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. By 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.

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.

Surprised

If I had a pound for every time someone told me they were surprised they enjoyed their viva I would probably have a very healthy savings account. When I share stories of success and enjoyment with candidates they are surprised. They’ve heard that vivas are OK or that most people pass, but don’t know that they can be good.

With candidates and graduates being surprised by this we have a problem!

So what can we do?

Candidates can find out more about what to expect to get a better sense of the reality of the viva. Graduates, surprised or not, can share their stories more widely. Vivas aren’t perfect, but they are more often enjoyed than awful.

Experienced

Your examiners have enough experience that they can read your thesis, understand it and know what they need to do in their role to give you and your work a fair examination.

It’s possible that your examiners might know more than you about your field. They might even be considered experts in topics related to your thesis.

If that’s the case, however you feel, remember that you have the experience of writing your thesis. You have the experience of doing the work. You have the experience of reading everything you needed to get this far. You have the experience of rising to all of the challenges you had so that you could get to submission.

Your examiners are experienced enough to do their part well. You are too.

Opportunities To Engage

Questions in the viva aren’t tricks, traps or trouble. They’re not dissecting problems or simply looking to expose weakness.

Your examiners’ questions are there to get you talking. They’re asked to get you exploring, explaining, talking – engaging with the exam, talking about your thesis, your research and your journey.

Viva questions are your opportunities to engage – how will you make the most of them?

 

Nerves Are Human

If you’re nervous about the viva then you will feel uncomfortable, but there’s nothing wrong.

Nerves are a very human response to important situations. Your examiners might be nervous about your viva because they want it go well too. Your supervisor could be nervous, friends and family could be nervous on your behalf. A crowd of people, near and far, all nervous for what will happen and wanting it go well.

I don’t have a tried and tested method for removing nerves – but you can lessen the discomfort you feel by building your confidence. Reflect on your PhD journey, see the progress you’ve made and the knowledge and skillset that you must have. It doesn’t make you not-nervous, but it can help make you more confident for the important event that is in your future.

If you’re nervous about the viva then you’re human. As a human you can do something about it.

Heads or Tails

You can’t flip a coin to determine viva success.

The stories we tell about vivas pivot on knowing if someone passed or failed – but these things are not equally likely. Around one in one thousand PhD candidates don’t pass.

There are many, many reasons why candidates pass – the process, the structure of the PhD, the skillset and knowledge base and experience that a candidate must typically have.

Doubting your future success is a human response; knowing a little of what to expect in the viva can be the first step to putting doubts to one side, so you can focus on being ready to succeed.

Passing the viva is not due to simple luck.

The UnWords

Questions about viva expectations often lead towards the UnWords.

  • “What if examiners are unfair?”
  • “What if I’m unprepared?”
  • “What if I’m uncertain about a question?”
  • “What if what they want to know is unknown?”
  • “Will my examiners be unkind?”

It’s human to expect the worst. It’s normal given the rumours, myths and half-truths told about the viva for a PhD candidate to expect the worst. It doesn’t match the reality though.

Examiners have regulations and training in mind to make sure they’re fair. You can take time to be ready. Examiners are looking for engagement rather than answers. They’ve no interest in being unkind.

It’s natural to ask questions about the PhD viva. Thankfully the answers you’ll find will generally lead you away from expecting the worst.

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.

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