Countless

There are countless questions you could be asked in the viva, but you’ll only be asked one at a time.

Preparation doesn’t mean somehow considering every question, but feeling comfortable considering and responding to any question that comes up.

Find opportunities that will help you practise and give you confidence, but remember you don’t need an answer for everything.

Just each question as it comes up.

Think Twice

When you’re asked a question about your research, unless you’re completely surprised or stumped, the shape of an answer appears in your mind. Think of it as a sketch of a response. The outline of what you could say. It’s suggested by your brain because of your experience and your talent.

Your first thought has given you a shape; a second thought can help you refine it a little more. If the shape is five reasons why such-and-such is a good idea, a second thought can help you quickly reflect on a good sequence for those five reasons. Maybe one is better than all of the others, maybe another isn’t as important as you thought at first glance.

In most cases in the viva, when you’re asked a question the shape of an answer will appear. Still, think twice. And if you go blank, if your first thought is “Huh?” or “…” or “I don’t know,” then have a second thought. Don’t let the pressure of that moment stop you from responding.

There’s plenty of time to think twice in the viva.

First & Last

There’s a rule of thumb for the viva some examiners have mentioned to me:

“The first question will be easy; the last question might not be.”

There’s no trick to the first part of the statement. Examiners want the viva to go as well as it can. The first question is likely to be something you’ve thought about or could realistically expect (like how you got interested in your topic). The intention is to help get past the awkwardness and nerves of being there and get down to business.

There’s no trick to the second part either. You might get tricky questions in the viva. You might face criticisms of your work. You might find the discussion leads to a tough debate. Given the nature of what you’ve done and what the viva is for, it’s reasonable to expect the odd difficult question, particularly near the end.

It’s unreasonable to think that every question will be hard though. Expect the viva will start well. Expect your examiners will ask tough but fair questions of a talented person.

(that’s you)

Breathe

Take a couple of breaths at the start as you sit down. Calm any nerves.

Take a breath whenever you get asked a question. Force a pause to compose your thoughts.

Mind starting to race? Take a few breaths. Need a second to make a note? Take one.

You will breathe throughout the viva of course. But remind yourself so you don’t get carried away with desperately answering questions. There’s time to breathe and time to think as you take a breath.

How Many Questions?

I was recently asked how many questions a candidate might get in the viva. What is the range like? wondered the nervous PhD. Was there a minimum or maximum number?

I tried to apply some logic to come up with some numbers, but gave up – the question is a red herring. Examiners will have a lot of questions in mind, some driven by your field, some by their interests, some by your thesis. They’ll have questions that you can expect, and some that you can’t. They’ll ask questions that they didn’t know to ask until you said something interesting in the viva too.

I don’t know how many questions will come up in advance of your viva: we could only know that after the fact.

If you’ve read this blog before then you’ll know I have ideas about how you can prepare for questions though. Do a good piece of research, write a good thesis and spend some practising answering unexpected questions to build your confidence.

Questions Are Not The Enemy

They’re not being asked to find your weak spot or the flaw in your thesis. They’re not to be dodged or to guard against. You can’t write yourself away from questions with your thesis.

Questions are there to examine you, shed light on your work and explore what you’ve done.

Don’t dread them. Don’t put up a wall. Don’t just hope that they’ll be OK.

Find opportunities to practise, so you can realise that they’re not to be feared. In the viva, pause, breathe, think and answer.

I Can’t Answer

A recent workshop question about viva questions stood out to me:

“What if my examiners ask me something I can’t answer?”

This is distinct from thinking I don’t know or going blank. If you can’t answer then there is an underlying aspect of the question that means an answer can’t be given. There could be many possible reasons:

  • You might not be able to answer because you don’t have all of the information – so tell your examiners that.
  • You might not be able to answer because the question is not something you have investigated – so tell your examiners that.
  • You might not be able to answer because you decided that question was not worth following – so tell your examiners that – and tell them why.
  • You might not be able to answer their question fully or definitively, because it’s the sort of question to which one can only give an opinion, backed up with an argument and reasons – so do that.

The motivating question for this post is hypothetical. It may never come up in your viva. It’s probably better to invest time in things that you can control or influence. If a question does come up and you can’t answer: tell your examiners. Tell them why. Ask them questions.

Continue being part of the conversation.

Why You Don’t Know

You’re not getting the context.

You’ve not considered the question before.

You mis-heard the examiner.

You don’t know a key piece of information.

You’ve gone blank.

You got distracted by a sudden thought or idea.

You’re just not making a connection.

It’s only been two seconds since the question was asked and your brain hasn’t leapt to a response yet.

Going blank or not knowing what to say in the viva is among the top fears of PhD candidates. None of the above are reasons for failure. None of the above are insurmountable, although if they occur in combination they can seem very scary. Nearly all of them are situations that can be improved by asking questions – either of yourself or your examiners. That extra breath, that extra pause, that extra idea, whatever it is, can be useful to shake some ideas loose.

Not knowing something is not the end of the viva. Pause, think, ask questions and work yourself away from “I don’t know…”