7 Questions To Ask Friends About Their Vivas

Friends who have recently had a viva in your department are good to ask about what to expect. Listening to their stories can give you certainty for your viva.

There’s great variety generally when it comes to viva experiences; local knowledge of your department’s practices can both shape your expectations and help you to prepare. By asking the right questions you can get the information that will be most useful to you.

  1. Was your viva in-person or online? (this helps frame other expectations)
  2. How long was your viva? (everyone wants to know this!)
  3. How did your viva begin? (it’s helpful to know the sorts of things that happen)
  4. Was anyone else apart from your examiners present? (some vivas have chairpersons; some candidates invite their supervisors)
  5. What was the flow of questions like? (were they big picture, focussed and so on)
  6. How did your viva end? (get a sense of what to expect)
  7. How did you feel throughout your viva? (knowing some of the thoughts and feelings that flow can help)

If you ask only one person then you might hear a helpful story that puts the viva in perspective. If you ask several people you might spot patterns in the structure of vivas in your department. Perhaps your department has a certain way of doing things. Knowing that information could really put you at ease.

Don’t simply ask a friend, “How was it?”

Go deeper. Ask more to help yourself more.

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.

Questions, Not A Quiz

Your examiners aren’t there to fire questions at you and expect an answer in ten seconds or less.

They don’t have a big list of true or false statements for you to correctly identify.

And they won’t be grilling you on every single reference you listed.

The viva is a discussion. Your examiners have prepared questions to guide the process. Some are to steer the conversation, others are to check details in your thesis; some are sparked by their personal interests, and some questions might be to satisfy ideas of what is “correct” in your discipline.

But they’re not rapid-fire, all-or-nothing, earning points or against the clock.

The viva has questions but it’s not a quiz.

You’re a candidate, not a contestant.

Average & Amazing

PhD candidates often want to know about the “average” viva:

  • How long do they usually take?
  • What do examiners most often ask?
  • How do they usually start?
  • What’s the most common outcome?

This is to be expected and a good set of expectations is really helpful for a candidate. There are plenty of questions about the average viva, but perhaps it’s even more useful to focus on questions for the amazing viva?

  • What do you most want to share with your examiners?
  • What are you looking forward to talking about?
  • What will you do to be well-prepared?

And, most importantly, what will you do to show up with as much confidence as you can find for this amazing event?

Expectations help, but so does preparation that raises you way above the average.

Save Points

Video games have been a big part of my pandemic coping strategies. Interactive stories, complex challenges, puzzle solving and sometimes great big emotional experiences to distract me from the background of life right now.

Save points have featured a lot too: either specific locations within a game where I have to pause and record my progress or a menu option that takes me out of the moment so I can make sure my journey through the game’s experience is recorded.

Save points are useful in viva prep too for keeping you on target. Rather than simply record your state for the next time, a prep save point could act as a very quick review – a growing record to look at and know that you are getting closer to being ready.

Any time that you take time to get ready, as you finish, just ask yourself:

  • How long did I invest in my future success?
  • What did I do?
  • How did it help?
  • What could I do to keep building on this progress?
  • What will I do when I next do some viva prep?

Each time you finish some prep task respond to these, quickly, a few words or sentences for each. Two minutes to capture something that helps prove to yourself that you are getting ready.

You are getting closer to that big achievement of passing your viva.

Three Questions To Reflect On

First: What question do you hope your examiners don’t ask in the viva?

Second: …whatever the question was that you thought of in response to the question above!

Third: Since you can’t do anything to prevent the question from potentially being asked in the viva, what can you do before the viva to help you be in a better position to respond?

 

And a fourth bonus question: more generally, what can you do to put yourself in a good position for your viva?

More Starters

I was playing with the random post link when I came across Starters (from a few years ago) and was once again reminded of these very helpful words by Rudyard Kipling:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

If you’re starting your viva preparations, and perhaps want to shake loose some thoughts about what you’ve done, consider the following questions inspired by the words above:

  • What’s been your aim for the last few years?
  • Why did you start a PhD?
  • When did you find your greatest idea to date?
  • How have you approached your research?
  • Where do you think your research could be applied?
  • Who are you now, compared to when you started?

Reflect on your research and your journey to start your viva preparations. You may not be asked these questions directly, but you can be sure they will uncover ideas relevant to the discussions you’ll have with your examiners.

You Have To Get Better

Think of three things that you’ve got better at by doing a PhD.

  • First list them: how would you specify these skills, processes or knowledge areas?
  • Write a few sentences for each about how you started your PhD: how would you qualify your ability or awareness then?
  • Write a few sentences for each about where you are now: how good are you today?
  • Write a few sentences for each about what made the difference: how did you get from where you were to where you are?

You have to get better at lots of things during a PhD, but progress and change can be so small day-by-day that it’s hard to see. Look back now, reflect and convince yourself.

Your development can be one of the roots of your confidence for your viva.

And So On

A question in the viva cannot prompt you to talk in minute detail about the sum of three or more years of work. Every response for every question that you are asked will take up a few hours at most.

A response could be short because that’s what it needs to be. It could leave details out because they aren’t as important as what you keep in. It could be incomplete because the complete details would take too long, or you don’t have them, or for some other reason.

A response may or may not be an answer to the question. It may or may not move the conversation in the direction you or your examiners want. It may be that you have to stop before you really want to, or just give an indication of what you mean, rather than the full picture.

Remember: you can always pause and think, and your examiners can always ask for more if they need it.

BOOST Your Mini-Viva

I like my mini-vivas resource, a tool to create valuable practice responding to questions before the viva.

I like the acronym BOOST for feedback – Balanced, Observed, Objective, Specific, Timely – a neat way to remember how to frame constructive feedback.

I’m always tinkering at the back of my mind with various resources, and have a notion these two might fit together quite well. As a starting place, how about the following sets of questions for feedback or reflection after a mini-viva?

If you use have a mini-viva by yourself, try these to help you reflect afterwards:

  • What stands out to you as a good response? What made it good?
  • What questions were challenging for you? Why?
  • What can you take away from this? How is that valuable to you?
  • What might you need to explore next?

If you have a friend help you by steering a mini-viva, then prompt them with the following to get feedback afterwards:

  • What did I communicate well? Why was it clear?
  • What did they not understand? What could I try?
  • What else did they want to know?
  • What other questions would they ask you now?

Having a mini-viva, giving a presentation, having a full mock viva – all of these things by themselves can be useful to give you a space to practise. You can “boost” the benefit you get with some targeted questions and reflections afterwards.

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