A Supervisor’s Faith

At one of my final sessions before my summer break, a participant commented that supervisors wouldn’t let a candidate submit their thesis if they didn’t have faith that their thesis was good enough.

I think the core of this is true: good supervisors are invested in their researcher’s success. Good supervisors care enough to give guidance and feedback. Good supervisors make sure their researchers have an idea of what to expect from all stages of the PhD process, including the viva.

You have to believe, but you also have to ask. If you need more – guidance, feedback, information – then you have to take the first step to find out more.

You can have faith, but you can also take certainty from their support too. If your supervisors support your thesis submission you can be confident they think you’ve done enough and you’re good enough.


With thanks to soon-to-be-Dr Stewart McCreadie for his observation at a 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva session!

Supporting Your Supervisor

Your supervisor needs to support you after submission. Your supervisor is also probably really busy. The best way to get what you need from them is to be as specific and clear as possible.

Before submission, think about what you might need. A mock viva? General support or questions around particular parts of your research? Insight into examiners or the viva process? Explore what you might need before approaching your supervisor.

Before submission, ask about their schedule. When are they busy? Do they have times where they will be unavailable or less able to help? Find out what could get in the way of you accessing their support.

After submission, ask for help as clearly as you can and with as much notice as you can manage. Be specific in your requests, so your supervisor can respond and match your expectations as closely as possible. There may not be time to get everything you need, so consider what your priorities are and communicate them.

You need help from your supervisor to help you get ready for your viva. Support them and they can support you.

Solo Preparation

If your supervisor is busy or you don’t have a good relationship with them then you can still prepare for your viva. You don’t need them – or anyone else – to help you read your thesis, or annotate it, or check the regulations, or do many of the other valuable things you might do as part of your prep.

But a supervisor is uniquely placed to offer some useful help: feedback on your progress over the years and perhaps a mock viva. You could be prepared for the viva without these things, but they do help.

If you think you need these sorts of things but your supervisor isn’t the person to help you, then think about who else is in your circle. Colleagues, friends, and so on – who could help? Even if they can’t do exactly what your supervisor could, think about what they could offer.

Like the rest of the PhD, you’ll do most of the preparation for your viva by yourself – but you are not alone.

A Little Feedback

After submission there’s a nice opportunity to get a little feedback. Just a little, mind you, not too much.

You know what you know. You know what you think. You probably have some idea of what your supervisor thinks too. You know what others have said at conferences and in seminars and so on.

You don’t need a lot of new feedback at this stage. You have years of it. What you need is just a few thoughts to help you keep thinking in new ways about your research.

Ask for what you need. Ask your supervisor for their thoughts on your strengths, and if there’s anything you could have done differently. You’re not problem hunting, just exploring ideas. Tell friends about your research, and ask what questions they have. Offer to give a seminar if you have time, and listen to questions from that.

A little feedback can go a long way.

Finding Feedback That Helps

After submission and before the viva, feedback is still one of the most useful things you can go looking for as part of your prep.

Make a list of who could really give you useful feedback: your supervisor, your office-mate, a person you met at a conference…

Make a list of topics: the way you answer questions, how clear your thesis is, whether your assumptions about your examiners are useful…

Make a list of questions: is this useful? how could this be better? why does this work well?…

Then go ask.

Go get the support you need.

Thoughtful and Targeted

When it’s time to prepare for your viva, show that you’ve thought about what you need from your supervisors. If you want a mock viva, ask as far in advance as possible. If there are particular areas you would like feedback on, figure out questions that will help focus your supervisors. If you want to know what it’s like to be an examiner or get a different perspective then tell them.

You know by now that your supervisors can offer a lot of help due to their knowledge and experience. So be thoughtful and targeted with your requests – thoughtful so that they get as much notice as possible of your needs, targeted so that you stand the best chance of having those needs met.

Your supervisors’ time is valuable. Treat it that way.

Who’s In The Room?

It’s your viva day. There’s you, your internal examiner, your external examiner. At some institutions there’s an independent chair too, someone making sure that the viva is fair. Many universities also allow a candidate’s supervisor to be present.

Did you hear that?! That was the sharp intake of breath of a thousand PhDs around the land.

My supervisor could be at my viva?! Noooooooo!!!

If your supervisor came to your viva they would be there only as an observer. If they came to your viva they couldn’t ask any questions or comment on your responses. If they came it would only be because you allowed it.

But if they came they would be able to make notes on your behalf. You’re free to make any notes you like, but that could be tricky. Your supervisor, if you wanted and if they were willing, could keep a record of interesting questions or observations. This information could be pretty useful after the viva. But it’s all up to you. If the thought of your supervisor coming adds pressure, then just say no.

Four Questions For Your Supervisors

First, far in advance of submission, who would be good choices for examiners? Get their feedback, be a part of the discussion. Ultimately your supervisors will get to nominate.

Second, after the hustle and bustle of submission is done, what would they say is the most problematic part of your research? It won’t be anything that is wrong, and it might not be anything controversial, just something that needs a little extra thought.

Third, and once you’ve thought about it for yourself, what do they think are the strongest results or outcomes of your research? They will see everything you’ve done, but will have a slightly different perspective and that’s useful to know.

Finally, when the dust has settled and your viva is done, what can you do better now? There will be a lot of ways that you have grown during your PhD, but it can be difficult for you to spot them day-to-day.

What else might it be good to ask? Have a think, see where your ideas take you.