Two Pictures

I wanted to call this post…

The Picture In My Head Is Not The Picture In Your Head

…but even I have my limits!

This phrase came to me recently when my daughter was trying to explain something from school. She was getting frustrated, starting to tire of my questions until just before she got angry I thought to say, “Sweetie, the picture in my head is not the picture in your head. I don’t understand yet what you mean, so I have to ask questions to try and imagine what you’re seeing.”

And she stopped and considered; then we started again and after a few more minutes there was understanding.

Your thesis has tens of thousands of words, and the picture it puts in your examiners’ heads may not match the picture you have in yours. So they have to ask questions.

The picture of a viva in your mind might be muddled or unclear compared to the stories your friends tell you. Asking questions and listening to the responses helps.

Your description of your contribution to research, while clearly matching the picture in your head, may be lacking detail when a reader sees it in their mind.

The picture in my head is not the picture in your head. And the picture in your head is not the same as the picture in your examiners’ heads, your supervisor’s mind and so on.

Patient listening helps. Careful questions help. Practice before the viva helps your performance on the day.

You can’t simply will someone to see the picture you see.

You can learn how to guide someone to a closer understanding of your picture though.

Facts, Opinions, Hunches

I know. I think. I feel.

There’s a place for all in the viva, potentially.

Some questions will hit a target made up of facts. Things you know. Things you have discovered.

For some questions you weigh up information against your experience and knowledge. You think and offer what you think is appropriate. Perhaps someone else could think differently.

Then you could be asked a question and you don’t have an answer. You have nothing to weigh up. Instead you could offer what your gut feeling says. A hunch you can’t shake. This could be right or wrong – and there might be no way of anyone knowing.

You can know, think or feel in the viva. In all cases you have to be clear. Be clear with what you’re saying to your examiners. Be clear in your own mind so that you don’t confuse yourself.

Listen to the question, pause and then see: do you know, think or feel your response?

Easy or Hard?

Questions in the viva do not fall neatly into one of two piles.

Easy and hard are relative terms that don’t help to describe the questions that prompt the kind of discussion found in the viva.

An easy question for one candidate could be very hard for another.

An easy-to-ask question could have a very hard-to-formulate response.

A hard question could have been considered many times before by a candidate, while an easy question has no certain response.

Best to get away from labels of easy and hard completely.

Questions in the viva can be challenging or not. In either case, they are there to drive the discussion. They’re asked with an expectation of a response from the candidate. You can’t predict what questions you will be asked before your viva, but you can prepare yourself to respond to whatever question your examiners bring to you.

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?



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.