Taking Your Time

There’s a time frame for completing your PhD, for preparing for the viva and for engaging with it on the day. Each is measured differently of course! Years for a PhD, weeks for preparation, hours for the viva. You might feel busy or pressured, but with all of these stages of the journey you can take your time.

In the viva particularly you can take your time. It’s not a quick fire quiz. It’s not scoring points. The questions are not random and the questioners are not unknown. The process is clear, even if every question is not known ahead of time. Pause, think, respond. Engage with your examiners’ questions.

Take your time. Nobody really wants a four hour viva – I know from personal experience! – but however long your viva is will be right for you. It will be what was needed, driven by the number of questions your examiners have and how you approach them.

Take your time. You do not need to rush to finish, now that everything is nearly done.

Tricky or Trivial

Describing the viva’s conversation and questions isn’t as simple as picking an extreme.

Questions can be tricky because of the standard of the work being talked about. Responding could be trivial because of the work that you, as a postgraduate researcher, have put into your thesis.

A comment might be simple, easy-to-understand, and in the moment you might find yourself lost for words.

It’s not sensible to focus on how much of one kind of question or another one might get. Instead, you can focus on being prepared.

Read your thesis and practise for the viva. Refresh your memory so that you’re as comfortable as possible talking about your work. Understand that you can’t know every question that is going to be asked, but you can prepare yourself to listen, pause, think and respond.

The viva isn’t trivial, but nor is it so tricky that you have to worry. Get ready to engage with whatever your examiners bring to the discussion.

Your Turn To Speak

The viva is a conversation between you and your examiners. They use questions to facilitate a discussion about you, your research and your thesis. They’re looking for you to demonstrate your capability as a researcher and the contribution in your thesis.

So, when it’s your turn to speak:

  • Pause.
  • Make sure you understand the question.
  • Know that not every question has an “answer”.
  • If the first thought in your mind is “I don’t know,” then pause and think again.
  • Take your time when speaking, there’s no rush.
  • Use diagrams or sketches to help share your points, if appropriate.

And remember to actually respond to the question!

An Unexpected Question

You can’t know exactly what questions your examiners will ask, but you can have a good idea of the topics they’ll want to talk about in the viva. You can’t have a response ready and waiting for every topic, but you can feel fairly confident in your preparations that you can engage with almost anything your examiners might want to ask.

Almost anything.

There’s always a possibility that they ask something you’ve never considered. There’s a chance they may notice something you haven’t. An unexpected question could be asked that you, at first, don’t know how to handle. You just might not know what to think or say.

At first.

Whatever the unexpected question, however left field it is, you can still engage with it. Pause to consider it. Think about what it means. Respond as best you can. Ask your examiners questions to unpick what they mean. Be patient with yourself.

Pause. Think. Respond.

Tell Them

In my earliest academic days I was given the following advice for structuring a presentation: tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.

“Them” in this case was the audience. Over the years I’ve realised the heart of the good advice here: set expectations, share what you’re sharing and summarise at the end.

It is good advice generally.

In the viva you’re at the stage of telling your examiners what you told them in the thesis, more or less. You’ve set it out for them, they read it; now you have to summarise, clarify, expand and make sure they get what they need.

Of course, there are more ways you could tell them at the viva too.

You could tell them a story. You could tell them more. You could tell them what you left out. You could tell them what you didn’t get to do. You could tell them what you hope to do in the future. You could tell them what you plan to do next. You could tell them your opinion.

You could tell them lots of things, but remember that the viva is not a presentation, and it’s not the questions that come at the end. It’s a discussion. Prepare to tell your examiners lots of things, but prepare to be part of a conversation rather than someone simply answering questions.

Out Of Options?

I don’t think there’s ever a situation in the viva where you can do nothing.

I can’t think of a question that could be asked that a candidate couldn’t respond to. Questions from examiners are asked to prompt discussion. They’re asked to clarify what something means. They’re asked to dig deeper into your thesis and research.

By design, they’re not asked to crush you, stump you or stop you. They’re not asked to tear your work apart or make you feel small. They could be uncomfortable, they could be critical or they could ask about something that you’ve not thought about before.

You always have options for how you engage with them.

You just need to pause. Then you think. And you respond. A difficult question or comment cannot derail your success so long as you pause, think and respond.

There’s always something you can do.

Evidence

Whenever you respond to a question in the viva, remember that you need to offer evidence. A question might be seeking information; you need to provide it. A question might ask if you are correct; you can’t simply say yes. You need to offer evidence – context, information, reasons – that help show that you are correct.

Whenever you receive a question in the viva, remember that it is being asked for a reason. The evidence of your thesis, the story, facts and figures you have written up, have given your examiners plenty to think about. The evidence of your thesis prompts the questions that you are being asked to drive the discussion.

Don’t Prepare Monologues

Your examiners are not attending a play. They don’t want you to sit (or stand) and talk at them for hours. They want a conversation. They want you to respond rather than recite.

There might be tricky parts of your research or thesis where it matters if the words are said a certain way. Of course, check that you remember them correctly – but don’t expect to simply parrot them to your examiners.

It’s far better to have general rehearsal for responding to questions (with a mock viva or having a chat with friends) than it is to write down and try to memorise lots of possible responses to lots of possible questions.

You need to talk in the viva. You need to prepare to do that. You don’t need to have prepared responses or monologues.

Saying The Right Thing

In the viva, no candidate wants to say the wrong thing. No-one wants to misremember a detail or misquote a paper. No-one wants to go blank and say the first thing, the silly thing, the wrong thing.

No-one wants to say the wrong thing, but remember there might not be a right thing.

Not every question has an answer. Not every question is probing for truth. A question could be exploratory. A question could be to clarify a point. A question could be seeking an opinion if there is one.

In the viva you could definitely say the wrong thing; depending on the question you might not be able to offer a right thing. You can always take your time and offer your best. Listen to the question, pause, think and respond.

Pause, Think, Respond

The three words to keep in mind when you are in your viva.

Pause: take a moment to check you understand the question.

Think: invest a little time into organising your thoughts.

Respond: start talking, being clear to yourself and your examiners.

  • Big question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Little question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Easy question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Hard question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Know the answer? Pause, think, respond.
  • Haven’t a clue? Pause, think, respond.

Pause because you don’t need to rush. Taking time will help how you think and what you say.

Think because that’s the only way to get the ideas that you need to come out right.

Respond because you might not always have an answer, but you can always find something appropriate to continue the conversation.

In your viva: pause, think, respond.