Time To Think

You had lots of time to think during your PhD. You had plenty during your prep. You have enough in the viva.

Your examiners want you to consider, ponder, debate, reflect, examine, muse, propose – to think! – and then respond.

This doesn’t mean long silences, longer vivas or almost-impossible questions. Just enough time to think about something important.

Take time in your viva. It’s there for you to use.

Comfortable Silence

There are many reasons for silence in the viva:

  • A moment while a broadband router buffers in the background.
  • Time while a page is consulted or a note made.
  • Processing time while someone thinks through the implications of a comment.
  • Thinking time in a candidate’s mind while they prepare a response.

The latter might feel unnerving, but none of these could feel particularly comfortable. Silence invites speculation. Knowing possible reasons doesn’t dissolve fears, it simple gives you something else to wonder about.

Rehearsals help. A mock viva won’t be a way to learn your lines like a play, but can give you the confidence to be in that space. Silence is just silence. The reasons don’t matter in a way. The silence is the space between the discussion. You have to wait for it to pass, or use it to help you think.

Practise and get comfortable with the little moments of quiet that you’re sure to find in your viva.

Off The Topic

It’s not impossible that a question or comment could seem irrelevant to you. It’s not impossible you could start responding to a question but go off topic from the discussion. However it happens, if you experience any confusion because you need to talk about something unexpected:

Stop.

Pause.

Think.

Think about what’s being asked or discussed. Then decide how you can best proceed.

In the case of off-topic questions from examiners, you might really believe a question is irrelevant. Totally off-topic, completely unimportant. You could say that…

…but will that help? It might be better to explore the topic and try to respond as well as you can, to begin with. You could still say you don’t think it’s all that important afterwards, but perhaps give it a little time first.

Blank, During and Before

Going blank in the viva isn’t a big problem. The potential for it might feel worrying, but typically it doesn’t happen that much. If it does happen there are things you could do. You can take your time, you can think and something will come. Going blank doesn’t mean you’re not talented, it means you’re human.

Your viva isn’t a test of perfection.

If you go blank in the viva, sit with it, pause, relax and try again.

Going blank before the viva is also a small problem. If you realise you don’t know much about your examiners, or you’re unsure about the procedure for the viva, those are small problems. If you try to think about a certain chapter or theory and your brain doesn’t supply ideas, you have a small problem.

Small problems often have many solutions – generally either thinking, reading or asking.

If you go blank before the viva, ask yourself what could make it better, and the answer to that question will probably resolve things.

Not A Sprint

I got that advice a lot during my PhD. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I had to pace myself for the long journey to success.

The viva’s not a sprint but it’s also not a marathon either. It’s not a race of any kind, you’re not being tested on how fast you answer but on how well you answer.

Don’t rush. Rushing to answer a question isn’t going to help you, your thesis or your research.

Pause. Breathe. It’s not a race, but the end of your journey is near.

Three Things Come Not Back

I remember my first lecture at university. Before Dr Gould started telling us about complex numbers he shared an old proverb he thought would help us as we started our degrees:

Three things come not back: the said word, the sped arrow and the missed opportunity.

He then urged us to make the most of our opportunities while we were at university, not to let things pass us by. I’m fond of this saying. It’s stuck with me for almost twenty years, and it resonates with me for viva advice too.

Think before you speak: pause before you answer a question. Make the most of your opportunities in the viva, both to show what you know and get ideas and insights from your examiners.

Thankfully there’s usually not any arrows flying around!

What If Something Goes Wrong?

Let’s be clear: it’s unlikely that something will “go wrong” in your viva.

Unlikely doesn’t matter though if you’re really worried now.

Unlikely really doesn’t matter if it’s happening on the day.

So what do you do?

  • Stop.
  • Take a breath.
  • Take a sip of water.
  • Ask a question.
  • Ask for a break.
  • Ask for time to think.
  • Think about what you can do. If you have an independent chair, talk to them.
  • If you don’t, talk to your internal.

Whatever it is, there’s a process. Just stop first. Then see what’s next. A pause might be enough to make you feel like you’re making too much of the situation. It may not be as wrong as you think.

But again, let’s be clear: it’s unlikely that something will go wrong in your viva. It’s unlikely because your examiners are up to the job and following an established process.

It’s unlikely because you are ready by that point. Your research is done, your thesis is done and you are ready and up to the task of discussing your work.