assessment,  GO-GN,  higher ed

10 PhD Viva tips from an examiner

I did a mock viva for someone recently, and I shared lots of my views on a successful viva based ion examining around 50 PhDs over the years, so I thought I’d share them here. This relates to the UK viva system, which is usually an open-ended defence, with two examiners discussing the thesis with the candidate. Things vary quite differently elsewhere. These are obviously just my views, and I’m generally a ‘nice’ examiner, I want people to enjoy the experience and to pass. Most examiners I’ve met are the same, but one does hear the occasional horror story. So here’s my top ten tips:

  • Have a nice opening summary – it’s common to start with a friendly, settling in question along the lines of “can you summarise your main contributions?” or “why were you interested in doing this research?”. See my point below about answering the actual question, but what these are inviting you to do is to give a brief summary of your work. Sometimes a presentation will be allowed or encouraged, it’s worth checking. Note here that it is a brief summary. The examiners are likely to work through the thesis chapter by chapter, so you do not need to give the whole thesis in a one hour monologue. Five or ten minutes here, just as an opening.
  • Don’t over-prepare answers – you may well have a mock viva with your examiners beforehand and they will identify some questions that may be answered. It’s important to remember though that there is no set list of questions to ask from the examiners. They are likely to ask you things you hadn’t predicted, and not ask you things you thought would definitely come up. So while it’s good to have some ideas as to what you will answer if queried about your methodology choice, say, there is a danger of preparing something akin to a script. You can end up being thrown when different questions are asked, or not answering the actual question. You know your thesis better than anyone, so trust in your ability to be able to respond in the moment.
  • Answer the question being asked – sometimes candidates will give a long, detailed answer to something which wasn’t really necessary. This may be because they were expecting a certain question, as mentioned above, or they think the examiner is asking something different. So, listen carefully, and answer what is actually being asked, and if you’re not sure…
  • Ask for clarification if needed – this is obvious but more important than you might think. Sometimes the examiner might be asking a fairly straightforward question to which they just want a yes or no answer, and you think they’re after something else and after a 30 minute defence of your methodology they say “so that’s a yes?”. Ask if you’ve understood the question if you’re not sure.
  • Don’t be too defensive – as I said, most examiners are sympathetic, but they are meant to test the robustness of your research. So they’re going to pick at bits. What you don’t want to do is end up in an argument, so firstly ask for clarification if you think you’re being unfairly criticised (I’ve certainly seen vivas where there has just been a misunderstanding), and don’t get too defensive. Sometimes it’s best to just say, “yes, I see your point, I’ll take that on board”
  • Be honest(ish) – I would advise against trying to trick examiners, or hide flaws, they’re usually good at digging these out, and don’t like to feel as though you were trying to con them. For example, hiding small data samples behind percentages. So be honest – eg it’s ok to say “I would have explored this more fully, but I didn’t have time”, or “my methodology was partly influenced by the practical access I had to data”. The (ish) part I added there relates to my next tip, some people feel like it’s an interrogation and they crack – you don’t need to reveal to the examiners that in reality you really didn’t understand the conceptual theory you’re using and you were crying into your books every night.
  • Don’t talk yourself out of a pass – some candidates seem determined to talk themselves down maybe it’s the imposter syndrome kicking in. Most examiners will accommodate this to a degree, but if every question is responded to with a comment along the lines of “I just made it up”, “that bit isn’t very good”, etc, you can get to a stage where you have examiners doubting their judgement about the work.
  • Expect some revisions – it’s rare, but I’ve seen some people take the idea of being asked to do revisions as a personal affront. A pass without revisions is very rare. So expect some, and also be very clear exactly what is required (they should provide you with a list of required changes). Don’t do more than they suggest, and don’t argue about the ones you’re asked to do (unless really unreasonable).
  • It’s an exam to be passed – if you view the viva like a car driving test that is to be passed, rather than some existential rite of passage, it’s probably going to be a lot easier. Do what you need to do, get the pass, move on. In a year’s time no-one will care (probably including you) that you had to add in an extra page on the examiner’s pet topic even though you didn’t feel it was necessary. Be pragmatic about the whole thing.
  • Enjoy it – I always say this to my students. I know it can be stressful, but by the time you get to the viva, assuming you’ve done the work, listened to your supervisors and got a decent thesis, then it can be an experience to be enjoyed. You’ve been doing this research for three or more years. You have bored friends and family about it, no-one knows this subject in more detail than you. And now you get to have a long, detailed conversation with two people who really want to hear about it, you can go into all the detail you want without friends’ eyes glazing over. Enjoy that moment.

Just my experience of course, mileage may vary. If you have a doctoral viva coming up, good luck!

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