to start with?

…what did I say in my thesis?

…what did I do like this in my research?

A few seconds can make good into great, but don’t stress.

Good is enough.

A Non-Trivial Pursuit

Viva candidates pretty much have all the answers. That’s not because the viva is easy or the questions are predictable or because candidates can somehow prepare for every possibility. The viva’s not a quiz game.

Some questions in the viva might be trivial in the sense that they are easy for you to answer. The fact that something seems easy to you doesn’t diminish it in any way.

The viva generally is non-trivial. It’s not a game. Any ease you might feel with questions is down to your hard-earned talent.

First & Last

There’s a rule of thumb for the viva some examiners have mentioned to me:

“The first question will be easy; the last question might not be.”

There’s no trick to the first part of the statement. Examiners want the viva to go as well as it can. The first question is likely to be something you’ve thought about or could realistically expect (like how you got interested in your topic). The intention is to help get past the awkwardness and nerves of being there and get down to business.

There’s no trick to the second part either. You might get tricky questions in the viva. You might face criticisms of your work. You might find the discussion leads to a tough debate. Given the nature of what you’ve done and what the viva is for, it’s reasonable to expect the odd difficult question, particularly near the end.

It’s unreasonable to think that every question will be hard though. Expect the viva will start well. Expect your examiners will ask tough but fair questions of a talented person.

(that’s you)

Toppling

In Jenga, whatever your intentions, you might knock the tower down at any moment. Your actions or a misplacement by the last player might make things so unstable that the tower can only fall.

It’s tempting to think of the viva is a precarious situation, but your thesis is not a Jenga tower, and the viva is not a game.

Questions from examiners aren’t like pulling bricks out. Your answers aren’t going to make your work fall apart. Discussion can bring in some wobbles, but your work is more than a tower of bricks. You designed this structure, it didn’t just come together out of a box.

Rubbish

But what if my examiner says something I’ve done is rubbish?

Imagine you’re in that position. What exactly did they say? It’s unlikely that they just used the word rubbish, but that’s what your brain has just made of their statement or question or opinion. You’ve interpreted that as “rubbish”.

Don’t panic. Take a breath. Ask them why.

Sit back. Listen. Put your feelings to one side and make notes.

When you know exactly what your examiner doesn’t like you can respond. When you have all of the details you will know what you need to discuss with them.

They might have misunderstood something: that doesn’t mean that what you did is rubbish, it just means that you didn’t communicate it as well as you hoped.

They might think something is missing: that doesn’t mean that what you did is rubbish, it just means that it’s not quite as complete as you hoped.

It’s unlikely your examiners will call something in your work rubbish. It’s certain that you have not produced a perfect thesis from perfect research – which means they might have questions or comments about the imperfections. This is natural.

If they say something is rubbish or that’s what you hear, you still get to engage with them – and you should. Ask why. Listen. Think. Respond.

And keep doing it.

Your examiners are not your biggest critics; it’s likely that you have taken on that role.

Jargon Caveat

I noticed recently that I used the word “caveat” two or three times during a workshop. It bothered me and on reflection I realised it was because I was assuming everyone in the room (typically a mix of people from all over the world) would know the meaning. They might get from context I was pointing out an exception to a point I had just made, but caveat is not a word used in everyday speech.

I’ve decided I’ll use it more sparingly from now on. “Exception” will do just fine.

Every academic discipline or field has jargon: the words which are part of the secret language of the area. Sometimes they’re a shorthand for clarity, but they only work if everyone understands the meaning. It’s not impossible to use jargon and misunderstand it yourself!

Be sure that you have a good grasp on the secret words of your field. Make sure your audience, examiners or otherwise, will understand you.

Make sure you know what the words mean.

Sometimes “I Don’t Know” Is The Only Answer

You might not want to say it.

You might be able to think and discuss to get somewhere.

Or you might engage with a question and say something but realise you can’t say everything.

Perhaps there is something you don’t know or can’t know. Maybe it is something no-one knows.

Sometimes it’s the only thing you can say.

Pause and think before you say it. Be certain. Say why you don’t know if you can.