The Most Helpful Question


If you don’t know something in the viva, ask yourself “Why?”

If you feel stuck during your prep, “Why?”

If your supervisor makes a suggestion and you’re not sure about it, ask them “Why?”

Or if your external says they’re not convinced by something in your thesis, ask them “Why?”

(politely, of course!)

The single most helpful question to have on the tip of your tongue, for reflections, for preparation, for meetings, for discussions and in the viva is “Why?” It opens things up, prompts, allows for exploration and probes to the heart of everything. It may not always lead to “the answer” but always generates a response.

Keep it in mind for your submission, preparation and the viva.

Surprise Questions

Surprise questions might not be critical, they could simply be unexpected. By your viva you have plenty of talent for responding to questions, but a surprise question might still stun you.

If you are worried about surprise questions:

  • Decide on how you will respond to questions in the viva: will you make a quick note? Will you pause and take a breath to think?
  • Practise answering unexpected questions: will you have a mock viva? Could you give a presentation and take questions?
  • Write down a list of when you’ve answered questions in difficult circumstances: what conference talks have you given? When have you been in seminars and engaged with tricky discussions?

Preparation and reflection can help you to see that surprise questions can be manageable. They could surprise you, but the surprise doesn’t have to be bad.