Being SMART About Examiners

Your examiners are an important part of your viva. Spend some of your viva preparation time exploring who they are and what they do. Check their recent publications to get a sense of their research but you don’t need to know everything. Setting a SMART objective to have a clear goal for your efforts is helpful so you don’t stress about needing to do more and more.

  • Specific: What are you trying to learn? What sources will you consider?
  • Measurable: How much work are you going to do? How will you know when you’re done?
  • Advantages: What will you gain by doing this? How are you hoping to feel?
  • Realistic: How many papers are you aiming to read? What makes you think that is enough?
  • Time-bound: What is your deadline? How far in advance of your viva would it be useful to have this task completed?

Just a little planning can make a tricky task manageable. Decide in advance how much prep is enough.

This Is More Of A Comment

Listen to any comments, especially in the viva.

There might be a question underneath.

The question might be in the comment. It could be a challenge, but that challenge might be a small thing that only needs a small response.

It could be the question comes from you. It could be you listen to your examiner’s comment, and you ask a question to bring that thought into the discussion more. You can find out more, get a sense of why this comment is important to your examiner. Then you’ll see what you need to do to say more.

Or you might listen and realise it’s just a comment.

An idea, nothing big, serious or scary. Just a thought, an “I wonder…”

Something to acknowledge, but nothing to do.

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.

Convinced

You might be.

Certain, no doubts, no wavering.

Or your examiner might be.

100%, thought about it, no alternatives.

When someone is convinced, the best thing you can do is ask why. Once you know the why, you know what you need to think about.

If you’re convinced of something, ask yourself why. Arrange your reasons, be sure they are correct and your thinking is sound.

If your examiner is convinced of their opinion, and thinks differently to you, ask them why. Listen to them generously, be sure you understand what they’re saying, then explore how your differing convictions meet.

One of you might be wrong.

Maybe both of you are wrong.

You won’t know until you ask.

What If They Don’t Get It?

A question born of worry: the fear not that your examiners won’t like something or agree with something, but simply that they won’t understand your research.

It’s unlikely your examiners would not understand your whole thesis, but possible that a detail or idea isn’t as clear as you think it is.

As with liking and agreeing, if there’s a problem of getting it then a good approach is to ask your examiners why. Ask why they don’t understand. Ask what the gap is. Ask where you lost them. The root “why?” invites more from your examiners. When you know what didn’t get across you’ll have an idea for what you might need to say.

Then speak. Engage, share, and help your examiners to see what you see in your research.

The Audience

An old and valuable piece of advice: when you prepare a presentation you should consider your audience. There’s a difference between a talk for your peers, and a talk for the layperson; a difference between a seminar for your supervisor and the main session at a conference.

This also applies with other parts of the PhD. Remember when writing your thesis and preparing for the viva, the audiences are not identical.

  • When writing your thesis, don’t write solely for your examiners.
  • When preparing for your viva, don’t just try to imagine what anyone might ask.

Reflect for yourself, “What can you do to best help your audience, both in your thesis and in your viva?”

The Culture Around Vivas

“People like us do things like this”

This phrase runs through my mind at least once per day. It’s Seth Godin‘s definition of culture, and I often bring it up when I tell people about the viva. It’s worth exploring to understand the process of the viva on the day, and to help you hone your expectations.

Vivas don’t just happen. There are regulations, but academics in your department have ideas about what a “good” viva might be. This is informed by practices of your department – the culture of your department. Maybe a “good” viva is two hours. Maybe it starts with certain questions. Maybe they like to explore certain topics. Maybe they proceed in a certain way. The definition of “good” will change over time, because the academics come to a shared idea of what a good viva is like.

People like your examiners do vivas like this.

And what does the phrase mean for you? You are talented, dedicated, you’ve done the work, you’re prepared…

People like you do things like passing the viva.

 

Postscript: I have a lot of things to be grateful to Seth Godin for since I first heard of him. Not least, he is the first person I heard of who shared a daily blog, with the goal of helping others and trying to be useful.

Two years ago today I started this little experiment by following his example. Over 700 posts later, I only wish I’d started sooner 🙂

Pedestals

It’s not uncommon to look at your examiners and feel overwhelmed.

They’ve read more. They’ve done more. They probably know more.

You’ve had a few years to learn how to do research and to write your thesis; they’ve had so much more time to get good.

Maybe you look at your examiners and strain your neck to see them on the pedestal you’ve made for them. How does that feel?

(probably not great)

It’s not unnatural to compare yourself to someone else, but it might be unhelpful. You can be aware of your examiners’ achievements, but it’s your choice to compare yourself to them. You don’t have to do that. You can choose to learn about their work and use that knowledge to help you prepare.

If you do make the comparison though, make sure it is fair. Yes, they probably know more about your field, have published more papers and will have questions you may have never considered before…

…but you wrote your thesis. They’ve only read it. Even if you’re in similar fields, they didn’t do YOUR work.

Compare total work in your field and they’ll always win: a more useful comparison is one that relates to how much more you necessarily know about your work than they do.

Seriously, how high is YOUR pedestal?

Ask For Their Opinion

Your examiners’ job is to examine you. (well, of course!)

But to do that they have to be experienced, they have to read your thesis carefully and they have to think a lot. While most of the questions in the viva will be aimed towards you, there’s no rule that says you can’t ask questions too.

So ask what they think. Ask what they would do next. Ask about publications and funding and monographs and anything else that you really want to talk about and get help with.

The first step is to think about what questions you would like to ask if you had the chance. Prioritise them and write them down on an index card for the viva.

The prompt can prompt you. (well, of course!)

It’s useful just in case you get so involved in answering the examiners’ questions in the viva that you forget there were things you wanted to ask too.