Vive-ing La Viva: How to answer viva questions

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Dr Jenny Scoles from the Institute of Academic Development provides some helpful tips in how to prepare for your PhD viva by being aware of how you answer the examiners’ questions. This post is part of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme: Showcasing the Doctoral College.

Just enjoy the viva, they say…. ha!

‘Enjoyment’ was not at the top of my list of adjectives when thinking about my viva. But I knew it was my only chance at speaking to people who had actually read my thesis and, unlike my long-suffering family and friends, were genuinely curious about why I didn’t use NVivo and why I hadn’t referenced the original citation on page 243. So, when it came to prepping for my PhD viva a few years ago (I submitted in a September and my viva wasn’t until the January so I had a decent amount of time to prepare/find multiple spelling mistakes), I made sure I was as ready as I could be.

I found a lot of online viva resources and blog posts that provided helpful lists of likely and possible questions you may be asked, so you can prepare your answers. However, what I found most helpful were the tips from my supervisors during my mock viva (tip 1: have a mock viva with your supervisors). Specifically, they talked about HOW I should answer the examiners’ questions, not necessarily WHAT to answer. Here are some examples:

Sign post your answers: You will undoubtedly be asked, in so many words, ‘What is your original contribution to knowledge?’. As with all replies, keep your answer clear; don’t make things too complicated. Structure the points you want so you can signpost the examiner to your main thesis contributions, just as you would have in your written conclusion. For example, I said ‘My thesis makes three original contributes to knowledge: firstly, a theoretical contribution… secondly a methodological contribution… and thirdly, a pedagogical/practical contribution….’, and kept it to a few sentences for each of the three points.

It’s a stamina game: It is easy at the beginning of the viva to want to just keep talking, through nerves, or a worry that you want to show off everything at once. My viva was only an hour and a half, but I’ve heard of some lasting over five hours – it just depends on the examiners, and what emerges on the day. Have faith that, when answering the first few questions, you don’t have to reel off your whole thesis there and then. Take your time; it is a tiring and exhaustive few hours. I hit the wall after an hour as I’d begun to relax into it, and my adrenaline dropped (I remember doing a few over-loud sighs without realising). So, pace yourself. If you are worried that you have not answered their question, you can politely ask if they would like you to expand any more.

Although it’s a defence of your thesis, don’t come across as defensive: This is a hugely useful distinction that I was made aware of. The examiners are there to critically pick apart your thesis, probing why you did certain things and not others. Yet this thesis is your baby, and no one but you can say your baby isn’t perfect. So your hackles rise, and perhaps, without realising it, the tone or manner in which you reply could come across as too defensive and it could make the examiners feel defensive too; they’re only human, after all. You can still defend your reasons politely but firmly… ‘That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, but I found, for my study, it was more helpful to look at it this way….’, or similar.

Don’t know the answer? Sometimes they may ask you something that you have not even thought about, let alone prepared for. At this point, have a few stock phrases up your sleeve to give yourself some time to mull it over:

Well, now that I think about it like that…

I’m only starting to see this now…

That’s a very good point, I’d like to look at this issue in more detail.

Practice speaking your answers aloud to get used to your voice: The best prep I did was with a colleague who had her viva at a similar time to me. We scheduled weekly Skype sessions in the weeks before and practised asking each other unseen questions. This helped me get used to hearing my own voice, and let me play with how I could verbalise concepts and ideas that I had only, up until then, put into writing and lived in my head.

Prepare your own questions: Like an interview scenario, it looks professional if you have a few prepared questions for the examiners for the ‘any questions?’ part, at the end. For example, you could ask their thoughts on where you could publish future journal articles from your PhD. Or, how a particular concept you developed fits with their own work (brownie points for having read the examiners’ latest papers).

And, finally, two tips from me after having survived:  

Simplify the notes you take in with you: I was allowed to take in as many notes, thesis drafts, books, lucky mascots as I wanted. However, if you are relying too much on your answers coming from reading your notes, the flow of conversation will falter, and you may end up getting into a bit of a sweat. As part of the revision process, I made colourful mind maps that summarised the main points I wanted to make for each potential question. I took these in to the viva and lay them out in front of me, which meant I could flick my eyes to them if I had a mind-blank:

My A4 revision notes

Enjoy it… or just get through it: It’s easy to say ‘just enjoy your viva!’ once you’re through the other side. So, if you enjoy it, bonus! If not, well-bloody-done for having got to the viva in the first place, and whatever happens, reward yourself big-style at the end:

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This post was originally published on theofficedog blog.

picture of editor/producerJenny Scoles

Dr Jenny Scoles is the editor of Teaching Matters. She is an Academic Developer (Learning and Teaching Enhancement), and a Senior Fellow HEA, in the Institute for Academic Development, and provides pedagogical support for University course and programme design. Her interests include student engagement, professional learning and sociomaterial methodologies.

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