Not Every Day

It’s not every day you sit down to talk with two examiners about your thesis, the end point of years of study and research. Not every day you get to find out what they think. Not every day – there may be no other days in your life like your viva day!

It’s an important day, but still just one day. Without over-obsessing, over-analysing, over-investing, it makes sense to ask a few questions to be as reasonably ready as possible.

  • What can you do in preparation?
  • What can you find out about your examiners to help you?
  • What can you do to start the day well?
  • What can you do to start the viva well?
  • What can you do to be at your best in the viva?
  • What can you do to find and bring confidence with you to the viva?

And, as your viva is not every day, what will you do to celebrate your achievement?

7 Questions For Interdisciplinary Researchers

Interdisciplinary researchers produce fascinating theses. I enjoy listening to the amazing ways disciplines collide. I’m no longer surprised though when interdisciplinary researchers tell me they have concerns about their viva. An examiner might be highly capable in one field of the researcher’s thesis, but not another. What then?

I’m not sure there is a great problem here. In my experience, examiners do their homework. They learn what they need to in order to understand a thesis. They’ll work to grasp aspects not related to their field. Still, that might not be enough to satisfy the concerns of an interdisciplinary researcher. I hope the following seven questions might help some more:

  1. How does your work differ from your examiner’s particular experience?
  2. What ways can you find to relate your work to your examiner’s field?
  3. How is your work similar to your examiner’s recent publications?
  4. What are the trickiest aspects of your work to explain to a non-expert?
  5. How can you make these easier to communicate?
  6. Where do you anticipate problems in explaining your work?
  7. What can you do about those problems?

Let me be clear: examiners should make efforts to unpick and understand a thesis not in their field if they have agreed to act as examiner. But for confidence, for peace of mind and for general preparation, these questions could be useful to reflect and act on for interdisciplinary researchers preparing for the viva.

(they’re probably quite useful for all candidates preparing for the viva!)

This Is More Of A Comment

Listen to any comments, especially in the viva.

There might be a question underneath.

The question might be in the comment. It could be a challenge, but that challenge might be a small thing that only needs a small response.

It could be the question comes from you. It could be you listen to your examiner’s comment, and you ask a question to bring that thought into the discussion more. You can find out more, get a sense of why this comment is important to your examiner. Then you’ll see what you need to do to say more.

Or you might listen and realise it’s just a comment.

An idea, nothing big, serious or scary. Just a thought, an “I wonder…”

Something to acknowledge, but nothing to do.

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.