A Range Of Expectations

Every viva is unique.

Some vivas are long, some are short, but most fall within a certain range. Some vivas start with a presentation, some with the candidate being told they’ve passed, but most begin with a simple question to start the discussions. Some candidates are excited, some are unprepared, but most are nervous-but-ready for the hours ahead. Some candidates get no corrections, some resubmit their thesis, but the vast majority are simply asked to complete minor corrections.

A variety of viva experiences leads to a range of expectations. There are lots of things that could happen: thankfully there are patterns of experience that stand out. Expect to be in your viva for several hours and expect questions that prompt discussion. Expect that you will be ready-but-nervous (or nervous-but-ready!) and expect that you will have to make some changes to your thesis afterwards.

Your viva will be unique but cannot be a total unknown. Understanding the range of expectations for the viva process can help you to prepare for whatever happens.

An Unexpected Question

You can’t know exactly what questions your examiners will ask, but you can have a good idea of the topics they’ll want to talk about in the viva. You can’t have a response ready and waiting for every topic, but you can feel fairly confident in your preparations that you can engage with almost anything your examiners might want to ask.

Almost anything.

There’s always a possibility that they ask something you’ve never considered. There’s a chance they may notice something you haven’t. An unexpected question could be asked that you, at first, don’t know how to handle. You just might not know what to think or say.

At first.

Whatever the unexpected question, however left field it is, you can still engage with it. Pause to consider it. Think about what it means. Respond as best you can. Ask your examiners questions to unpick what they mean. Be patient with yourself.

Pause. Think. Respond.

Pause, Don’t Stop

Pause in the viva to think about what you’ve heard.

Pause to gather yourself if you lose your train of thoughts.

Pause to check something in your thesis.

Pause to make a note.

Pause to take a sip of water.

Pause to break a question down because it’s really big and needs to be considered.

Pause, but don’t stop. Don’t stop because you are almost there. Don’t stop because whatever nerves you feel – whatever you feel – you have almost finished.

Pause whenever you need to in the viva. Ask for a break, a longer pause. Don’t stop.

Conclusions Aren’t The End

Thesis conclusions invite questions in the viva. Whatever the nature of concluding remarks, they can always lead to requests that go further or dig deeper.

  • “What next?” or “What now?”
  • “Are you sure?”
  • “What else could you…?”
  • “How else could one…?”
  • “How do you know…?”
  • “But what about…?”

If thesis conclusions were truly the end then vivas would probably be much shorter. There would simply be a lot less to discuss probably!

Instead, conclusions are a resting point. A pause. A clear mark that a destination has been reached, while also showing that there’s more to know or more to do.

Giving A Presentation

I love little quirks of language. We often use the verb give in connection with a presentation. It makes me think of gifts and presents – a present-ation!

Sometimes PhD candidates are asked to prepare a presentation to start the viva. If we consider the presentation as a gift you’re giving, then perhaps it makes sense to think of it like other gifts we might give.

  • Be sure it’s wanted. Your examiners will probably have some expectations of length and content. Either ask them or ask your supervisors for what is required.
  • Spend an appropriate amount. You invest time rather than money in this gift: a little preparation and practice will help. You don’t need to spend a lot to have something right for the occasion.
  • Upcycle previous gifts! A presentation for the start of your viva will not be the first time you have presented work from your thesis. Look at past talks and notes. Draw from them to make something to share with your examiners.

Gifts give something to the giver and the receiver. The person or people receiving have something they didn’t have before – in this case, examiners have information and a sense of who the giver, the candidate, is and what they have done.

As the giver, you give yourself permission to be proud of what you’ve done; you give yourself a good starting point for the viva; you give yourself a useful element of preparation and a confidence boost.

The Standard Viva

Vivas vary because every thesis and every candidate are different. Regulations create a layer of structure. Good practice for vivas creates expectations. You can’t have a script but you can reasonably expect a viva to have certain standard features.

  • You can and should expect examiners to prepare.
  • You can ask for a break at any point.
  • Vivas tend to start with a simple question.
  • Corrections are a standard request for candidates.

Success is part of the standard viva. More than anything, it’s expected you will pass.

Get Corrections Done

Big or small, whether they feel fair or not, after the viva just get your thesis corrections done. Your examiners will be clear about what needs doing and why – if there’s any doubt in your mind, ask them.

Corrections are a part of the process; no-one wants to do them, but they’re required for a good reason. They help to make your thesis that little bit better, more valuable or easier to read.

Unless you have a very good reason to think that your examiners have made a mistake: say thank you, make a list, make time to do them and get them done.

Disagreement Is Not Disaster

If one of your examiners doesn’t agree with some aspect of your work that doesn’t automatically mean you fail. It doesn’t mean the outcome of the viva jumps to major corrections. And it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.

It means that they disagree. They could disagree with a question, an idea, a method that you’ve used, a position that you hold or a conclusion that you’ve reached. It means that you’ll need to talk about it – but you have to talk and discuss your work in the viva whatever topic comes up.

Disagreement does mean you need to listen extra carefully. Ask questions to be certain of what your examiner disagrees with. Respond appropriately. It’s not the end of the world or the end of the viva. Disagreement shows a different perspective in some way. Sometimes you just have to listen and take note.

The Viva Is The Viva

The viva is a conversation.

The viva is a test.

The viva is the end of the PhD.

The viva is pass or fail.

The viva is inevitable.

The viva is something you can prepare for.

The viva is an unknown because it’s different every time.

The viva is your one chance.

There are lots of ways that people talk about the viva. Lots of comparisons. Lots of things that are true and lots of things that are “true”.

The viva is lots of things but you don’t have to take time to consider them all. You can invest your energy in the aspects that help you; you can remember that the viva that matters most to you is your viva.

The viva is the viva.

Your viva is your viva. What elements can you focus on to help yourself? What actions can you take to be ready?

My Examiner Criteria

A long time ago, my supervisor asked me to think about who could be a good external examiner for my PhD. He suggested initially that I go to conferences and look for people who did the same sort of work as me.

I did that and found no-one.

I decided to think about what I really wanted in an examiner. What would a good examiner look like to me?

First, they would have to have experience. I wanted my external to be someone who had been an academic for a long time. I wanted to know that they had had time to consider what made a good piece of research; they would have seen lots of things and have an idea of what “enough” looked like for a thesis!

Second, I wanted someone with a good reputation. I wanted it to be someone that other people spoke highly of. If my supervisor and others who I respected thought the person was good then chances are they were.

Finally, I wanted someone who was nice! I was fortunate to go to lots of conferences, but unfortunate to meet several academics who were rude. I met people who belittled postgraduate students. I met people who were critical to the point of being offensive.

If someone behaves that way in public, why would I want to be examined by them in private?

I was fortunate to meet some nice people though. I had a hunch they would be fair.

I combined all of these criteria – experience, reputation and niceness(!) – and came up with a shortlist. My criteria worked for me: my supervisor listened and my suggestions matched some of his.

If you’re asked to share ideas for possible examiners then I think my criteria are good – they may not be what matters most to you though.

Consider your criteria. Consider what you would value and why. Then explore names that come to mind. Talk with your supervisor and see what happens.

You can’t go too wrong by thinking about nice, decent people though.