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?

Slicing Carefully

Don’t attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity.

According to The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts – a book I mentioned a month ago on the blog and which is still echoing around my brain – this little line above is Hanlon’s Razor.

I wonder if stupidity is a little tough, maybe we could say carelessness? Oversight? A slip?

For the viva and viva prep it’s very easy to see something wrong and see (incorrectly) bad intentions behind it. Try not to. Instead of seeing negativity in your past actions, acknowledge that you could have made mistakes, or your supervisor could, or your examiners could be now. Not out of malice, just out of error.

Pause to appreciate motivations and intentions by all concerned in the viva – and definitely don’t call anyone stupid…

Bubbles

You’re in a bubble of research.

There’s a clear sphere around the space you occupy that lets others look in, see what’s there. As with a lot of bubbles, there could be some distortion – from how you present it, from how they perceive it – but any sufficiently knowledgeable person can see in.

Like, say, your examiners.

Who are also in bubbles. Their bubbles might be bigger, they could be far away from yours – showing the distance between what you do and what they do – but they have them. And they’re reasonably clear bubbles like yours, open to inspection.

It’s essential you take a look before the viva. Read their recent publications. Check out their research interests to get a sense of what they do and how they might see things. Perfection and expertise are not essential: you just need to be aware.

In the viva your bubbles might collide, but not destructively. They’ll come into contact, and perhaps you can get a greater sense of how they see things. You may get idea for what you could do to improve your thesis, or look into in the future.

Bubbles don’t tend to burst in the viva – thankfully that’s where the metaphor falls apart!

Viva Prep Basics

In my Viva Survivor sessions I cover a lot of different topics, including a good half an hour on practical steps to take between submission and the viva.

Here’s the 1-minute version!

  • Read Your Thesis. No excuses, don’t skim, read it once, refresh your memory. When do you need to start this?
  • Annotate Your Thesis. Highlight, bookmarks, margins. What can you add to upgrade your thesis for the viva?
  • Create Summaries. Take a step back, reflect, then capture something about your work. What questions or topics need your focus?
  • Check Recent Literature. Take a little time to see what has been published recently. Where would you check?
  • Research Your Examiners. Explore their recent publications and interests. How big a task is this for you?
  • Find Opportunities To Rehearse. Mock vivas, conversations with friends and seminars can all help. Who do you need to ask for help?

Spend a little time on all of these areas and you’ll do a lot to help get ready for your viva.

Your First Choice

As you get closer to submission and the end of your PhD, it’s worth exploring possible examiners.

Who would be your number one pick for your external examiner? Why? What do they have that others don’t?

How about for your internal? Who in your department would be your top choice? Why?

You could suggest these people to your supervisor, and they might agree or not. It’s probably useful to have a couple of names in mind in case people are busy, and again, they might agree or not. Your first choice might be your examiners or not, but it doesn’t hurt to think about this at all.

  • If they are your examiners, then you’ve done work already for your viva prep. You’re one step closer to being ready.
  • If they’re not, then you’ve had the chance to practise exploring someone and their work. Now you can build on that for your viva preparations.

Nothing is wasted. It all helps. Your first choice might be the your examiner, or they could help you all the same if they’re not.

3 Questions To Ask Your Supervisors Before Submission

Viva preparation starts after submission, but the right questions – asked in advance – can help you submit well and set up your success in your preparation and viva. Before submission, ask your supervisors the following and build on these in discussion:

  1. Who do they think would be good examiners and why? Many supervisors invite opinions from students; final decisions rest with supervisors. You could offer ideas, but understanding the criteria they are using (or the names they are choosing) can give you confidence for the process and useful information.
  2. In advance of submission, what constructive feedback can they offer of your thesis? Make the most of this. Use their thoughts to help how you communicate your research.
  3. What are some of the trickiest areas they see candidates struggling with in the viva? Generally, what questions or topics do they see problems with? Or what are topics that they see as perfectly natural to talk about, but which candidates might not prepare for?

These questions will not paint the whole picture for your thesis, your preparation or the viva. They will be a good start. You can trust that your supervisors want you to pass, and want to give you appropriate assistance.

Use these discussions to help your submission and state of mind as you head towards the viva.