Solve The Right Problem

Early last year, I was sharing my Viva Survivor session to a dozen people in large room. It was a cold day outside but a warm room thanks to the heating. The session got off to a good start after introductions and sharing the outline, and I was moving on to the first topic.

I’d not been talking for long, when a tremendous noise started up from the windows at the far side of the room. Really loud, regular banging, like construction workers fixing scaffolding. After a minute we all realised it couldn’t be that, it was going on for too long. So we looked around outside for the cause of this terrible banging but couldn’t see anything. With nothing in sight and nothing to do we just tried to ignore it.

I presented for another hour before our break. The noise was still going. My voice was hoarse and all our ears were aching.

So I went to check and couldn’t see anything again. And it was only then that I realised that the noise sounded like it was coming from outside…

…but was actually coming from near the windows. From the radiator. A regular banging noise was vibrating outwards from the radiator, shaking the metal window frames.

And was silenced by turning a valve on the base of the radiator’s pipework. The room laughed and cheered! Then we all groaned as we saw how simple the solution had been; we could only have resolved it when we knew the real problem.

Keep this in mind for your viva: if your examiners have a criticism, or think there is a problem, make sure you know what it is before you start to respond. Ask questions to get more information or to find out their reasons. Sometimes you might know what to do. But other times you might need a little more to then simply turn the valve off at the base of their concerns.

The viva isn’t a one-way Q&A. Engage with your examiners to respond to all of their questions as well as you can.

Opening Questions

How did you get interested in this area? How would you summarise your research? Could you tell us about your most important contributions?

There are other potential opening questions. None are trivial, all rely on a deep knowledge and talent that you alone have.

Opening questions often ask for summaries, considered opinions and so on. Your examiners don’t ask because they imagine you have ten short monologues prepared. They ask because they expect you will have been asked questions like these many times before. Responses should flow relatively naturally as you’ve thought about these ideas many times before.

They’re not asked because they’re easy. They’re definitelynot easy questions with easy answers. Instead, they’re asked because they give a natural way for the viva to start. Here’s a chance for you to start well. Here’s an opportunity for you to let your nerves and anxieties recede and let you knowledge and talent take the foreground.

You’re the only one who could give a great response to opening questions. Because of what you’ve done and what you know, you will give a great response to whatever question starts your viva.

On Wishlists

Wishlists for presents and wishlists for the viva are two very different things.

For presents you’re telling others, “If you can, if you want to, can you please get me this?”

For the viva you’re saying, not asking, “These are the things I really want when I meet my examiners.”

Really, the best person to help you get what you want from your viva wishlist is you. If there’s things you want or feel you need then you have to work to make them a reality. If there’s no way of making it certain then you have to act to get more comfortable with the uncertainty present in the situation.

You might also have to recognise when an item on your viva wishlist, like a present wishlist, is just not going to happen. Some wishlist items are a shot-in-the-dark, maybe-just-maybe…

…but they’re probably more of a distraction than anything. Work to remove these items from your viva wishlist. Focus on what you can achieve, not just what you wish for.

6 Questions Not To Ask

You’ll get plenty of questions in your viva, but it could be a good time to ask your examiners some questions too. But don’t ask:

  1. “So, how did I do?” right at the start.
  2. “Can we start again?” if you get stuck.
  3. “Can I pass on that one? That OK?” but you could ask for a few minutes to think.
  4. “Yeah, well how would you do it?!” if an examiner disagrees – although it’s good to ask about their reasons.
  5. “Can we just stop here?” if you’re a bit tired.
  6. “Do I have to do them?!” when they tell you the corrections they recommend.

Most other questions will be fine! The viva could be a good place to ask your examiners for advice. You could prompt them for their opinion or suggestions related to your work, or dig deeper into some of their comments or criticisms.

Status

Your examiners have a high status in the viva for several reasons. They have titles. They have experience. They have roles in the viva (and before it) that gives them authority.

You have a high status in the viva for several reasons. You have worked to be there. You have deep experience that has put you in the room. The viva wouldn’t be happening at all if you weren’t there.

Status doesn’t have to signify conflict though. Status in the viva is just a consequence of recognising that everyone in the room has an important role to play.

Looking For Mistakes

Your examiners have better, more important things to do than search your thesis for errors. It’s important – for the viva, and for any corrections – that they identify mistakes, but that’s not their focus. It’s much more useful to focus on your research and the contribution you’ve made than to just look for the “bad stuff”.

You have better, more important things to do in your preparation than search your thesis for mistakes. There probably are some – typos, little slips, references that aren’t up to date, passages that could be clearer – and it will help you in the viva and for your corrections to be aware of them. But if you make them your focus you will never stop finding things you could improve. It’s much better for you to put your attention on what makes your thesis good rather than what could make it better.

Don’t look for mistakes. Look for what matters.

Blinkered

Don’t be. After years of research and months of writing, it could be hard for you to see someone else’s point of view.

But it’s easy to imagine your examiners will see things differently to you. Maybe they have a relevant question you’ve not considered. Maybe they don’t quite get what you mean. Maybe a section of your thesis that is perfectly clear to you is only clear because of everything else you know.

Get other perspectives before the viva. You don’t have to change your perspective on your work, but it is really useful to consider others. Get feedback from your supervisor to see if there are other approaches or considerations you’ve discarded. Get questions from friends to help explore around your topic. Write summaries of your work to draw out ideas and make your thoughts concrete.

Don’t expect your examiners to know more than you, but don’t expect that you know every possible question or idea either.

Who Are Your Examiners?

Once you know their names, check them out. It’s useful to check recent publications to get a sense of their own knowledge and research focus. It’s useful to follow that up with a look at their staff pages to see what else you can find out. What are their research interests? What teaching do they do?

It is also really useful to be aware of what they are like as people. Have you met them at conferences? What do you know about your internal? What do their students say?

Knowing their research may give you insight into questions they may have, but knowing about them helps create a picture that these are real people coming to talk to you. Not faceless strangers, unknowable and uncaring: they are humans like you.

Knowing a little about them can help your confidence a lot for the viva.

When Examiners Disagree

Your examiners have to reach a decision, but it may be that they don’t agree on everything. It could be that one likes a particular idea or experiment or conclusion in your thesis and the other doesn’t. It may be that they can just work it out before they meet with you, but it could be the case that you have examiners who disagree with each other about something in the viva.

What do you do?

  • First: listen and let them lay out their positions. You may have strong feelings for a topic, but let them talk first and see whether this is something you actually need to respond to. They may just be expressing different opinions, it may not be disagreement.
  • Second: be sure of what you are responding to before you respond. If someone doesn’t like something, ask why. If they are vague, ask for details. Be clear and then respond as best you can. You don’t have to take sides, you just have to explain what you think.
  • Third: if discussion results in corrections, get as much clarity as possible to see what’s involved. If there is disagreement about corrections between examiners, ask again for clarity.

Remember: it is not your job to resolve disagreements between your examiners. They’re professionals: expect them to be professional.

Wait for them to clearly state their points, then do what you can to engage with them and find out what (if anything) you have to do as a result.

Why Not?

Make a quick list, five things you wanted to do during your PhD, but didn’t. Perhaps you had wanted to explore a certain topic, but didn’t, or maybe you wanted to attend a conference but couldn’t.

Why not?

Examine your list and ask yourself why you didn’t get to them. What stopped you?

  • Did you try but ultimately not succeed?
  • Were you busy and so had to pass on the opportunity?
  • Did you realise, upon exploring something, that there was more involved than you could realistically manage?
  • Were you given advice that perhaps it was not a good use of your time and efforts?

If your answer is yes for any of these then there’s no real issue, is there? Your examiners might be interested in knowing why you didn’t do something. It’s useful to unpick and have clear reasons.

Remember your examiners are more likely to be interested in what you did rather than what you didn’t do. You could spend a little time asking yourself “Why not?” but it’s more useful to spend time exploring what you did.