Discuss Your Research

Viva prep necessarily involves reading your thesis, making notes and checking things out. For all the help this work brings, it doesn’t match the mode of work you’ll be engaged in at the viva.

In the viva you have to talk. More than that, you have to listen, think and respond to questions. You have to discuss what you’ve done for the last few years, what that means, what you know and what you can do.

So practise. Before the viva, discuss your research in any forum or format that you can find to help you. A mock viva can help. Coffee with friends can help. Giving a seminar and taking questions can help. Use all the opportunities you have or make some more to help you rehearse and help you be ready.

Then go to your viva and have one more discussion about the good work you’ve done.

Things The Viva Isn’t

It’s not a quiz.

You need to know a lot, of course, but you’re not expected to have rapid recall or a photographic memory of your research and your thesis.

It’s not an interview.

You might choose to dress smart, but you’ve not applied for a position. The focus and purpose of the viva are radically different.

It’s not a game.

The people involved have roles but aren’t players. There are rules to be followed but there aren’t moves to make or best strategies to employ.

It’s not a question and answer session.

There are going to be lots of questions but the structure and flow is not simply question and answer, question and answer.

 

The viva is an exam.

The viva is a discussion.

The viva is a challenge, but one you can prepare for.

The viva is one more day to demonstrate your capability as a researcher.

Your Turn To Speak

The viva is a conversation between you and your examiners. They use questions to facilitate a discussion about you, your research and your thesis. They’re looking for you to demonstrate your capability as a researcher and the contribution in your thesis.

So, when it’s your turn to speak:

  • Pause.
  • Make sure you understand the question.
  • Know that not every question has an “answer”.
  • If the first thought in your mind is “I don’t know,” then pause and think again.
  • Take your time when speaking, there’s no rush.
  • Use diagrams or sketches to help share your points, if appropriate.

And remember to actually respond to the question!

Tell Them

In my earliest academic days I was given the following advice for structuring a presentation: tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.

“Them” in this case was the audience. Over the years I’ve realised the heart of the good advice here: set expectations, share what you’re sharing and summarise at the end.

It is good advice generally.

In the viva you’re at the stage of telling your examiners what you told them in the thesis, more or less. You’ve set it out for them, they read it; now you have to summarise, clarify, expand and make sure they get what they need.

Of course, there are more ways you could tell them at the viva too.

You could tell them a story. You could tell them more. You could tell them what you left out. You could tell them what you didn’t get to do. You could tell them what you hope to do in the future. You could tell them what you plan to do next. You could tell them your opinion.

You could tell them lots of things, but remember that the viva is not a presentation, and it’s not the questions that come at the end. It’s a discussion. Prepare to tell your examiners lots of things, but prepare to be part of a conversation rather than someone simply answering questions.

Yes, And

One of the main principles of improvisational comedy is “yes, and…

There’s no script in improv. If you’re on stage and someone says something, you agree with them and build on what they have said. If someone remarks about the (imaginary) hat that you’re wearing you accept the idea they have introduced and build on it.

How remarkable, I’ve never seen a hat like that before!

Yes, it was my grandfather’s he made it himself-

-he sewed a great mass of tentacles on to the brim?

Yes, and it’s very comfortable, would you like to try it on?

Scene! (that’s quite enough of that!!)

 

While the viva might not be a time for laughing and joking, the principle of “yes, and” – of accepting and building on what has come before – is definitely part of the discussion you’re going to have.

Your examiners will ask questions and your job is to engage. You say yes to the question and then build on the discussion with your words.

It’s not about saying yes to every comment, or agreeing with every point: you say yes rather than try to divert. You say yes and engage rather than try to evade the topic or displace it with something you’d rather talk about.

In the viva your main responsibility is to engage with whatever questions your examiners ask. Say yes to their questions and then share your thoughts to give them what they need to help you pass.

Tested By The Viva?

“Test” doesn’t seem big enough to think about the way you have to engage in the viva.

A test feels like a little thing, a one-time intervention where you are measured, checked and analysed. That’s not the viva. Maybe we could consider the viva being like a car’s MOT: a check that you are researcher-ready. You have everything in place and are ready to run as a researcher, if you wanted to, but still that wouldn’t feel quite right.

Better to say you’re examined in the viva. You’re challenged by the viva. You defend your work in the viva.

But it’s not enough to say that you’re simply tested by it. The viva is not so great and big as to be the most important thing you will ever do, but it’s not so small as to be simply a test.

Questions, Not A Quiz

Your examiners aren’t there to fire questions at you and expect an answer in ten seconds or less.

They don’t have a big list of true or false statements for you to correctly identify.

And they won’t be grilling you on every single reference you listed.

The viva is a discussion. Your examiners have prepared questions to guide the process. Some are to steer the conversation, others are to check details in your thesis; some are sparked by their personal interests, and some questions might be to satisfy ideas of what is “correct” in your discipline.

But they’re not rapid-fire, all-or-nothing, earning points or against the clock.

The viva has questions but it’s not a quiz.

You’re a candidate, not a contestant.

Emerging Discussions

It’s possible to overthink about viva questions. Yes, you need to prepare for them; no, you can’t prepare for every question or anticipate everything that might come up.

Your examiners might not know which direction the conversation will flow either. They have questions, but not a script; they can’t see all possible twists and turns that you might take together.

The discussions will emerge from the questions they ask, and you can’t know them in advance…

…well, not exactly.

Their questions are a response to what you’ve set out in your thesis. This is the end point of the questions you’ve been asking yourself all through your PhD. So a good starting point to be ready for the emerging discussions in your viva is to return to your original questions.

Reflect on those, then think about how you might approach the viva’s questions.

How Many Questions?

I was recently asked how many questions a candidate might get in the viva. What is the range like? wondered the nervous PhD. Was there a minimum or maximum number?

I tried to apply some logic to come up with some numbers, but gave up – the question is a red herring. Examiners will have a lot of questions in mind, some driven by your field, some by their interests, some by your thesis. They’ll have questions that you can expect, and some that you can’t. They’ll ask questions that they didn’t know to ask until you said something interesting in the viva too.

I don’t know how many questions will come up in advance of your viva: we could only know that after the fact.

If you’ve read this blog before then you’ll know I have ideas about how you can prepare for questions though. Do a good piece of research, write a good thesis and spend some practising answering unexpected questions to build your confidence.