Experienced

Your examiners have enough experience that they can read your thesis, understand it and know what they need to do in their role to give you and your work a fair examination.

It’s possible that your examiners might know more than you about your field. They might even be considered experts in topics related to your thesis.

If that’s the case, however you feel, remember that you have the experience of writing your thesis. You have the experience of doing the work. You have the experience of reading everything you needed to get this far. You have the experience of rising to all of the challenges you had so that you could get to submission.

Your examiners are experienced enough to do their part well. You are too.

The Wizards

I wasn’t a fan of The Wizard of Oz when I was a child.

At the time it had too many songs for my taste and not enough lightsabers or spaceships, but as I’ve got older I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more. Now I can see the work that must have been done at the time to make the film come together – the vision, the talent, and all at a time when movies were still working out how anything worked at all.

When Dorothy and her friends initially visit the Wizard they are in awe. He is a great floating head, the ground shakes when he speaks, fire roars up whenever he is angry. He is terrifying until it is revealed, by accident, that he is just a man. A clever individual, stood behind a curtain, controlling various machines to produce the effect of someone grand and powerful.

It’s worth remembering that for your viva, there are two Wizards present – at least, they may seem that way in your imaginings.

Either one of your examiners might seem mighty or intimidating. You could read their publications and wonder at how someone could do what they have done. Or you could feel small next to their experience and careers.

Pull back the curtain.

Your examiners are just people. Clever, talented people, but still human. Whatever their achievements they’re humans who know that something like the viva might be uncomfortable for some. They’ll be fair. They’ll treat you and your work with respect.

Of course, there’s a third Wizard in your viva – but you don’t need a curtain to hide behind. You don’t need tricks to magnify yourself.

Your talent is enough. Your knowledge is enough. You have done enough.

Questions Are Opportunities

The viva is a conversation driven by the questions your examiners ask. Every question is an opportunity.

  • An opportunity to explore your work.
  • An opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding.
  • An opportunity to add to what is in your thesis.
  • An opportunity to defend your choices.
  • An opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge or ability.

Every question is an opportunity for you to do something good for yourself.

Pause, think and respond as best you can.

Homework For Examiners

That’s your thesis.

Before the viva they have to read it, think about it, make notes, think some more, read papers and write reports and then think some more because that’s the job they’ve agreed to do. That’s the role of the examiner. They have to examine your thesis so they can then examine you in the viva.

Whether your feet are firmly planted in one discipline or you’re playing Twister between two or more, your examiners will do what they need to do so that they can examine you properly. You might have expertise that spans multiple areas; theirs might be more concentrated. Still, they will do the necessary work to do the viva well.

Examiners are never perfect. They’re professional. They’re prepared. But they might not know as much as you, or be familiar with all the terms and ideas that you use. So they do their homework. That might put them out of their knowledge comfort zone, but they still do their homework.

Expect them to be ready, whatever their background.

Expect that you will be too.

Disagree

In your research you might disagree with something: a position taken by another researcher, the results of a paper or conclusions of a thesis.

Your examiners might disagree with a method you use, the way you interpret something, or your opinion on a topic they raise.

You might disagree with your examiners on something they think, or the way they view something you’ve done or the way they approach research.

And all of this is fine.

It’s fine to disagree but the person disagreeing has to say why.

“I disagree,” is not enough. Say why.

You would have to do this in your thesis to present your research well. To be able to engage with your examiners and their disagreements with your work in the viva you need to know why. If they don’t say initially, it’s fair for you to ask.

Ask why they disagree, if they do, and use that information to see how you can engage.

Are they making a fair point? Are they missing something? Are they simply expressing an opinion or comment? Once you know why you can respond well.

What They Wrote, What They Do

It can be useful as part of viva prep to read your examiners’ recent publications. A little time invested exploring their recent work can help give a little perspective on their research interests, the questions, methods and topics they are focussed on or just tell you a little more about them.

You don’t need to read everything. You don’t need to include them in your thesis (unless of course there is a really good reason to). You don’t need to become an expert in what they do, because you’re an expert in what you do.

With the right framing, an hour or two of reading could give you a little boost for how you feel about engaging with your internal and external in the viva. What they wrote helps you to see what they do. What they do helps you to reflect on what might be coming up in your viva.

Scripted

There are a lot of questions that could be asked in a viva. There are lots of resources that share typical questions you could use to prepare for the viva. If you wanted, you could write down key points and perhaps try to memorise them. A mock viva could help you to get a sense of what the viva experience might be like too.

But none of them can give you a script to prepare for and follow.

Instead questions, if used well to prompt practice and discussion, can help you to stretch a little. Exercise your ability to respond to questions, to think on the spot, to dig into a topic and listen and reflect and talk. All of this can build your confidence for the viva much better than rehearsed lines for you to read out or recall.

You need rehearsal for the viva, but you don’t need a script.

Consider It Now

An examiner could gently challenge you on why you didn’t use a certain method. Or they might wonder what would happen if you did X instead of Y. What if you had tested for this instead of that, and so on.

It’s reasonable to expect that kind of a question in the viva. It’s not unreasonable to say, “I’ve not considered that before,” or perhaps, “I don’t know, I’ve not thought about that…”

…but it’s better to say, “Let me think about that now,” and then consider and give the best response that you can.

It might not be the full picture. It might not be an answer. It could be that you can’t say everything you might want to. But for any question or line of discussion that you’ve not considered before, you can consider it now.

Take the time. Show what you know, show what you can do. If an examiner has asked you a question, it’s not to trick you or trap you: they’re giving you an opportunity to demonstrate something.

Not considered it before? Consider it now, then talk.

Lockdown Limits

In the last few months I’ve been asked the following many times at webinars: is it acceptable to tell my examiners that “lockdown(s) slowed me down when I was doing my research” if I’ve had to change my plans or not been able to accomplish as much as I wanted?

And my response would be, “Of course!”

If over the last year or so your work has had to change direction, or if you’ve had to do less in some way, then it’s fair for you to emphasise that. We live in exceptional times – your PhD has been completed in exceptional circumstances.

It’s fair to tell your examiners about the challenges you’ve faced in your viva. Beforehand, consider how you can best communicate that. How personal do you want to be? What details do you want to share? How can you communicate the paths that you would have taken? And how do you share what steered your choice in the new directions you had to go?

Who Chooses Your Examiners?

Verbs matter. You don’t choose your examiners.

  • Your supervisors nominate potential examiners, and more often than not these nominations turn out to be your examiners.
  • Your supervisors nominate, but your faculty or graduate school have to approve the nominations.
  • The nominations are approved, but your examiners have to accept the requests and agree to examine your thesis.

Your examiners have to accept, after your institution has approved the nominations made by your supervisors.

Where do the ideas for these nominations come from? From the judgment of your supervisors. From the research in your thesis and the work you’ve done. From your suggestions – you are allowed to share your opinions on who would be good examiners with your supervisors. Consider your preferences, what criteria do you think a good examiner would have to satisfy? Then think about which academics you know of might meet those criteria and share your ideas with your supervisors.

Then you wait for the nomination, the approval, the acceptance – but you don’t choose your examiners.