Examiners Are Human

Doctor Important or Professor Amazing perhaps, but your viva examiners are still just people.

They know that exams can be stressful for the people taking them.

They know that you have worked hard. They know you might be nervous.

They can’t take your nerves away but they can create as good a space as possible for the viva.

Your examiners will do everything they can to make sure the viva is fair. Remember, they’ve likely had a viva or similar in the past too. They know what this means to you.

No Early Updates

Between submission and the viva you might spot some changes you want to make in your thesis.

Perhaps you see a typo that has to be amended, a sentence that could be simpler or a diagram that’s just not right. It could be you’ve thought more and now have a slightly different opinion. Maybe a paper has been published recently and that gives a different perspective to part of your work.

We can’t say that none of this matters – but it doesn’t change anything in your thesis at this stage. You can’t make corrections yet. You can’t change your opinion as it stands. You can’t write more into the pages you’ve submitted.

You can make a note for later. You can stick a Post-it Note in with a suggestion. You can read a paper and write a summary if you think it’s really relevant.

But no updates. No changes. No alterations. Whatever you call them, all the changes wait until after the viva.

Structured

A viva is not a random collection of questions and comments from your examiners, strung together by whatever you say in response.

Your university has regulations that govern the viva. Your department has expectations for what a good viva “should” be like. By reading regulations and talking to graduates you can build a sense of the pattern – the structure – that underpins your viva.

Your research and thesis are the basis for many areas of discussion in the viva. Your thesis is set out chapter by chapter and it’s natural that your examiners would follow that flow in your viva.

Your examiners will have prepared for your viva too: reading, thinking, writing and discussing what needs to happen. They have their own research and while you cannot predict every question they might ask, you can appreciate from where their questions might come.

The structure of a viva is not a big topic to dig into and digest. Perhaps the most important point to remember is simply this: there is a structure.

The viva doesn’t just happen.

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.