Background Checks

What do you need to know about your examiners? What will help you to feel happy about them being the ones asking questions in your viva?

Google is your friend. You can check out your examiners’ staff pages and their publication histories. You can see what they’ve presented at conferences and uncover their interests. You might even find out a little about them as a person, particularly if they’re active on social media.

This can all help give a boost to your confidence for how they’ll treat you on the day of your viva. You want to be examined by clever, reasonable people and a little research can help convince you of that.

Remember that Google works both ways. Think about what someone would find out about you if they looked. If your external wanted to know more about the researcher behind this great thesis they’ve been reading, what would they find?

Scope

In the viva your examiners have freedom to ask about everything in your thesis. They can also ask about anything that isn’t in there.

You have to have boundaries for your research. You can’t do everything, but you’ll probably think about a lot more than you finally include in your thesis. Your answer can simply be, “That was out of the scope of my research,” but that might not be answer enough for your examiners.

So explore the why with them. Why didn’t you do it? Don’t take the question as a criticism; questions explore. Give your examiners your reasons – lack of time, lack of interest, lack of resources, lack of information, deliberate choice to focus on something else… Whatever it is, but be real. Don’t bluff. Be honest.

There might be interesting, exciting things that you’ve not done, but you must have done something good to be in the viva.

Your Choice

You don’t get to choose your examiners, officially, but you can have a conversation with your supervisors about who might be a great examiner for your viva. Make sure you do that.

You don’t get to veto potential examiners either, but you could raise your concerns and expect your supervisors to listen. Don’t simply say yes if there’s someone you really don’t want; dig into why you are concerned and see how the conversation goes.

You don’t get to choose or veto your examiners, but you can choose to lead the conversation. Be pro-active: think about what you are looking for, who might be great, and start the discussion with your supervisors.

 

Needs & Examiners

You need to talk about them with your supervisors.

You need to know why they’re a good choice.

You need to know why they might be interested in your work.

You need to explore their research.

You need to think about how their work is related to yours.

You need to believe they’ll be fair.

You need them to do their job.

And you need to accept that they’re just people, same as you; they’re not on a great high pedestal, they’re just humans, filling a necessary role, and doing it because they’re highly qualified to meet the needs of your viva.

Five Lists To Help Choose Examiners

You don’t get to formally pick your examiners, but you can usually steer the selection in conversation with your supervisors. They’re the ones who have to sign off on the choice. As you’ll likely be consulted, it’s a good idea to have some names to share. Perhaps start with the following process:

  1. Make a list of all of the people you’ve met at conferences who might be credible examiners.
  2. Make a list of all of the staff from your department who could be good choices.
  3. Make a list of any researchers you have cited who might be interested.
  4. Make a list of any academics you think are nice or agreeable.
  5. Make a list of any researchers who could be a good addition to your network.

Five lists. If any names are duplicated, put them at the top of a new, master list of possible examiners.

Now when you talk with your supervisors you have some good names to explore in the discussion.

Engaging With Criticism

If your examiner tells you they don’t like something in your thesis you have options:

  • You could say sorry, and do whatever they say as a result.
  • You could stare them down, insist that you’re right, and see what happens.
  • You could argue with them and try to show you’re right.
  • You could discuss things, listen to what they have to say and put your best case forwards.
  • You could ask them, “Why do you think that?” and listen before responding.

And you could do a lot more. I’m not suggesting you could have 100% control over how you feel or what you would automatically say as a result of criticism. It can cut deep, you might not know what to do. But there are different options open to you.

How you engage with your examiners can lead to very different ways of being in the viva.

Pros & Cons

It can be useful to think through the pros and cons of different things related to your viva:

  • Whether you start preparing for the viva a month or two weeks before the viva…
  • Whether or not you try for an examiner who you’ve cited in your bibliography…
  • Whether or not your supervisor will be present on the day…
  • Whether or not you have a mock viva…

Some you can weigh up and get a clear idea of what to do. Some aren’t so clear. Is it better or worse to have an expert in your field examine your thesis? Should you create summaries of every chapter?

There are pros and cons for everything. Sometimes they lead you to a clear answer, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you just have to listen to your gut feeling.

At some point you have to take action. Whatever the pros and cons, however clear the issue, you still get to choose the course you take.

Tearing Off The Paper

About six weeks ago I watched as a dozen children almost went to war in my living room. The reason?

Pass The Parcel.

It was my daughter’s fifth birthday party, and she’d insisted on playing a lot of games, including Pass The Parcel. We decided it would be like Pass The Parcel from our childhoods, with a single prize in the centre, and no little prize with every layer.

Well.

The kids were in uproar. We told them there was just one in the centre, but they were confused. Wh- Why?! Where were the little prizes? Then I want to win the one in the centre! They were desperate to hold on to the parcel in case this layer was the layer. They stopped having fun. We thought it would be alright, they would see the fun in taking part, taking a layer off getting closer to the prize, but they didn’t. Wanting the prize was too much for them. In the end, we fudged the final round so a particularly desperate child won.

(I feared tears and physical violence if they didn’t)

I was thinking about this game of Pass The Parcel the other day and was reminded of my PhD, and research more generally.

Sometimes, you only get to tear the paper off; sometimes, you don’t get to the big answer, the thing you were looking for. You get closer, but not all the way to the prize.

And that’s fine, you learn, you grow and you move everyone in your field forward.

It can be hard though, doing a PhD, writing a thesis, preparing for the viva, to see it that way. It might be true, but will your examiners see it that way? Or will they focus solely on why you didn’t get to the end goal? Examiners appreciate that not every research journey ends at the point one might want. They’ll have the experience to recognise what you’ve done if you don’t reach the point you wanted.

Your job, if this is your situation, is to be able to talk about how far you went. How close you came. What the different layers you tore off were. How you might have done it differently. And what other steps someone might need to take to reach the prize.

7 Questions For Selecting Examiners

Need some help thinking of who could examine you? Start with these six questions to get a list of names:

  1. Whose work have you built on in a meaningful way?
  2. Who have you met at conferences?
  3. Who has a good reputation?
  4. Who is an expert in your field?
  5. Who have you cited a few times?
  6. Who do you think you can trust to do a good job?

With these six questions you can get a long or short list quite quickly. Then you have to figure out how you narrow it down so that you can have a chat with your supervisors.

A more useful question perhaps: what are you really looking for in an examiner?

Once you know the answer to this, you can have a more meaningful conversation with your supervisors about who might be a good choice.

Ask Your Examiners

Consider your examiners. Two people sat across the table from you and they’re interested. They’ve read your thesis, thought about it and now have questions for you. You’ve got to answer their questions to pass, but maybe you can get some answers to questions of your own. You might ask:

  • What did you think of this?
  • I haven’t published a paper about Chapter 3; what journals might be good for that?
  • I was thinking of extending my work in this way – what do you think?
  • What next steps might I take?

You don’t have to ask them questions, but there’s an opportunity in the viva to get ideas and insights from two experienced researchers who’ve read your thesis.

What do you most want to know?