Out Of Options?

I don’t think there’s ever a situation in the viva where you can do nothing.

I can’t think of a question that could be asked that a candidate couldn’t respond to. Questions from examiners are asked to prompt discussion. They’re asked to clarify what something means. They’re asked to dig deeper into your thesis and research.

By design, they’re not asked to crush you, stump you or stop you. They’re not asked to tear your work apart or make you feel small. They could be uncomfortable, they could be critical or they could ask about something that you’ve not thought about before.

You always have options for how you engage with them.

You just need to pause. Then you think. And you respond. A difficult question or comment cannot derail your success so long as you pause, think and respond.

There’s always something you can do.

It’s Complicated

If your research wasn’t complicated then it probably wouldn’t be up to the standard needed for a PhD. It will help you, however, to explore how you can express your ideas clearly, simply.

The process for getting ready for the viva isn’t a straight-forward linear process; deciding when to start and what to do can be a complicated business. You can simplify things by asking simple questions and doing simple things.

Knowing what to expect from your viva is a very complicated question. It depends on what field you’re in, what university you’re at, whether your viva is in-person or over-video, who your examiners are, what time of year you submit and many other factors. Or simply, you can expect a conversation for several hours or so, lead by examiners and their questions.

Ask anything about the viva and the honest first response is: “It’s complicated.” If you find the right help and explore a little though, you’ll probably find that there are simple things to consider which will really help you.

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.

Prove It

In your viva you might be able to handwave some details.

To have time to explore the truly important aspects of your work you might want to skip past tricky things, or make a short point that captures something big. That’s acceptable to do. You can say, effectively, “Trust me. This is the way it is and we don’t need to explore or explain it too much.”

It’s acceptable, but it’s also acceptable for your examiners to say, “Prove it.”

You can use whatever words you want in the viva to explain something. Your examiners can always ask for more detail. While you can say things as simply as you want, you have to be prepared to explore the complex.

The Next Question

Some candidates fixate on a not unreasonable concern about the viva: that they will be asked a question for which they will find no good response. It could be a question they dread. Or a question they’ve never considered. It may be a question that feels easy but which they can’t figure out. Or even just a comment that hits them harder than they like.

Candidates worry that this moment, if it happens, will be too much. They fear that, if it happens, it will impact the rest of the viva. Given the importance of the viva, this kind of concern is reasonable.

The roots of the problem can be really complex but the solution is simple: if you are faced with a question as described you have to breathe and focus on the next question coming up.

Because there isn’t anything else to do. If in one moment on one day you find that you don’t have what you need, then there is still the next moment and the next question to engage with.

Simply thinking about questions before the viva is not enough to eliminate fears. Making notes for possible responses falls short. To help, you have to put yourself in situations where you need to respond. Practice makes a difference. Mock vivas, conversations with friends or seminars can all make a difference.

Each question you’re asked is an opportunity to demonstrate something: what you know, what you did or what you can do. And if you fall short in an opportunity then there is the next question coming up, another chance to show something good.

If you face a difficult moment: breathe and focus on the next question.

Keep going.

Don’t Prepare Monologues

Your examiners are not attending a play. They don’t want you to sit (or stand) and talk at them for hours. They want a conversation. They want you to respond rather than recite.

There might be tricky parts of your research or thesis where it matters if the words are said a certain way. Of course, check that you remember them correctly – but don’t expect to simply parrot them to your examiners.

It’s far better to have general rehearsal for responding to questions (with a mock viva or having a chat with friends) than it is to write down and try to memorise lots of possible responses to lots of possible questions.

You need to talk in the viva. You need to prepare to do that. You don’t need to have prepared responses or monologues.

Saying The Right Thing

In the viva, no candidate wants to say the wrong thing. No-one wants to misremember a detail or misquote a paper. No-one wants to go blank and say the first thing, the silly thing, the wrong thing.

No-one wants to say the wrong thing, but remember there might not be a right thing.

Not every question has an answer. Not every question is probing for truth. A question could be exploratory. A question could be to clarify a point. A question could be seeking an opinion if there is one.

In the viva you could definitely say the wrong thing; depending on the question you might not be able to offer a right thing. You can always take your time and offer your best. Listen to the question, pause, think and respond.

Two Pictures

I wanted to call this post…

The Picture In My Head Is Not The Picture In Your Head

…but even I have my limits!

This phrase came to me recently when my daughter was trying to explain something from school. She was getting frustrated, starting to tire of my questions until just before she got angry I thought to say, “Sweetie, the picture in my head is not the picture in your head. I don’t understand yet what you mean, so I have to ask questions to try and imagine what you’re seeing.”

And she stopped and considered; then we started again and after a few more minutes there was understanding.

Your thesis has tens of thousands of words, and the picture it puts in your examiners’ heads may not match the picture you have in yours. So they have to ask questions.

The picture of a viva in your mind might be muddled or unclear compared to the stories your friends tell you. Asking questions and listening to the responses helps.

Your description of your contribution to research, while clearly matching the picture in your head, may be lacking detail when a reader sees it in their mind.

The picture in my head is not the picture in your head. And the picture in your head is not the same as the picture in your examiners’ heads, your supervisor’s mind and so on.

Patient listening helps. Careful questions help. Practice before the viva helps your performance on the day.

You can’t simply will someone to see the picture you see.

You can learn how to guide someone to a closer understanding of your picture though.

Show Your Working

These three words were drilled into me in my former life as a mathematician. In solving a maths problem it wasn’t enough to find an answer, I had to show how I had got there. I couldn’t claim a result without proof.

“Show your working” is important for PhDs more generally, not just for low-dimensional topologists!

Postgraduate researchers show their working in their thesis, but then also in the viva. They have to explain their thinking, share the knowledge they have and demonstrate their ability.

A viva isn’t only about reciting facts. You have to show your working – but of course, by this stage, you must have a lot of experience doing that. Preparing for the viva is partly reviewing those experiences, and partly practising doing it one more time.

Show how you’ve worked in your viva – and show once again how you can do the work.