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.

Vivas & Job Interviews

It’s understandable to think of the viva as being “like a job interview”…

  • You dress a little smarter than the everyday probably.
  • You expect to be challenged by the questions you’ll be asked.
  • As much as you prepare, you know you can’t anticipate everything.
  • Like job interviews, it helps to treat a viva as something serious.

The success rate for a candidate is much higher in a viva though – because you’re not competing with anyone else. You’re trying to demonstrate what you’ve achieved and what you’re capable of, but not to be better than someone else.

It’s understandable to think of the viva as being like a job interview but there are better mindsets and better reflections to make of the viva. Understand what the viva is like, understand what it’s for, understand what you need to be and do.

When it comes to passing your viva, you’re the right person for the job.

Candidate or Thesis

A fairly common question about the viva, asked by someone who has to pass one in their near future, is whether or not it’s an exam of the candidate or their thesis.

“Is it me or my book?” – and the answer is both.

  • The candidate is being examined to see if they are a capable researcher; have they done enough? Do they know enough?
  • The thesis is being examined to see if it has what it needs; does it meet expectations? Does it have everything that a thesis in that field is supposed to have?

The candidate wrote the thesis, but on the day both have to be good.

Both typically are.

Examiners Want To Be There

Why else are these busy academics at your viva?

They have their own research, their own researchers, teaching, marking, admin, responsibilities and a life.

They’re not paid vast sums of money to be an examiner. They’re not simply a friend of your supervisor doing a favour.

It might be expected professionally to take on the role of examiner sometimes; they don’t have to do it for you and your viva.

They don’t have to be there. They get to be there.

They want to be there.

Key Examiner Expectations

Expect your examiners to be professional.

In the same way that a candidate can be expected to get ready for the viva, expect that your examiners will do what they need to be ready to examine you.

If they’re a relatively new academic then they will receive training to be an examiner. They’ll rely on their colleagues to help them explore the role. If they’re a little disconnected from your area or topic of research, they will do their homework in advance of the viva.

An examiner might not know everything about your field before they read your thesis, but they will learn enough to be a good examiner for you. If they’re busy they will make the time. If they’re uncertain, they will dig deeper.

If they’ve said yes to being your examiner then you can expect they will be working to do the job well.

Familiar Faces

There are many qualities you might look for in examiners – their expertise, their reputation, their experience – but simply knowing that they are a real person (not just a name on a journal article) can be comforting when it comes to your viva.

If you can, try to make sure that your examiners are familiar to you. Aim for your internal to be someone you know from your department. Suggest that your external be someone you know from conferences.

The absence of strangers could help your viva feel less strange.

“That’s Interesting”

Two words, spoken by my internal examiner, as we approached the end of my viva.

Two words that came after he had summarised my final chapter.

Two words that followed a summary of “In Chapter 7 you detail your failure at solving a problem.”

“That’s interesting.”

Two words that seemed as if they were followed by a yawning void of time as I tried to understand what he meant.

Two words that I realised were not, in fact, a question.

Two words that were a simple comment, an observation.

Two words that I responded to by saying why I had felt it important to include preliminary results, why it still might help someone.

Two words from him, two minutes of talking from me and then a simple response of “OK” afterwards.

 

Two words or two sentences or two minutes of talking from either of your two examiners could make your heart skip a beat as you wonder what was meant and ponder what to say.

Take a breath, think, try to understand. What do they mean? Then respond.

Sometimes a simple comment is simply a comment: you don’t need to say much in response at all.

SMART About Examiners

Your examiners are important elements of your viva. Whoever they are, however much influence you have over their selection, it’s worth spending a little of your viva preparation time exploring what they do. Build your confidence for the viva by knowing who is coming.

As with any task, potentially this could become all-consuming, particularly if there’s stress and worry bound up in thinking about them. Fortunately, we have our old acronym friend SMARTSpecific, Measurable, Advantages, Realistic, Time-bound – to help shape the task at hand.

  • Specific: What are you looking to find out? (general interests, specific details)
  • Measurable: How will you measure when you’re done? (reading three papers, writing a page of notes)
  • Advantages: Why is this going to help you? (better informed, more confident)
  • Realistic: Do you have the right resources to help you do this task? (access to literature, supervisor to talk to)
  • Time-bound: How much time are you going to spend? (a number of hours, a deadline place)

The five prompts from SMART can help shape any project or task into something achievable, rather than an overwhelming to-do list. Use it to help frame your preparations for the viva.

1 2 3 11