Three More Three Whats

A little structure is a great way to start reflection, and Three Whats is a really neat little structure. It’s really flexible and can be applied to a lot of the areas that are worth thinking about towards the end of the PhD and as part of viva preparations.

On Obstacles…

  • What was the biggest obstacle during your PhD?
  • So what did you do to resolve the situation?
  • Now what do you think about it?

Getting Help…

  • What do you need help with before the viva?
  • So what group(s) of people can you ask?
  • Now what are you going to do first?

Worries…

  • What are you worried most about your viva?
  • So what can you do to improve how you feel?
  • Now what is your priority for action?

What, so what and now what are great for reflection, problem solving and a lot more. What other ways might you use them as you prepare for your viva?

Interesting Reasons

There are plenty of interesting reasons why Dr X or Professor Y might be good examiners:

  • They’re experts in your general area;
  • You’ve cited them a lot;
  • You’re hoping to build your network a little.

You don’t get to choose directly. Most candidates can at least have a conversation with their supervisors about who they think would be a good choice. Think through what you might look for, and see how that conversation goes.

There are also interesting reasons why Dr X or Professor Y might not be acceptable as examiners:

  • Maybe you’ve had lots of conversations with them about your PhD work;
  • Maybe you’ve had correspondence about working with them on a future project;
  • Maybe they’re part of a collaboration with your supervisor.

Depending on the rules of your institution, these possible conflicts of interest might disqualify them from even being considered. If you’re concerned at all then it is worth checking.

The first list comes down to preference: the kind of examiners you want depends greatly on what qualities you see as being valuable.

The second list comes down to policy: some people won’t be acceptable because of how you’re connected to them.

You should definitely think about the first list in advance of your viva; in some cases the second list will be just as valuable to narrow down options.

Surprise!

It might be a surprise to know exactly what your examiners think of your work, but it doesn’t have to be a surprise to know what other people more generally think of it. Share your work, get feedback and keep building on what you’ve done.

There may be a surprising question you’ve not considered before, but your general talent at answering questions shouldn’t be a surprise to you. Find opportunities to receive and respond to unexpected questions.

You might be surprised by a particular correction that you get, but you should know that most people are asked to complete some level of corrections. After the viva you’ll be given an opportunity to make your thesis even better.

There could be surprises in the viva, but there’s a lot that you can do to meet any challenges that come up.

Do the work, prepare well and the surprises won’t matter so much.

Some Significant, Original Questions

A thesis needs to contain a significant, original contribution. A viva needs to have some exploration of this. So in preparation for the viva’s discussion, it makes sense to spend some time reflecting and exploring these factors.

On significant:

  • Why is your work valuable?
  • Who is it valuable to?
  • How would you describe the importance of your research?
  • What makes it special?
  • What makes it matter?

On original:

  • What aspects are novel?
  • In what ways is your work different?
  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • How does your work change your field?
  • How can you qualify the originality?

Not every useful viva prep question is typical of a question you might get in the viva. Not every question might prompt an answer for you. Some answers might overlap. The point is to get thinking and writing and see where this leads you.

Questions for Graduates

To find out more about vivas ask people who’ve had them. Talk to graduates from your department. If you ask, “How was your viva?” you’ll likely get an answer along the lines of “Fine!” This will be true, but it will be short: the person you’re asking probably thinks you want reassurance; they think you want to know others have succeeded and felt fine in the viva.

You do, but if all you get is “Fine!” then you’ll feel unsure later. To get more from your friends, ask them specific questions. Ask them questions that will give you details. Start with:

  • How did your viva begin?
  • What surprised you?
  • What was the tone like?
  • How would you describe the structure?
  • How long was your viva? Did it feel like that?
  • What questions do you remember?
  • What was challenging?
  • How did your viva end?

Ask about how they prepared and what helped them. Ask about what corrections they got and how they completed them. Get as much help as you can from the people around you; there’s a lot of help available.

Be prepared to help others when your viva is past too.

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.

What Do You Want Them To Ask?

As part of your viva prep spend ten minutes listing everything you’d like your examiners to ask.

Reflect for each one: why do you want them to ask about that thing?

Do you feel confident? Why?

Do you feel happy? Why?

Do you feel proud? Why?

It’s useful to dig into things that trouble you and ask why. Once you’ve unpicked the feeling you can start to do something about it.

It’s just as useful to reflect on the things you’re happy with. You can build confidence for the viva on those whys as well.

Answering New Questions

Every step of the PhD has new questions, from the first time you read a paper through to the end of your viva. Answers don’t always come immediately. They might take a little time and thought, or during the PhD real, practical research to bring an answer to life. Sometimes there are no answers: you can offer ideas, theories or reasons why no answer comes to mind.

New questions aren’t a problem by the end of the PhD. Questions can be unexpected, but your mechanism for answering – the knowledge, the talent, the skill at thinking things through – is the best it could be.

Any time you get one, a new question is an opportunity for demonstrating what you can do.

 

What’s New?

You have to make original contributions in your thesis. It’s good to reflect on this before your viva. There are lots of questions that can help stimulate ideas and connections:

  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • What is different in your work from other work in this area?
  • How did your work build on earlier research?
  • What have you learned?
  • What are the outputs of your research?
  • What new questions do we now know to ask?

If one question doesn’t spark an answer, see if another will. What’s new?

Deserving

There are lots of big picture questions that seem natural for the viva.

  • “Why did you choose this topic?”
  • “How do you describe your main contribution?”
  • “How would you summarise your thesis?”

These aren’t unexpected questions exactly; you’ve probably thought about them during your PhD. Another question that shows up on lists of common viva questions is “Why do you deserve a PhD?” I’m not sure how common this question actually is, but at first glance, answering it could be a little trickier than the other questions mentioned so far.

“Why do you deserve it?” Deserve. You could look at this question and wonder if it is a trick or not. Are your examiners trying to trap you somehow? It feels a little like a trap…

Or perhaps we can find a similar question that makes it easier to answer. Perhaps, “What have you done that merits a PhD?” or “What have you done to achieve a PhD?” That’s what we’re really getting at. And when you look at that phrasing, actually we’re not far away from “How do you describe your main contribution?”

The work, the result, the outcome, the contribution, the talent, the knowledge – all of these are because of what you’ve done. They’re what you’ve achieved, they’re why you deserve a PhD. It may feel uncomfortable to think about why you deserve something…

…so get comfortable with it. Not in a proud or boastful way, but in an honest sense of your own accomplishments. Explore how you would describe what you’ve done, and you’ll find a way to talk to your examiners about your contribution: something that merits your PhD.

You might just start to believe it yourself!