Understandable

It’s understandable that the nature of the viva could make a person worry. It’s understandable, given what any PhD candidate has to do to get to the viva, that the person being examined might be concerned or worry about how to do their best.

Or better than their best!

And it’s perfectly understandable why the thought of being asked this question or that question – or any question – might make someone feel nervous, concerned or stressed.

To simplify the situation, in the viva, questions are just questions. When you hear a “?” at the end of the sentence that’s your cue to talk. Your cue to talk about what you did, how you did it, what you know or what you think. It’s your cue to say something: to ask a question, to share a response, to say you need to think or to say you’re not sure.

Your examiners have to ask questions to find out what they need. You have to respond to those questions to try to meet those needs.

There are no good or bad questions, although it’s reasonable to expect challenging questions that you have to think about. It’s understandable for you to be nervous about being asked, but also reasonable to expect you to rise to the challenge of responding.

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.

First and Last Questions

The first question in the viva is likely to be simple: it’s something you will be able to respond to. A question that asks about an aspect of your work that is familiar – maybe a big picture, “How did you get started?” or “How would you summarise your research?” Simple to understand and asked by your examiners to help start the viva well.

Sometimes the first question is characterised as easy, in contrast to an expectation that questions get much harder. Is the last question of the viva supposed to be hard? I’m not sure.

The last question could be, “Have you got any questions for us?” Whatever it is, the last question comes after all of the others. Nervousness should hopefully have faded away. You might be tired from the effort, but you could also be more relaxed than you were at the start of the viva.

All questions in the viva could be challenging. All questions could be well within your capability as a researcher. First and last questions deserve the same attention and focus as any other.

Forget easy and hard. Remember who is being asked, what they’re being asked and why they’re being asked.

Tell Them

In my earliest academic days I was given the following advice for structuring a presentation: tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.

“Them” in this case was the audience. Over the years I’ve realised the heart of the good advice here: set expectations, share what you’re sharing and summarise at the end.

It is good advice generally.

In the viva you’re at the stage of telling your examiners what you told them in the thesis, more or less. You’ve set it out for them, they read it; now you have to summarise, clarify, expand and make sure they get what they need.

Of course, there are more ways you could tell them at the viva too.

You could tell them a story. You could tell them more. You could tell them what you left out. You could tell them what you didn’t get to do. You could tell them what you hope to do in the future. You could tell them what you plan to do next. You could tell them your opinion.

You could tell them lots of things, but remember that the viva is not a presentation, and it’s not the questions that come at the end. It’s a discussion. Prepare to tell your examiners lots of things, but prepare to be part of a conversation rather than someone simply answering questions.

Yes, And

One of the main principles of improvisational comedy is “yes, and…

There’s no script in improv. If you’re on stage and someone says something, you agree with them and build on what they have said. If someone remarks about the (imaginary) hat that you’re wearing you accept the idea they have introduced and build on it.

How remarkable, I’ve never seen a hat like that before!

Yes, it was my grandfather’s he made it himself-

-he sewed a great mass of tentacles on to the brim?

Yes, and it’s very comfortable, would you like to try it on?

Scene! (that’s quite enough of that!!)

 

While the viva might not be a time for laughing and joking, the principle of “yes, and” – of accepting and building on what has come before – is definitely part of the discussion you’re going to have.

Your examiners will ask questions and your job is to engage. You say yes to the question and then build on the discussion with your words.

It’s not about saying yes to every comment, or agreeing with every point: you say yes rather than try to divert. You say yes and engage rather than try to evade the topic or displace it with something you’d rather talk about.

In the viva your main responsibility is to engage with whatever questions your examiners ask. Say yes to their questions and then share your thoughts to give them what they need to help you pass.

Evidence

Whenever you respond to a question in the viva, remember that you need to offer evidence. A question might be seeking information; you need to provide it. A question might ask if you are correct; you can’t simply say yes. You need to offer evidence – context, information, reasons – that help show that you are correct.

Whenever you receive a question in the viva, remember that it is being asked for a reason. The evidence of your thesis, the story, facts and figures you have written up, have given your examiners plenty to think about. The evidence of your thesis prompts the questions that you are being asked to drive the discussion.

A Lasting Contribution

Nothing lasts forever. How long will your contribution to knowledge stand? How many years before there is something bigger, better, more considered or more helpfully stated?

On the one hand, you don’t need to account for everything that will or could happen in your field with respect to your research.

On the other, it could be helpful to think about what could happen next to help you share something of the significance you see and that you hope others will see in time.

Consider what your work could mean in the future and you can help yourself to consider what it means right now.

Always Significant

If there is one thing that has to be talked about in the viva it is the significant, original contribution that you’ve made through your research and that you have written up in your thesis. It’s not the only thing that can or will be talked about but it has to be discussed. You have to talk about it because this research and thesis is what you’ve done to earn your PhD.

So you have to be ready to do that. Write summaries about what you’ve done, make notes, check your thesis, have a mock viva or in some way practise with questions talking about it.

There will be lots to talk about at your viva. Talking about your significant, original contribution is guaranteed. Practise doesn’t make perfect, but prepare and you will be ready.

Asking Your Examiners

The viva is not a question and answer session or a quiz. It’s a conversation. Your examiners will lead because this is a conversation with purpose, but there’s a place for you to ask questions too.

First, you can ask to clarify things in the flow of conversation. What did they mean? Could they explain? Can they tell you more so that you can consider something?

Second, you can ask their opinion. What did they think? What would they do? How might I do more with this or follow it up?

Both types of question are fine in the viva.

The first are simply necessary: you might simply need a little more from your examiners so that you can respond as best as possible.

The second are fine but come with the smallest of cautions. The viva is not a Q&A or a quiz, and it’s also not an interview. Candidates sometimes remember the interview advice of having one or two questions prepared to ask the “interviewers”.

But the viva is not an interview. By all means, have questions prepared but only ask if you want to know and only ask if the topic is something that you want to talk about.

You can ask for an opinion or advice, but do it carefully, with a topic that you’ve considered and want to explore more.

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