Three Simple Words

Are you prepared to say “I don’t know” in your viva?

There’s only so much information, knowledge and talent you can build up before your viva. You’ll have enough, but you might not have everything. Perfection isn’t required: but do you feel comfortable enough saying “I don’t know” so that you aren’t worried if you do need to say it?

To help build that comfort, and the confidence that goes with it:

  • Make opportunities where you can be asked real, relevant questions for your research, thesis and competence. You can’t predict in advance what questions you will be asked in the viva, or what questions will prompt a response of “I don’t know”. The more times you practise being in a similar situation to the viva, the more experience you will have and the better you will feel.
  • Review your work to convince yourself of how much you do know. You don’t know everything, but you know a lot. It would be impossible to write an exhaustive list of everything you don’t know, but you can reassure yourself that you have a good knowledge base.
  • Learn about viva expectations. Examiners could ask questions to which you can only respond “I don’t know” but they don’t do it out of malice or some attempt to belittle you or your work. They don’t ask unreasonable questions.

I don’t know what you might have to say “I don’t know” to. You can’t know that in advance either. But you can know that it is OK.

These three simple words don’t have to define you, your viva performance or how you feel going into the viva.

The Greatest Worry

I’ve thought a lot about what candidates have told me for the last ten years. I’ve been in a fortunate position to meet many thousands of postgraduate researchers, and to help them get through various stages of their PhD. And when you listen for long enough you notice patterns. Sometimes it’s the things that are said often but sometimes it’s how things are said.

And I think I know what the greatest worry of postgraduate researchers is as they get closer to the viva.

It’s not that examiners won’t like their work.

It’s not that the thesis will be somehow incomplete.

And it’s not that they will go blank or have to say “I don’t know” to a question.

The greatest worry is that they will get to the viva and discover that they are not who they think they are.

They will find out that they are not talented. They will find in that moment that they are not as clever, as quick or as resourceful as they had hoped. They will find out that they are not as knowledgeable as they thought they were. This doubt can be held quite deeply within; the fear, the worry that you are not as good, as clever, as confident as you think.

This kind of self-doubt can be hard to beat. I think a solution can be found though in questions and reflection. If you’re doubting yourself at all before the viva then start with these two questions:

  • How else could you have got this far?
  • What can you point to in your research that’s great?

The first question is needed to start to unpick doubt. Doing a PhD is hard. While you can be fortunate you can’t just be lucky. You can’t get to submission and the viva by chance alone. There’s no other explanation other than you must have worked for it. That work must have produced something. The second question is useful to start exploring just what that might be. If you list the great things that have come out of your research you can start to believe that you’re great too.

Self-doubt can be a hard problem, but it’s not intractable.

Rather than beat away your fear it might be better to build up your bravery instead.

Things I Don’t Know

There are lots of things I don’t know about the viva.

I don’t know if there’s any great differences between the vivas of part-time and full-time PhDs.

I don’t know how well vivas over Skype work compared to vivas in person.

I don’t know what percentage of people submit a thesis-by-publication.

I don’t know all of the regulations for all of the universities in the UK. (but I’m working on it!)

And I don’t know what percentage of candidates fail their viva, because universities are very reluctant to share that sort of data.

I have theories or ideas about all of these; hunches based on incomplete information, or ideas about how to get more stats. I’d like to explore these topics and many others, I just need to find the time to do it.

But the information is out there.

On smaller scales, your personal scale, the information is out there. There are regulations for your institution. You have a supervisor who can help shape your expectations. There are graduates you can talk to about viva experiences.

Figure out what you don’t know about the viva, then get to work finding out more.

(and I’ll do the same!)

The Best Way To Say I Don’t Know

I don’t know could be your answer to a question in the viva, but it doesn’t have to be all of your answer.

Say why.

It can be as simple as “I didn’t do that” or “I didn’t read this.” Or perhaps, “I’ve not thought about it that way, but let me have a think…”

If your first thought is “I don’t know,” say why and engage with the question.

Sometimes “I Don’t Know” Is The Only Answer

You might not want to say it.

You might be able to think and discuss to get somewhere.

Or you might engage with a question and say something but realise you can’t say everything.

Perhaps there is something you don’t know or can’t know. Maybe it is something no-one knows.

Sometimes it’s the only thing you can say.

Pause and think before you say it. Be certain. Say why you don’t know if you can.

I Don’t Know

“I don’t know” is not the end of the viva. It’s not a stain against your name. It doesn’t mean that you automatically lose.

It means you didn’t know something.

If you don’t have information, what do you have? I can think of a few possibilities:

  • Probably a question for yourself: you don’t know a definite answer, but what possibilities are there?
  • Probably a question or two for your examiners: can you tell me more?
  • Definitely a brain, and experience: given the question, given everything you do know, what does that lead you to think?

I don’t know is not the end of the viva. It could be the end of a strand of conversation. Or it could be an opportunity to show how you can think, and engage, discuss and decide. You can give an opinion. YOU can reason things out. I’ll say it again: You’re not here by accident.