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.

Examiners Have Good Intentions

Your examiners are not coming to your viva intending to crush your dreams. They don’t want to tear your work apart. They aren’t simply trying to find fault. They won’t give you corrections for the sake of it.

They might find mistakes, they might disagree, but they’re not there to ruin you. They’re not there to be mean.

Instead, they read, they look, they explore; they try to understand and ask questions to do so.

Examiners examine.

On Wishlists

Wishlists for presents and wishlists for the viva are two very different things.

For presents you’re telling others, “If you can, if you want to, can you please get me this?”

For the viva you’re saying, not asking, “These are the things I really want when I meet my examiners.”

Really, the best person to help you get what you want from your viva wishlist is you. If there’s things you want or feel you need then you have to work to make them a reality. If there’s no way of making it certain then you have to act to get more comfortable with the uncertainty present in the situation.

You might also have to recognise when an item on your viva wishlist, like a present wishlist, is just not going to happen. Some wishlist items are a shot-in-the-dark, maybe-just-maybe…

…but they’re probably more of a distraction than anything. Work to remove these items from your viva wishlist. Focus on what you can achieve, not just what you wish for.

Status

Your examiners have a high status in the viva for several reasons. They have titles. They have experience. They have roles in the viva (and before it) that gives them authority.

You have a high status in the viva for several reasons. You have worked to be there. You have deep experience that has put you in the room. The viva wouldn’t be happening at all if you weren’t there.

Status doesn’t have to signify conflict though. Status in the viva is just a consequence of recognising that everyone in the room has an important role to play.

Thick-skinned About Your Thesis?

You have to expect your examiners might have criticisms. You can also expect they will be fair in the way they communicate them to you.

You don’t need to be particularly thick-skinned to take any critical comments – but you need to expect your examiners might have comments and corrections for you.

Perfection isn’t realistic, but neither is a totally critical appraisal of your research.

Interesting Reasons

There are plenty of interesting reasons why Dr X or Professor Y might be good examiners:

  • They’re experts in your general area;
  • You’ve cited them a lot;
  • You’re hoping to build your network a little.

You don’t get to choose directly. Most candidates can at least have a conversation with their supervisors about who they think would be a good choice. Think through what you might look for, and see how that conversation goes.

There are also interesting reasons why Dr X or Professor Y might not be acceptable as examiners:

  • Maybe you’ve had lots of conversations with them about your PhD work;
  • Maybe you’ve had correspondence about working with them on a future project;
  • Maybe they’re part of a collaboration with your supervisor.

Depending on the rules of your institution, these possible conflicts of interest might disqualify them from even being considered. If you’re concerned at all then it is worth checking.

The first list comes down to preference: the kind of examiners you want depends greatly on what qualities you see as being valuable.

The second list comes down to policy: some people won’t be acceptable because of how you’re connected to them.

You should definitely think about the first list in advance of your viva; in some cases the second list will be just as valuable to narrow down options.

“They’re Better!”

There’s a common worry among PhD candidates that examiners see all and know all. They have understood your thesis perfectly even before they’ve finished reading it. They can find the problems that you didn’t even notice. Their opinion is what counts.

A favourite analogy that helps me tell others about viva prep is to think of their thesis as a star, and think of their examiners’ work like constellations. Your examiners know more not because they are innately better than you, but only because they have had longer to do their work than you.

Keep things in perspective. They have experience; you have expertise.

Perfect Examiners

Like the perfect thesis and the perfect viva, perfect examiners don’t exist.

You can make a list of things that might be ideal (an expert, an experienced academic) or preferable (someone who is nice, someone who could be a good reference), but they’ll never be perfect.

Steer their selection in conversation with your supervisor. Find out what you need to know about their work. Get ready to talk with some experienced academics about your PhD work.

They’ll be good, maybe great, but don’t put them on too high a pedestal.

Examiners Are Not The Enemy Either

They’re not out to get you, with malicious ideas and opinions. You’re not locked in their sights, and they’re not on a mission to make the viva uncomfortable, unenjoyable and un-passable.

They have to do their job. They have to examine your thesis and you. They have to be experienced and knowledgeable, they have to be prepared for the viva. That can sound intimidating, but all of these are good things.

Remember that you’re the expert in your thesis. Your examiners might have more general experience than you, but no-one else in the world has as much experience with your work as you do.

Your examiners are not faceless and unknown. See what you can learn about them and their work. Explore what you can find that will help you feel confident meeting them to discuss your research.