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.

First Time Examiners

I meet candidates who worry because one of their examiners is a new academic:

“What if they don’t know enough? What if they are really thorough? What if they do something wrong?”

Not unreasonable concerns, but to candidates who feel like this I’d say, “How do you think that examiner feels?”

Personally, I imagine first time examiners are nervous, maybe even a bit stressed. The viva is important. They have to read and understand, summarise and comment, question and steer the discussions. They have to examine!

A first time examiner will have training, they’ll have colleagues they can ask for help and their own viva to influence them, but this is the first time they’ve been asked to do it. Whether it’s an academic’s first time or fifty-first time being an examiner they always want it to go as well as it possibly can.

When I imagine how an examiner might feel and what they might do for the viva, what I imagine is very close to how I think candidates feel and what they do. They’re both talented, both might be a little nervous, generally, but because they want it to go well they’ll both be prepared.

Different Opinions

Your examiners are allowed to have a different opinion to you.

They might favour a method, prefer an author or think that your results mean something other than your conclusion. They’re allowed to because they’re experienced: they view your work through the prism of their knowledge and talent.

That doesn’t mean they’re right. Depending on how they frame their questions and comments, you have to think and decide whether there is just your way of seeing things or if something is open to interpretation.

And if it is you have to share why you think your interpretation is the right one. Why are you convinced? What makes you sure? What could dissuade you? What possible criticisms could someone make? What might your examiners think?

Ask some of these questions before the viva and you’ll be better able to defend your research when you talk with your examiners. Why-How-What could be a useful framework to start your reflections.

Ten Helpful People

There are lots of people around you who could help you get ready for your viva. While you might do most of the work by yourself, there’s a lot you could find from others:

  • Two supervisors, maybe more: they’ve seen your work develop, so ask for feedback and advice about your thesis. If you’ve not worked much with a second supervisor they could still share experience or be part of a mock viva.
  • One member of staff: get contact details for someone in your graduate school or doctoral college. If any questions about regulations come up you’ll know who to get in touch with.
  • Three recent graduates from your department: send them an email and ask specific questions about their vivas. Get some realistic expectations by comparing stories.
  • A current researcher from your department: take them for coffee and ask them to listen while you share your research. If they know about your work, ask them for questions; if they don’t know much about what you do then ask what they understand when you talk.
  • A friend or family member: someone who could give you a ride to the university on viva day!
  • Two examiners: internal and external, you can’t contact them before the viva but you can explore their research and interests. Reflect on what connections they might see in your research and theirs.

Ten people, to begin with. You will know more who could make a real difference.

Including you.

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.