Agreeing

The viva is a discussion. Questions are asked to prompt and probe; responses are given to move the conversation along. Your examiners ask questions and make comments to explore your research and your capability.

If your examiners disagree with you in the viva: ask them questions if needed, then listen and figure out what – if anything – you have to say in response.

And if your examiners agree with you in the viva, then the process is the same: ask them questions if needed, then listen and figure out what – if anything – you have to say in response.

It’s understandable why any candidate might worry about examiners disagreeing with them. It’s helpful to remember that disagreement does not mean failure. It’s helpful to remember that you can engage with critical questions and comments; that’s what you’re supposed to do as part of the viva.

It’s also helpful to remember that the vast majority of vivas are successful.

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.

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.

Tell Them

In my earliest academic days I was given the following advice for structuring a presentation: tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.

“Them” in this case was the audience. Over the years I’ve realised the heart of the good advice here: set expectations, share what you’re sharing and summarise at the end.

It is good advice generally.

In the viva you’re at the stage of telling your examiners what you told them in the thesis, more or less. You’ve set it out for them, they read it; now you have to summarise, clarify, expand and make sure they get what they need.

Of course, there are more ways you could tell them at the viva too.

You could tell them a story. You could tell them more. You could tell them what you left out. You could tell them what you didn’t get to do. You could tell them what you hope to do in the future. You could tell them what you plan to do next. You could tell them your opinion.

You could tell them lots of things, but remember that the viva is not a presentation, and it’s not the questions that come at the end. It’s a discussion. Prepare to tell your examiners lots of things, but prepare to be part of a conversation rather than someone simply answering questions.

My Examiner Criteria

A long time ago, my supervisor asked me to think about who could be a good external examiner for my PhD. He suggested initially that I go to conferences and look for people who did the same sort of work as me.

I did that and found no-one.

I decided to think about what I really wanted in an examiner. What would a good examiner look like to me?

First, they would have to have experience. I wanted my external to be someone who had been an academic for a long time. I wanted to know that they had had time to consider what made a good piece of research; they would have seen lots of things and have an idea of what “enough” looked like for a thesis!

Second, I wanted someone with a good reputation. I wanted it to be someone that other people spoke highly of. If my supervisor and others who I respected thought the person was good then chances are they were.

Finally, I wanted someone who was nice! I was fortunate to go to lots of conferences, but unfortunate to meet several academics who were rude. I met people who belittled postgraduate students. I met people who were critical to the point of being offensive.

If someone behaves that way in public, why would I want to be examined by them in private?

I was fortunate to meet some nice people though. I had a hunch they would be fair.

I combined all of these criteria – experience, reputation and niceness(!) – and came up with a shortlist. My criteria worked for me: my supervisor listened and my suggestions matched some of his.

If you’re asked to share ideas for possible examiners then I think my criteria are good – they may not be what matters most to you though.

Consider your criteria. Consider what you would value and why. Then explore names that come to mind. Talk with your supervisor and see what happens.

You can’t go too wrong by thinking about nice, decent people though.

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.

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