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There’s a difference between the thoughts you want from your supervisors before and after submission.

While finishing your thesis there are all sorts of things you might want them to consider. Does it read well? Is this right? Does it communicate what I want it to? Can you spot any typos? You want their thoughts on these and other questions because you want your thesis to be as good as possible. It can’t be perfect, but you want it to be good enough.

Your supervisors’ feedback can be a valuable part of the work that you need to do.

After submission, you still need thoughts from your supervisors but the need is different. You don’t need more ideas or suggestions on how to make your thesis better. Instead you want an outsider perspective. Your methods are sound, but what other approaches are there? Your conclusions are valid, but how else might someone look at what you’ve done? Your work is good, but what other good work could someone do in this area?

You’re not looking for more feedback. You’re looking for a different perspective. Not necessarily your examiners’ perspective, but something different to get you thinking. Listening to different perspectives as part of your prep – and responding to them – can be useful practice for the viva.

Who Is At The Viva?

In the UK there have to be at least two examiners, one internal and one external. Both are important. It’s not true that the external has the final say or is senior to the internal. Both will have read your thesis. Both will be prepared. Together they will lead the discussion in the viva and together they will determine the outcome.

An independent chair could be part of the viva process: a member of staff who will observe and confirm that the viva was fair. Some universities always insist on a chair; others require them for certain situations. If there needs to be a chair then they will be there.

You might need your supervisor at your viva. It might feel appropriate to have them be a witness to a final step of your PhD journey. You might need them to make notes about what you discuss or you might need the help of having a supporter in the room.

Or you might need them to not be there: that’s fine too!

Finally, you need to be there. You need to be present, prepared and ready to engage.

Who is at the viva? In short, everyone who needs to be.

Supervisor Presence

There are good reasons to have your supervisor present at your viva.

They can be moral support. They can make notes on your behalf. You could feel like it’s a fitting moment in your working relationship.

There are good reasons to not have your supervisor present at your viva.

You might be distracted. You might not want an audience. Perhaps you don’t have a good relationship with them.

Either way it’s your decision; you get to choose and that’s that.

Reflect on what matters to you.

Benefits and Space

In principle you can invite your supervisor to your viva. It’s up to you, there are plenty of benefits.

  • You could show them what you know and what you can do.
  • They could make notes on your behalf and give them to you afterwards. A good record of the discussion in the viva could be valuable.
  • You could feel supported: you could feel better that there is someone in your corner.

These are all possible benefits from your supervisor being at your viva – but you still might not want them there. It might feel too uncomfortable. The idea of it might make you nervous.

It’s not a bad idea to have them present but it might not be a good idea for you.

Say yes if you need some of the benefits. Say no if you need that space for yourself.

Confidence From Your Supervisors

Feedback and praise can help build confidence. Your supervisors could be the best people to boost you before your viva. You have to pick your questions to be as helpful to you as possible.

Don’t ask them how you could be better. Don’t ask them about how your work could be improved. Don’t ask them to critique your thesis.

Ask them to describe your qualities and talents. Ask them to describe your successes. Ask them why these things matter.

Ask them questions that are more likely to build you up, rather than give you more to obsess over. There’s a time and a place for constructive criticism. I don’t think that time or place is the weeks leading up to your viva.

Consulting Your Supervisors

Your supervisors will be able to help with lots of things related to the viva. It’s good to consider them in the role of a consultant.

Consultants take a step back, they’re there to advise: you have to do the work. It’s best to ask highly-targeted questions and make specific requests – both to get the best response from them and respect their time.

  • Before submission they can offer feedback on your research, guidance on your thesis and talk through expectations for the viva.
  • During preparation time they can steer your perspective, share insights into your examiners and perhaps practically help your preparations with a mock viva.
  • After it’s all done they can support you as you deliver on your corrections, and hopefully even find a way to help you celebrate!

There’s lots of possibilities: before you ask for help, consider what you might really need from them. Then focus on asking for that.

3 Questions To Ask Your Supervisors Before Submission

Viva preparation starts after submission, but the right questions – asked in advance – can help you submit well and set up your success in your preparation and viva. Before submission, ask your supervisors the following and build on these in discussion:

  1. Who do they think would be good examiners and why? Many supervisors invite opinions from students; final decisions rest with supervisors. You could offer ideas, but understanding the criteria they are using (or the names they are choosing) can give you confidence for the process and useful information.
  2. In advance of submission, what constructive feedback can they offer of your thesis? Make the most of this. Use their thoughts to help how you communicate your research.
  3. What are some of the trickiest areas they see candidates struggling with in the viva? Generally, what questions or topics do they see problems with? Or what are topics that they see as perfectly natural to talk about, but which candidates might not prepare for?

These questions will not paint the whole picture for your thesis, your preparation or the viva. They will be a good start. You can trust that your supervisors want you to pass, and want to give you appropriate assistance.

Use these discussions to help your submission and state of mind as you head towards the viva.

The Trade-Off

There are lots of people who can help with your viva preparations, but the two most useful groups are your supervisors and your colleagues. They can provide similar kinds of help with unpicking the research you’ve done, but they have different restrictions.

  • Your supervisors can give you depth of thought and feedback, but they are probably very busy.
  • Your colleagues may have great availability, but won’t have deep knowledge of your thesis.

So you have the trade-off, availability versus depth: you have to decide what will help you most.

If you need real detail, then you probably have to get help from your supervisors. So you might need to plan in advance how and when you’ll get help. If you really just need someone to listen, and your supervisor is time-pressured, then perhaps you can lean more on your colleagues in an ad-hoc way.

There are lots of things you can ask for from supervisors and colleagues. And you can use both groups to support your preparations, you don’t need to cut anyone out! As you submit your thesis, think: What’s left? What do you need? Who do you need?