As you prepare for your viva, consider your thesis as the record of your research.

You followed a method or were guided by a particular reference. Why? What did that give you? What if you had followed another method? What if you used a difference reference?

Reframing could help you to see other possibilities – not better, but maybe not worse. Something different.

Reframing could help you add more evidence for your thinking: now you are even more certain you made the right choice.

This kind of reframing can open your mind to questions from your examiners. They might ask you to consider other perspectives. They will probably ask questions to gain a better  understanding of your perspective. The more practice you have before the viva, the more comfortable this could be when you meet your examiners.

All The Answers

Knowing exactly what to say to answer every question in your viva isn’t a reasonable expectation. It’s not required for the viva. Your examiners don’t expect it from you. You would probably need to know all of the questions before they were asked (and you won’t).

You’re not expected to know all the answers, but you are expected to respond to every question.

A response could be an answer or an opinion. A response could be sharing an idea or offering a hypothesis. A response could be a gut feeling or a question for clarification.

A response could even be saying “I don’t know,” and then explaining why.

You can’t have all the answers but you have many options for offering a response.

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.

Answers and Responses

An answer is a kind of response. An answer is grounded in truth or a compelling argument. An answer could be what you offer after a question…

…if the question is part of a quiz. But the viva isn’t a quiz. It’s not an interview. It’s not even a question-and-answer session.

The viva is a discussion, steered by the questions of your examiners and the responses you offer. A response could be an answer depending on the question – but it could also be an opinion you offer, an idea that you share, a question to clarify a point or a hunch that you feel. There’s a place for answers in the viva, but you might not have an answer for every question.

However, given your knowledge, your skills, your work and your experience, it’s reasonable to expect that you could respond to every question.

Doing Better

If an examiner asks, “How would you improve your research?” they’re not trying to trick you. There’s no trap in a question like, “What would you change?”

These are honest, simple questions to get you exploring the topic of what you’ve learned through your PhD journey. They might seem like questions that could only lead to more work, but they’re looking for evidence of your commitment to learning and developing, rather than a commitment to doing more for your PhD and your thesis.

You did a lot. Now you can do better.

Being Right

“What if I’m wrong?” asks the concerned PhD candidate, getting ready for their viva.

Typos are a kind of wrong. Not quite meeting expectations with the thesis is too. Not knowing something is a flavour of wrong, but can be fixed.

You could be wrong when you respond to a question. Your examiners could know something, or have a different opinion, or a different belief… But perhaps they’re not right either. Perhaps you’re in a situation where there are lots of good “right” opinions. That could be interesting

Most of the time, considering the work you’ve done, the time you’ve spent, your talent, your knowledge and your thesis, you will be right.

That might be the easy part. Now you have to share what you know with others. That might be harder, but again, considering the work you’ve done, the time you’ve spent, your talent, your knowledge and your thesis, you’ll rise to that harder challenge when you need to.

Am I right?

I Didn’t Do That One Thing

Not finishing a project or experiment doesn’t disqualify you from succeeding in your PhD. If you didn’t read a certain paper, or follow a line of thought to some kind of conclusion you don’t forfeit your viva. You might need to explain if something seems missing. That explanation might be best in your thesis, but it could also be required in your viva if your examiners ask about it.

The root question is always “Why?”

  • Why didn’t you do it?
  • Why didn’t you read that paper?
  • Why weren’t you able to finish?

Unless the answer is “I was lazy” then an honest response is what your examiners want:

  • “I didn’t know about that…”
  • “I focussed on something else…”
  • “I learned about it too late to include it…”

Develop your response further by talking about what you would have done or could have done, or what you might do differently. Talk about what you learned in the process.

In most cases, unless you were being lazy, “that one thing” will just be one more little thing in a big list of things that you might have done during your PhD.

As you get ready for your viva it’s probably better – for your preparation and your confidence – to focus on what you have done, rather than on what you could have done.

Time To Think

You had lots of time to think during your PhD. You had plenty during your prep. You have enough in the viva.

Your examiners want you to consider, ponder, debate, reflect, examine, muse, propose – to think! – and then respond.

This doesn’t mean long silences, longer vivas or almost-impossible questions. Just enough time to think about something important.

Take time in your viva. It’s there for you to use.