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.

Riddles

While your examiners might feel inscrutable at times, they aren’t Sphinxes.

Questions aren’t obscure, topics aren’t hidden, and the purpose isn’t a game…

…or life-or-death!

Some examiner questions could be anticipated, but not all. While they might be tricky to answer, you can take your time. You’ll have your thesis with you too, a resource to give you lots of information at your fingertips.

And finally, if a question in the viva might feel like a riddle or a challenge, remember it might not have a single right answer. In some cases it will have only the best response you can give.

Maybe a response that only you can give.

Intentions & Experiences

Examiners have intentions for vivas: questions they might want to ask, a tone or atmosphere they want to encourage.

Candidates have experiences in vivas: a mix of the reality of the situation and how they feel about it during and afterwards.

Of course, examiner intentions feed into candidate experiences. Over time they create the culture that future candidates come to expect.

The overall feeling I get from candidates is that vivas are a bit scary, a bit uncertain, probably something to worry about. The overall feeling I get from graduates is that vivas aren’t as scary as they seemed to be, and while they require action and preparation they’re typically not something to be stressed about.

So we need to steer the culture.

Academics need to be asked more about their general approaches to vivas. Graduates need to be asked about their experiences in vivas. The details need to filter out so that a more thorough picture emerges. Candidates need to hear about experiences and intentions – examiners do too – and over time we can steer the expectations so that they match the overall reality of the viva.

But for today, if your viva is coming up, ask your supervisor what they do to get ready for a viva. What questions are in their mind? What approach do they take? Ask PhD graduates from your department what their viva was like. How did they prepare? How were they feeling? And what happened on the day?

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.