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.

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!

Do Chapters Get Equal Focus?

Yes and no.

Every chapter in your thesis will be read by your examiners. Everything will be considered.

In reading it though, examiners may find things they particularly want to focus on in their thinking and then in the viva. There may be elements they need to spend more time on. You may have chapters about difficult, tangled-up topics. You could have results that rebut long-held beliefs. Some chapters might just mean more to your discipline, to the thesis or to you.

Yes, all your chapters will be considerd, but in the viva some may have more time spent on them than others.

And that’s OK!

A Spectrum of Experience

I have complicated feelings about my viva. It was fine, it went well, but it wasn’t totally enjoyable for me; that has nothing to do with my examiners.

It was “bad” that I didn’t sleep well the night before. I got about three hours sleep; I had some nerves and adrenaline going in but a great background tiredness.

And then my viva was four hours long.

I started it tired.

I ended it exhausted.

And everything else about my viva was good: not good by comparison, but good!

My examiners were fair with their questions. They had clearly prepared. They had opinions, but asked me to contribute rather than just pass a decision. They didn’t like how two of my chapters were written, but discussed them with me rather than simply give me corrections.

My viva was four hours long, and I was shattered by the end, but in many ways it felt like it was over much too quickly. It was an anticlimax, as was the end of my PhD. I don’t think that’s universal, but I know I’m not unique in thinking that. After all, a viva is only part of one day: pressured, important, full of the good and maybe a little “bad” – but still only a few hours compared to more than a thousand days you might spend pursuing a PhD.

If your viva is in the future, ask others about theirs: ask for the good and the bad, and look for the balance that might help set your own expectations. If your viva is in the past, tell others: share the details that make up the picture. How did you feel? Why was that?

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.

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