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.

That One Question

That one question you know you’ll struggle with.

It might be a rational concern or an irrational worry, but either way, you can do something about it. Whatever the question is about, if you know it troubles you before the viva then you can do something to prepare for it.

  • Read something.
  • Write something.
  • Think something.
  • Ask someone.
  • Make some notes.
  • Check a journal.
  • Write a response to reflect on.

If there’s a question that bothers you before the viva, then you can do something just in case it comes up.

Every Single Question

Every single question in the viva comes as a result of your research and your thesis. While you can’t predict every question, nor know a perfect response for every one, you do have everything you need to be able to respond.

Every single question in the viva is being asked for a reason. It might not be immediately clear to you what that reason is.

Every single question in the viva is going to be asked by one of your examiners, or by you. You can’t know what questions your examiners will have, but you might have ideas. Prepare for your examiners’ questions by rehearsing with a mock viva or in conversation with friends. Don’t create model answers, instead build experience of responding to questions. You can know what questions you would like to ask your examiners; think about this topic in advance, write a list of questions you’d like to ask.

Every single question in the viva is NOT every single question you could possibly be asked about your thesis and your research. Rather than focus on trying to anticipate every single question, focus on being knowledgeable, confident and prepared for the questions as they come.

Finding Next Steps

At some point you have to finish. No more reading papers, no more ideas. Your thesis has to be complete. Enough, done!

In preparation for the viva, checking recent publications shows you are a capable researcher. Thinking of how you might develop your work also shows your talent. It could be you don’t want to pursue any of these ideas because you have other plans for your life. That’s fine. Still spend a little time exploring what could be done with your research.

If you have trouble imagining future next steps, ask some of these questions. Reflect and write down your ideas:

  • What are some easy ways to go further with your results?
  • In what other areas might your approach be useful?
  • What does your work mean for other researchers?
  • What does your work mean for the theory of your discipline?
  • What does you work mean for the practical applications?
  • What would you love to do with your research?

Remember: you don’t have to do any of this. You can be clear about that.

Thinking about it could not only lead to some interesting ideas, but perhaps a different appreciation for the work you’ve already done.

Scope

In the viva your examiners have freedom to ask about everything in your thesis. They can also ask about anything that isn’t in there.

You have to have boundaries for your research. You can’t do everything, but you’ll probably think about a lot more than you finally include in your thesis. Your answer can simply be, “That was out of the scope of my research,” but that might not be answer enough for your examiners.

So explore the why with them. Why didn’t you do it? Don’t take the question as a criticism; questions explore. Give your examiners your reasons – lack of time, lack of interest, lack of resources, lack of information, deliberate choice to focus on something else… Whatever it is, but be real. Don’t bluff. Be honest.

There might be interesting, exciting things that you’ve not done, but you must have done something good to be in the viva.

Deserving

There are lots of big picture questions that seem natural for the viva.

  • “Why did you choose this topic?”
  • “How do you describe your main contribution?”
  • “How would you summarise your thesis?”

These aren’t unexpected questions exactly; you’ve probably thought about them during your PhD. Another question that shows up on lists of common viva questions is “Why do you deserve a PhD?” I’m not sure how common this question actually is, but at first glance, answering it could be a little trickier than the other questions mentioned so far.

“Why do you deserve it?” Deserve. You could look at this question and wonder if it is a trick or not. Are your examiners trying to trap you somehow? It feels a little like a trap…

Or perhaps we can find a similar question that makes it easier to answer. Perhaps, “What have you done that merits a PhD?” or “What have you done to achieve a PhD?” That’s what we’re really getting at. And when you look at that phrasing, actually we’re not far away from “How do you describe your main contribution?”

The work, the result, the outcome, the contribution, the talent, the knowledge – all of these are because of what you’ve done. They’re what you’ve achieved, they’re why you deserve a PhD. It may feel uncomfortable to think about why you deserve something…

…so get comfortable with it. Not in a proud or boastful way, but in an honest sense of your own accomplishments. Explore how you would describe what you’ve done, and you’ll find a way to talk to your examiners about your contribution: something that merits your PhD.

You might just start to believe it yourself!

Emerging Discussions

It’s possible to overthink about viva questions. Yes, you need to prepare for them; no, you can’t prepare for every question or anticipate everything that might come up.

Your examiners might not know which direction the conversation will flow either. They have questions, but not a script; they can’t see all possible twists and turns that you might take together.

The discussions will emerge from the questions they ask, and you can’t know them in advance…

…well, not exactly.

Their questions are a response to what you’ve set out in your thesis. This is the end point of the questions you’ve been asking yourself all through your PhD. So a good starting point to be ready for the emerging discussions in your viva is to return to your original questions.

Reflect on those, then think about how you might approach the viva’s questions.

The Best Way To Say I Don’t Know

I don’t know could be your answer to a question in the viva, but it doesn’t have to be all of your answer.

Say why.

It can be as simple as “I didn’t do that” or “I didn’t read this.” Or perhaps, “I’ve not thought about it that way, but let me have a think…”

If your first thought is “I don’t know,” say why and engage with the question.