Presenting To Start

If they’ve read my thesis, why would my examiners need a presentation from me to start my viva?

This was one of the last questions I was asked at a webinar before I started my summer break.

There are many possible reasons that particular examiners would ask:

  • They want an overview to begin the viva process.
  • They want to see what the candidate really things is important – where do they put the focus?
  • They think that a presentation is a good way to begin the viva.
  • They think that a presentation could help the candidate to be less nervous at the start.

If examiners ask for a presentation it’s for a good reason. You might not know exactly what the reason is for them, but you can be certain that it’s good for you – even if it involves a little preparation on your part.

Details Matter

Details matter in the viva but you don’t need to have perfect recall of everything you’ve ever read, done or written.

Details matter but you can take your time to think about how to explain them.

Details matter but you have lots of time to focus in advance of the viva on the details that matter more.

Details matter but your examiners want more than the facts.

Details matter but you need to be able to talk about them, not simply know them.

Describe The Ideal

How would you describe an ideal examiner for your viva?

Think about the qualities or attributes that they might have. Describe their research.

There might not be an individual you know of who meets these criteria. It may be close though: someone who satisfies three or four out of five points you might write down.

Now, what could you do to share this idea with your supervisor? You can’t choose your examiners, you can’t find perfection, but can you find someone close to the ideal you have in mind?

Examiner Selection

You don’t get to choose your examiners. You might be asked for your opinion but ultimately, your supervisors will decide. They have the responsibility of nominating the two people who will examiner your thesis and convene your viva.

You don’t get to choose – but you might be able to steer the selection. You can put names forward, and it’s worth doing so. If your supervisors already have a good idea then ask them to share that with you. Ask them to explain why these choices are good ones for you; not to dissuade them but to build your confidence that they are the best choices for your viva.

You don’t get to choose. When your examiners are selected you can always find out more about them. You can be certain they are good candidates – in the same way that you are a good candidate. You can learn about them to get a sense of their perspective.

You don’t get to choose but that doesn’t have a big impact on how ready you will be to talk with them on viva day.

You Don’t Choose

You don’t get to choose your examiners.

You might be able to offer suggestions and discuss who they could be, but you don’t get to choose the best examiners for you; you can’t veto anyone that you don’t want either!

If your supervisor has a firm idea on who would be good then talk it through with them. Listen to their reasoning to feel confident about who they nominate.

You don’t choose your examiners – but as you prepare for your viva they won’t be total unknowns either. There will be lots you can learn so you feel good about the people you’ll be talking to on your viva day.

Who Is It For?

Your thesis is not written for your examiners. You have to write it for your PhD and your examiners have to read it to examine you. It’s not written for them – the goal is to make a contribution to knowledge.

You don’t learn about viva expectations so you have a template you’re trying to complete. You’re learning more so that you can prepare well. You’re not trying to meet some ideal for your examiners.

Your prep is not done for your examiners. It’s for you. You want to be at your best, ready, refreshed, feeling confident – but that’s not for them. You want to to feel ready for you.

Remember to keep the focus where it needs to be for the viva.

Disagreement Is Not Disaster

If one of your examiners doesn’t agree with some aspect of your work that doesn’t automatically mean you fail. It doesn’t mean the outcome of the viva jumps to major corrections. And it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.

It means that they disagree. They could disagree with a question, an idea, a method that you’ve used, a position that you hold or a conclusion that you’ve reached. It means that you’ll need to talk about it – but you have to talk and discuss your work in the viva whatever topic comes up.

Disagreement does mean you need to listen extra carefully. Ask questions to be certain of what your examiner disagrees with. Respond appropriately. It’s not the end of the world or the end of the viva. Disagreement shows a different perspective in some way. Sometimes you just have to listen and take note.


As preparation for the viva read three recent papers by your internal examiner. Read three recent papers by your external examiner.

Look for links between your work and their work. Look for connections between your interests, methods and the kinds of questions you ask.

When you find connections you find ideas that are worth thinking about so you can explore them well in the viva. If you discover that your work is not closely connected then you can think before the viva about how you can share your ideas effectively.

Knowing about the links between your work helps. Knowing if the links aren’t there helps too.

You have to look for the links.

Professional Interests

One of the things I love about the kind of work I do is that after twelve years helping people with their viva I still get delightfully-phrased questions I’ve never been asked before. I was recently asked about examiner motivations from a very particular perspective:

Do examiners get paid? Or do they take on their role as a kind of philanthropic act?

The short response to these questions is “some do” and “no”! So we need to dig a little deeper.

External examiners are often paid: they can receive a thank-you payment for their work. Your external will be offered a flat fee for examining and expenses, but it won’t be a lot for the amount of work that has to be done. It really is a gesture, a token of thanks.

If your internal says yes then it is just part of their job.

Acting as an examiner is not motivated by money really. It’s not philanthropy either: they aren’t simply doing it out of kindness. In part, they take on the role because there’s a professional expectation that they will examine from time to time.

The real motivation for them to say yes is you and your work.

Examiners are not chosen at random. They are not asked because they happen to be good friends with your supervisor. And they don’t say yes because it’s simply something to do. They say yes because when they are asked they are told a little of what you’ve done; perhaps your abstract is shared with them. If they have time in their schedule and your research sounds interesting then they say yes.

It’s not about the money. It’s not about philanthropy.

It’s about being a professional and being interested – two qualities that they share with you.

Thank Your Examiners

During a recent webinar I was asked if it was appropriate to send a thank you note to examiners after the viva. There must have been a strange mood in the postgraduate researcher hive mind because the next day someone asked if they should get gifts for their examiners.

While giving gifts is a nice thought it’s not appropriate to give them to examiners – particularly before the viva!

A thank you note or message after the viva could be a nice gesture though. A chance to say thank you, to ask any follow-up questions that you forgot or to ask about keeping in touch if that aligns with your future work goals.

If a thank you note, card or email doesn’t feel right to you though then still take a brief moment on the day to thank your examiners. Thank them for their time, for their questions and for being part of your viva.

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