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.

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?

 

Disagree

In your research you might disagree with something: a position taken by another researcher, the results of a paper or conclusions of a thesis.

Your examiners might disagree with a method you use, the way you interpret something, or your opinion on a topic they raise.

You might disagree with your examiners on something they think, or the way they view something you’ve done or the way they approach research.

And all of this is fine.

It’s fine to disagree but the person disagreeing has to say why.

“I disagree,” is not enough. Say why.

You would have to do this in your thesis to present your research well. To be able to engage with your examiners and their disagreements with your work in the viva you need to know why. If they don’t say initially, it’s fair for you to ask.

Ask why they disagree, if they do, and use that information to see how you can engage.

Are they making a fair point? Are they missing something? Are they simply expressing an opinion or comment? Once you know why you can respond well.

On Point

Big, open questions in the viva like “How did you get started?” or “Can you tell us why this method is valid?” could have big, open responses. It might be necessary to talk about a lot of different things to really respond to a question, and it’s not unreasonable for a candidate to be concerned about saying everything they need to or staying on track.

What could you do in your viva to stay on point with a response? A few thoughts:

  • Pause. Stop for a moment when listening to a question and just after to make sure you understand it.
  • Think. Is there a way to break the big question down? Are there key points you have to talk about? Can you do something simple to keep focus?
  • Note. Quickly write down keywords. Tick them off if you need to so you cover the appropriate points.
  • Pause again. There’s no rush. Quick pause, sip of water maybe, and ask yourself, “Have I said what I needed to so far?”
  • Check your thesis. Stay on the page relevant to the discussion. Flip forwards or backwards to find details. Does anything jump out that needs to be referenced?
  • Ask your examiners. Ask if they want to know more. Ask if you’ve been clear on a point if the topic is complicated.

If there’s a lot to talk about it’s natural to be concerned about going off the point you want to make. Thankfully there’s lots of little things you could do to make sure that isn’t such a big concern.

The Most Challenging Question

I think there are two possibilities for most challenging question a candidate could be asked in their viva.

First, the opening question of the viva. Not knowing what that opener is until it’s asked could make it very challenging. You’ll probably respond to it well, but the anticipation might make it feel tough.

The other possibility for most challenging is whatever question you really don’t want to be asked. Whatever it is, whatever part of your thesis or research, if there’s something you really don’t want to talk about there’s likely to be significant challenges in your mind when it comes to responding.

To help prepare for the first question: remember that your examiners want your viva to go well. They want to help with that by helping you to start well. The first question is likely to be simple stated and reflective – something to get you talking about your work.

To help prepare for the question you don’t want: ask others to ask you it. Prepare. Make notes. Talk about it. Talk about why you don’t want it and invest time in talking about the thing that you don’t want. Hoping you won’t be asked is not enough. Invest time in getting better at talking about it.

You will be asked a first question; you might not be asked about the topic you really don’t want to talk about. Either way, a little prep for both will help you face the challenges of your viva.

Consider It Now

An examiner could gently challenge you on why you didn’t use a certain method. Or they might wonder what would happen if you did X instead of Y. What if you had tested for this instead of that, and so on.

It’s reasonable to expect that kind of a question in the viva. It’s not unreasonable to say, “I’ve not considered that before,” or perhaps, “I don’t know, I’ve not thought about that…”

…but it’s better to say, “Let me think about that now,” and then consider and give the best response that you can.

It might not be the full picture. It might not be an answer. It could be that you can’t say everything you might want to. But for any question or line of discussion that you’ve not considered before, you can consider it now.

Take the time. Show what you know, show what you can do. If an examiner has asked you a question, it’s not to trick you or trap you: they’re giving you an opportunity to demonstrate something.

Not considered it before? Consider it now, then talk.

Doing Better

If an examiner asks, “How would you improve your research?” they’re not trying to trick you. There’s no trap in a question like, “What would you change?”

These are honest, simple questions to get you exploring the topic of what you’ve learned through your PhD journey. They might seem like questions that could only lead to more work, but they’re looking for evidence of your commitment to learning and developing, rather than a commitment to doing more for your PhD and your thesis.

You did a lot. Now you can do better.

Questions, Not A Quiz

Your examiners aren’t there to fire questions at you and expect an answer in ten seconds or less.

They don’t have a big list of true or false statements for you to correctly identify.

And they won’t be grilling you on every single reference you listed.

The viva is a discussion. Your examiners have prepared questions to guide the process. Some are to steer the conversation, others are to check details in your thesis; some are sparked by their personal interests, and some questions might be to satisfy ideas of what is “correct” in your discipline.

But they’re not rapid-fire, all-or-nothing, earning points or against the clock.

The viva has questions but it’s not a quiz.

You’re a candidate, not a contestant.

Responses to Classic Questions

“How do I get ready to answer classic questions in the viva?”

I’ve been asked this many times over the last decade – I’ve met over 5000 candidates in seminars and webinars, so there’s a lot of questions I’ve been asked more than once!

First, we have to dismiss the idea of “classic” or “common” questions. There are topics that frequently come up, like summarising research or being able to talk about methods or conclusions. Questions vary a lot though, and that’s before we account for every thesis being unique. You can’t prepare a response for every question that could be asked. There’s too many!

It’s far better to think of preparation for questions as being ready to participate in the viva. So what can you do to get ready?

  • Find opportunities to talk about your work.
  • Be ready to explain why you did it, how you did it, what happened as a result.
  • Be willing to explore what you know, what you did and what you can do as a researcher.

You don’t need rehearsed answers to “classic questions” – you need the confidence to respond to whatever your examiners ask. Finding opportunities to talk with others and share what you’ve done can be enough to build that confidence.

No Fooling

No trick questions. No gotcha statements.

Your examiners aren’t in the viva to fool you or trap you, to belittle you or break you.

Your examiners are there to examine you. It’s in the name! They ask questions to start conversations; they have conversations to build evidence. They need the evidence to justify their conclusions and the outcome.

Trick questions wouldn’t help them get what they need. There’s no space for fooling you.