Types of Response

You might not have an answer for every question in your viva.

But in response you could offer an opinion or share a thought. You could ask a question for clarity or reveal how you feel about a topic. You could have a hunch or hypothesis, or you could have nothing, and say simply, “I don’t know.”

Responding to questions or comments is a fundamental part of the viva – but remember that you don’t need an answer for everything.

“That’s Interesting”

Two words, spoken by my internal examiner, as we approached the end of my viva.

Two words that came after he had summarised my final chapter.

Two words that followed a summary of “In Chapter 7 you detail your failure at solving a problem.”

“That’s interesting.”

Two words that seemed as if they were followed by a yawning void of time as I tried to understand what he meant.

Two words that I realised were not, in fact, a question.

Two words that were a simple comment, an observation.

Two words that I responded to by saying why I had felt it important to include preliminary results, why it still might help someone.

Two words from him, two minutes of talking from me and then a simple response of “OK” afterwards.

 

Two words or two sentences or two minutes of talking from either of your two examiners could make your heart skip a beat as you wonder what was meant and ponder what to say.

Take a breath, think, try to understand. What do they mean? Then respond.

Sometimes a simple comment is simply a comment: you don’t need to say much in response at all.

“What Can I Get You?”

There’s no viva menu. You can’t sit down at your table and order it exactly as you like…

I’ll have a two-hour viva, plenty of praise, skip the bad stuff and go easy on the methodology questions. I don’t need a side-order of corrections, thanks!

Your examiners are not there to serve you what you want, but what the situation needs. Some of that might be unclear until the viva starts. Remember that you know what the raw ingredients are for the viva: you, your thesis, your talent, who your examiners are. You know what the process is trying to achieve, even if it’s not an à la carte experience.

No Rules

There aren’t any rules for the viva, not exactly. That’s not how they work.

There are regulations, specific to each institution, but broadly compatible across the UK.

And there are reasonable expectations from the general stories that are told and shared about viva experiences.

And there are local “house rules” that each department might have (around lengths, formats and so on).

There aren’t rules for the viva, not really, but there is lots of information available that can help people figure out how to play the game. Look for what you need, and pass on what you figure out after you complete your viva.

The Viva Is Not…

The viva is not a rite of passage.

The viva is not an academic ritual.

The viva is not a Q&A session.

The viva is not an interview.

The viva is not a mystery.

The viva is not trivial.

The viva is not impossible.

It’s an exam. A unique oral exam based on the particular research you’ve done. Given that it’s based on your work, you can prepare for it.

Given that there are regulations and a culture of examination, you can learn reasonable expectations and build those into your preparations too.

The viva is important, but the viva is not more important than your PhD.

The Control Room

You can’t control how long your viva will be. Or what question you’ll be asked first. Or what parts your examiners do or don’t like. Or how they express themselves or pose their questions to you.

You can’t control the flow of the viva. Knowing which questions commonly come up won’t mean you can control if they’ll be asked to you. You can’t control whether or not a response to a question will be satisfactory. You can’t control if your examiners agree with you on a methodological point. You can’t control whether or not they are going to ask that one question which you dread being asked.

But you can control how you prepare.

You can control what you do to get ready.

You can control how you start your viva day.

You can make choices to help lead you in the direction of confidence for your viva.

Exceptions

There are lots of general expectations for the viva. Common lengths. Typical structures. Regulations that determine process. But whatever the expectation, there are always exceptions:

  • Really short vivas or really long vivas.
  • Vivas with more than two examiners.
  • An examiner without a doctorate.
  • A viva that comes after a long period since submission.

And there are many more circumstances that either can’t be anticipated in advance of the viva, or are incredibly rare when they occur.

Exceptions are often worrying. They’re not part of the pattern, so there might not be a quick and simple response for what someone should do or how they should behave. Still, with a little thought there’s a way to find solid ground beneath the shifting sands of exceptions.

Look at the difference between the exception and the expectation (assuming it’s something you can know in advance).

How big is it? How can you measure that difference? What does it really mean?

For example, if you had three examiners, one more than “typical” – what would you really need to do differently to be ready?

  • Read a little of the research of the third examiner, as you would for the other two (it takes a little longer, so your prep needs a little more time).
  • Perhaps build your confidence at being part of an exam with more people.
  • Perhaps ask around on Twitter or in your department to see if others have had a similar experience (you won’t be the first!).
  • Reflect on how much of a difference it really makes, and see if there’s anything else you need to do.

Earlier this year, I panicked slightly at the thought of helping people prepare to have vivas over video: what strange new situations would people find themselves in? How could I help candidates with this big shift? What could I do, and what would they need to do???

It was a big shift, there were a lot of people suddenly needing to have the viva over Zoom or Meet or Skype – but they weren’t the first. It might have been their expectation to have their viva in a seminar room, but the rare exception of vivas taking place over video were already quite numerous. One question asked on Twitter lead to lots of generous responses that helped many people. Because whatever the expectations there are always exceptions.

Whatever your exceptional situation, however rare, you’re probably not the first. Ask your community, look for support and I’m pretty sure you’ll find what you need.

Aspects Of The Viva

There are lots of elements to the viva:

  • There is what’s presented in your thesis, the pre-requisite to being in the viva at all.
  • There is why you did it in the first place, a subject that often comes up in some form.
  • There is who you are, and to a lesser extent who your examiners are.
  • There is why you are there and what you have planned afterwards perhaps.
  • There is the logistics – how, when, where – and the expectations – the things that tend to happen and influence how people feel about the viva.
  • There is the beginning, middle, end and afterwards.
  • There is the dance between feeling excited and feeling worried.
  • There is the preparation, the support, the help – and then just you and your examiners.

There’s a lot to the viva. Focussing only on one element means you will miss something important in all the other aspects. But trying to focus on everything means you’ll also probably miss something.

Another aspect worth mentioning: they almost always result in success for the candidate. Whatever else you need to explore or reflect on for yourself, remember the most likely outcome for all your work.

Most

If most vivas result in success, why would yours be any different?

If most candidates can get ready with only a little work, relative to the rest of their PhDs, what’s different for you?

If most people have a viva that’s two to three hours long, does it matter if yours is longer or shorter?

If most theses need correcting in some way, what’s the problem with you doing yours?

 

If you have a real response to any of these sort-of-rhetorical questions, then in most cases you’ll have to do something. You might have to work more, or get more help than most, or ask for support, or get clarification about how your viva can be made fair.

But for some candidates, you might simply have to think about what’s really going on for you. Think about what might be skewing your point of view, and explore what you could do to change your perspective.

Hold on to this: most vivas, the overwhelming majority, result in success.

Want/Need

In the UK, wanting to be a PhD means needing to have a viva.

A lot could be done to help postgraduate researchers be prepared for the viva – even from the early stages of the PhD – if we helped people see that the viva is just another part of the process, like a literature review or an annual report or even a meeting with a supervisor. It’s just something that needs to happen.

And like lit reviews, reports and meetings, vivas are different for individuals too.

Unique, in fact.

There can be expectations and norms, but always differences. There’s lots and lots of general advice for PhDs based on useful structures that broadly apply – for writing, doing research, being a researcher – and then every PGR has to make sense of those for them, their research, their PhD.

You need all those things to be a PhD. You need your viva too. If you feel resistance towards it, for any reason, then you have to be responsible for working past it. What steps could you take to steer your perception towards the viva?

How can you see it not as some terrible thing, not perhaps even as the final milestone, but just one more necessary part of the process of becoming a PhD?