An Unexpected Question

You can’t know exactly what questions your examiners will ask, but you can have a good idea of the topics they’ll want to talk about in the viva. You can’t have a response ready and waiting for every topic, but you can feel fairly confident in your preparations that you can engage with almost anything your examiners might want to ask.

Almost anything.

There’s always a possibility that they ask something you’ve never considered. There’s a chance they may notice something you haven’t. An unexpected question could be asked that you, at first, don’t know how to handle. You just might not know what to think or say.

At first.

Whatever the unexpected question, however left field it is, you can still engage with it. Pause to consider it. Think about what it means. Respond as best you can. Ask your examiners questions to unpick what they mean. Be patient with yourself.

Pause. Think. Respond.

Examiner Feedback

Feedback from your examiners could be a great help if your plan is to continue in academia. Questions, opinions, insights – whatever they offer or you ask for could give you a boost.

If you’re hoping for something from them, it might help to think in advance about what you really want. Make a list of questions, prioritise them; stay on track when the time comes to ask or if a moment comes that seems appropriate to follow up.

Consider again who your examiners are, where their interests lie and what they do. What would you really want to know from them if you had the chance to ask?

Ask Someone Why

Faced with a difficult question or unexpected comment in the viva, perhaps the best thing you can do is ask why.

  • Ask your examiner(s) why that question is important.
  • Ask why a comment matters to them.
  • Ask why they think the way they think.

Or ask yourself why. Why have you gone blank? Why is something difficult? Why did you write something the way you did, or do something the way you have?

When you ask why you uncover some of the reasons beneath the surface of a question or comment. You take the first steps to being able to respond and participate in the discussion.

If a question or comment makes you pause, ask someone “Why?” and see where that leads.

Use Your Opportunities

The viva is a discussion driven by questions from your examiners. Every question is an opportunity for you to share your work and show your capability.

Every question is an opportunity for you to demonstrate what you did, what you know or what you can do. Every question is a step closer to finishing and passing.

If any question causes you to stumble, to freeze, to forget, then you’ll be alright. Another opportunity will present itself.

Every question is an opportunity in the viva, but there will be far fewer questions and opportunities than those you’ve already answered, responded to or made the most of on your PhD journey. The viva itself is one more opportunity to learn, grow, develop and show your ability as a researcher.

So make the most of it.

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.┬áBy 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:┬áSince 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?

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