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.

Linked

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.

Asking Your Examiners

The viva is not a question and answer session or a quiz. It’s a conversation. Your examiners will lead because this is a conversation with purpose, but there’s a place for you to ask questions too.

First, you can ask to clarify things in the flow of conversation. What did they mean? Could they explain? Can they tell you more so that you can consider something?

Second, you can ask their opinion. What did they think? What would they do? How might I do more with this or follow it up?

Both types of question are fine in the viva.

The first are simply necessary: you might simply need a little more from your examiners so that you can respond as best as possible.

The second are fine but come with the smallest of cautions. The viva is not a Q&A or a quiz, and it’s also not an interview. Candidates sometimes remember the interview advice of having one or two questions prepared to ask the “interviewers”.

But the viva is not an interview. By all means, have questions prepared but only ask if you want to know and only ask if the topic is something that you want to talk about.

You can ask for an opinion or advice, but do it carefully, with a topic that you’ve considered and want to explore more.

The Final Thing

What’s the final thing you need to do before submission?

What’s the final piece of information about your examiners that will help you feel better about them?

What’s the final thing you need to know about the viva?

What’s the final question you’ll have for your supervisor?

What’s the final task you’ll do as you prepare for your viva?

What’s the final thing you’ll do on the day to help you feel ready?

Getting started isn’t necessarily always easy, but sometimes it’s as simple as doing something. Finishing isn’t necessarily always hard, but sometimes it helps to know the final thing you might cross off your list.

Who Is At The Viva?

In the UK there have to be at least two examiners, one internal and one external. Both are important. It’s not true that the external has the final say or is senior to the internal. Both will have read your thesis. Both will be prepared. Together they will lead the discussion in the viva and together they will determine the outcome.

An independent chair could be part of the viva process: a member of staff who will observe and confirm that the viva was fair. Some universities always insist on a chair; others require them for certain situations. If there needs to be a chair then they will be there.

You might need your supervisor at your viva. It might feel appropriate to have them be a witness to a final step of your PhD journey. You might need them to make notes about what you discuss or you might need the help of having a supporter in the room.

Or you might need them to not be there: that’s fine too!

Finally, you need to be there. You need to be present, prepared and ready to engage.

Who is at the viva? In short, everyone who needs to be.

Prove It

In your viva you might be able to handwave some details.

To have time to explore the truly important aspects of your work you might want to skip past tricky things, or make a short point that captures something big. That’s acceptable to do. You can say, effectively, “Trust me. This is the way it is and we don’t need to explore or explain it too much.”

It’s acceptable, but it’s also acceptable for your examiners to say, “Prove it.”

You can use whatever words you want in the viva to explain something. Your examiners can always ask for more detail. While you can say things as simply as you want, you have to be prepared to explore the complex.

Unreasonable Corrections

After the viva most candidates will be told to complete corrections. For most, corrections will be simple things: amending spelling mistakes, making ambiguous sentences clearer, breaking up long and clunky paragraphs, and so on.

While no candidate wants to get corrections – however minor for the most part, they’re still more work – it’s rare that a candidate would be asked to complete unreasonable corrections. It’s rare that an examiner would ask for rewrites of chapters over a minor point or for a style change based solely on their preferences. Requests for more research have to come with real justification.

If a suggested correction strikes you as unreasonable:

  • Ask yourself why you think that.
  • Discuss it with your supervisor.
  • Decide if you need to appeal the request.

Everyone can make a mistake. You can make mistakes in your thesis. Examiners can sometimes make a mistake with a request. Nobody wants unreasonable corrections.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be asked to complete anything unreasonable, but if something seems wrong to you then know there are options.

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