What could you do if an examiner was harsh?

Nevermind that they’re supposed to be fair, professional and so on. What if they weren’t? It’s easy to say don’t worry, they’re not supposed to be, but what could you do if you felt they weren’t fair?

  • …I don’t believe you!
  • …I don’t agree!
  • …What about my work?
  • …But don’t you think that such-and-such has a more important idea than this?

What could you do?

Listen. Breathe. Take a step back. Think. Ask yourself why. Ask them why. Remember that the viva is not a Q&A. Remember who the expert in the room is. If they’re harsh, push their tone to one side and respond to their ideas or questions.

It’s extremely unlikely that an examiner would be harsh, but it’s possible that they may have an opinion – fair, balanced and appropriate – that still catches you off guard. A question that throws you. Pausing, listening just to the question and not the tone, setting your feelings aside for a second – all of this can still help.

On Weakness

No research programme can’t be improved. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made or limits imposed. Sometimes experiments or investigations don’t work out the way you hope they will. That doesn’t mean your thesis is fundamentally flawed, or your research is weak.

Still, a lot of PhD candidates ask me, “How do I talk about weakness in my viva?”

If there’s really something that could be better then you can discuss it by being honest, being clear and by talking about what’s great in your research and thesis.

  • Be honest: don’t try to hide or bluff and hope that your examiners will move on.
  • Be clear: set out the facts and your reasons, what they mean and why.
  • Talk about what’s great: not to distract, but to honestly persuade.

If there’s something you consider weak about your thesis or research, you don’t have to bring it up as you start the viva. You do have a responsibility to have thought about it and be willing to engage with your examiners. That’s no different to anything else in your research though.

You can’t write a perfect thesis. But you can’t get to the end of the PhD by accident either.

Remember: just because you think something is weak, it doesn’t mean that it is. If your examiners frame something as being weak, and you disagree, it doesn’t mean that they are right.

“Weakness” is a shorthand that people use for limitations, lack of time, doubts, worries and uncertainty. By all means consider how things could be improved or be different, but perhaps consider using a more accurate word to describe what you’re thinking about.

Blank Feels Bad…

…but it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you or wrong with the viva.

You go blank and it’s uncomfortable: doubt, anxiety or fear. It’s not that common an occurrence though.

In the unlikely event it happens, breathe. Pause. Take a sip of water. Ask yourself the question again, or think about what’s just been said. And whatever you need will come to you.

A momentary memory lapse or glitch is not comfortable, but it’s not the end of the world, even in the viva.


What if your examiners ask you a question and you go blank?

What if you forget something?

What if your examiners don’t agree on the outcome of the viva?

What if you arrive late?

What if you don’t know the answer?

And so on. The consequences for some of these situations seem bad. Some of them are easily coped with in the moment (if you go blank, think more; if you don’t know something, discuss it with your examiners), and some aren’t. But none of these will necessarily happen in the viva. Some of them are not likely at all.

You can’t always control how you feel, but rather than obsess over what-if scenarios, try to give your attention to preparation that helps.

What if you invested your time and energy in being prepared for the viva? What would happen then?