Familiar Faces

There are many qualities you might look for in examiners – their expertise, their reputation, their experience – but simply knowing that they are a real person (not just a name on a journal article) can be comforting when it comes to your viva.

If you can, try to make sure that your examiners are familiar to you. Aim for your internal to be someone you know from your department. Suggest that your external be someone you know from conferences.

The absence of strangers could help your viva feel less strange.

Together In The Viva

The viva is you and your examiners; the viva isn’t you versus them.

You don’t have to challenge all their questions. They don’t have to bring you and your work down.

It’s not combat. It’s not a trial. It’s not an ordeal. You don’t have to prove that you’re better than them somehow.

It’s you AND them creating your viva.

Instead of worrying about what you have to do “to win” – make sure you’re ready to share your best self and best stuff. Make sure you know what you need to about the process and your examiners to help the viva be as good as it can be.

Internal & External

There are differences between your examiners, but it might be more useful to focus on what they have in common than what separates them. They’re both academics, both experienced, both prepared.

They’ve both read your thesis, both thought about your viva in advance. Now they’re ready to ask questions, steer discussions and listen to what you have to say.

You can’t know everything they will ask, say or do in advance. Instead, use a little time to look at who they are and what they’ve done. Get a sense of what might motivate their questions and their approach to your viva.

How To Answer Difficult Questions

In some cases, you won’t be able to.

The viva is not a question and answer session or a quiz. Some questions won’t have memorisable facts that you can serve up to your examiners; instead, you will have to offer another contribution, a response – a detail, an opinion, an argument, a feeling, a hunch, a question – in order to keep the discussion moving forward.

Your response may not be the entirety of everything you want to say. It may be that you have to pause and reflect first, make notes, stand up and draw something, or ask for clarification.

You may not be able to answer a question, but after a little thought you will always be able to respond.

If the question is difficult, then you owe it to yourself to think a little more, pause a little longer, take a little more care, even ask for a little more, so that you can respond as best as you possibly can. That response could be an answer (truth, or an argument with a lot of evidence), but it could be something else that is just as much what your examiners could be looking for.

Every question, not just the difficult ones, deserves a little time, a little space, a little thought in order for you to give your best response.

Three Nervous People

In your viva, you don’t necessarily have a monopoly on recognising that it isn’t a typical day.

You: I did this work, but it’s important and I want this to go well, and I wonder what they’ll ask me first…

Your Internal Examiner: have I forgot anything? I hope I’ve made a note of everything, I do so want this to go well…

Your External Examiner: I hope the candidate isn’t too nervous, they’ve nothing to worry about, I really want this to go well for them…

Some vivas have independent chairs too. Some candidates invite a supervisor to observe. But all vivas have at least three talented, hard-working, prepared people in them. People who could all be a little nervous at the start about this exam that they want to go well.

Casting Your Examiners

Finding your ideal examiners is, I think, like seeing someone who is perfect in a play. Someone with exactly the right qualities for the part.

You might have a highly specific list of requirements for your examiners. You might know exactly who you want them to be:

  • An expert?
  • Someone you’ve referenced?
  • Someone new to academia?
  • Someone experienced?
  • A famous name?
  • A professor?
  • Someone who could write you a reference in the future?

You could want some of these features or none, and you could be really certain on who you want…

…and not got them.

Your dream team might not be available. Or one of your examiners might pass. And your supervisor could have a different idea to you.

For most candidates there will be the option to suggest names or ideas, but your supervisor makes the decision. They will be the one to nominate, and after that potential examiners get to decide.

Yes, it’s useful to share ideas and propose names, but given that the choice is far out of your hands, it’s not worth investing all your energy into casting the perfect people to join you in the one-act semi-improvised play that is your viva.

After your examiners are chosen you can learn more about them if needed. Explore who they are and find useful ways to direct your preparation; but before submission, before selection, the most you can do is share a few ideas, have a conversation, then step back and focus on other things (like your thesis).

Most candidates won’t find their dream examiners. The viva will still work out fine.

The show must go on.

Know The Aims

Vivas don’t just happen as some kind of almost-full-stop on the PhD. They’re done for a reason. There are aims of the process. Find out what they are – this isn’t a great secret, explore around on this blog and you’ll find lots of discussion on the topic!

Examiners have aims with their research: topics they’re interested in, questions they want answers to. While the viva is about you and your work, your examiners bring their agendas and ideas. Find out their aims by looking at their recent work. See how that might connect (or not) with your work. Explore how that might impact your viva.

And remember your aims: you had them. Maybe they changed, perhaps in some cases they were unfulfilled, but you had them. What started you off on the process and where did it lead you? How important are those aims for the conclusions of your thesis?

And how could you communicate that if asked in the viva?

And So On

A question in the viva cannot prompt you to talk in minute detail about the sum of three or more years of work. Every response for every question that you are asked will take up a few hours at most.

A response could be short because that’s what it needs to be. It could leave details out because they aren’t as important as what you keep in. It could be incomplete because the complete details would take too long, or you don’t have them, or for some other reason.

A response may or may not be an answer to the question. It may or may not move the conversation in the direction you or your examiners want. It may be that you have to stop before you really want to, or just give an indication of what you mean, rather than the full picture.

Remember: you can always pause and think, and your examiners can always ask for more if they need it.

Explaining Absences

If you had to pause your PhD – for medical reasons, for personal reasons, for pandemic-related reasons – then you can absolutely explain that to your examiners. I think it should be enough to say, “Oh, it was disrupted for personal reasons,” and you’re done. A PhD is important, the viva is important, but the work that goes into them shouldn’t be put on such a pedestal that day-to-day human life is overshadowed by them so completely. But you can say more if you want to.

Most of the time, when someone asks me about anything to do with the viva, my first thought is to direct them to think, “Why?” But absence, whatever the reason, was probably quite personal. I don’t think your examiners need to know “Why?” – so perhaps think “How?” instead.

Think concretely and clearly about the impact that the absence had. Did it pause things? There was a gap and then you had to start again. Did you have to change your plans? Explore the differences brought about by the delay. Did you have to leave things out? List what didn’t make it into your thesis.

For absences, reflect on how it had an impact over why it happened.

Discuss, Explain, Demonstrate

Examiners have three important things to do in your viva:

  • Explore your significant, original contribution;
  • Unpick the hows and whys of your research;
  • Examine your competence as a researcher.

They ask questions to motivate discussion. If they’re satisfied by your thesis and the discussion then you are awarded your PhD.

You have to assume at submission that your thesis is good enough. Then, in the viva, the three important things your examiners have to do prompt three important challenges for you. You have to…

  • …discuss your significant, original contribution;
  • …explain the hows and whys of your research;
  • …demonstrate your competence as a researcher.

Discuss, explain, demonstrate – the three core verbs to have in mind for your viva.

What could you do to better prepare yourself to discuss your contribution?

How well can you explain how and why you did your research?

And how can you demonstrate your competence – your talent – as a researcher?