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.

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.