How to Manage Challenging Questions During Your Viva

No matter how well we prepare ourselves for the viva, there is no way to actually anticipate what questions we may be asked. So how can we manage challenging questions, particularly the pesky ones we may not have answers to? Given that you are being assessed on a piece of work that you have spent years researching, the chances of you having no response to a question is unlikely.

Nevertheless, I do recall in a number of situations feeling stumped in the moment, only to have the perfect response to a question come into my mind hours after the fact. What this means is that I had the answer somewhere in my mind all along, but my nerves didn’t allow me to access it. 

As with regular presentations and Q&As, when we are nervous we slip into fight-versus-flight mode and our reptilian brain takes over. The more at ease we feel during the viva, the better placed we’ll be to respond to questions with confidence. Here are a few things to try in order to put yourself at ease. 

The first thing I would suggest is to take notes during the viva. It’s not at all unusual to want a record of the conversation with your examiners, and it’s not something they are likely to object to. In addition to having a record of what was said for your own reference, the act of taking notes can give you that essential space between being asked a question and having to give an answer. In that moment you can pause, take a breath and collect your thoughts before responding. By doing this you won’t have to feel as though you are on the spot. 

Putting yourself in a state of ease also comes down to your perspective. If the viva really is more of a conversation than an attack, it isn’t the case that you’ll be standing in front of a firing squad on the day. A conversation is not one-sided and, as such, there is always scope for you to question the question. If something doesn’t make sense to you, you can ask for clarity. If a question seems off topic, you can redirect the examiners back to what is relevant. And if you perceive a question to be unfair, you are within your rights to throw it back to the examiners.   

I also remind students to refer back to parts of their thesis as much as possible during the viva. There may be some reluctance to do this given that the examiners have already read the thesis in full. However, reading it through once does not make them an expert on your thesis. They may be an expert in the field, but you are the real expert on your project and no one will be as familiar with the details as you.

It is also important to bear in mind that the examiners may not have the same background knowledge as you. Therefore, things that you feel are obvious may by no means be obvious to them. Here is where a bit of research into your examiners’ backgrounds – one of the tips I mention in a previous post – may help you determine what level of detail to provide in your explanations and responses to certain questions. 

For many, the weight surrounding the viva has a lot to do with their expectation that a doctoral thesis should be perfect. After all, this is the culmination of years of research and endless hours of work. Nevertheless, as you approach your viva, it’s important to remind yourself that the thesis is not intended to be a perfect, ready-to-publish piece of work. There will be imperfections in it and that’s OK.

Try your best not to be thrown off by difficult questions, criticisms or challenges to your work. Take the pressure off and think of the viva as an opportunity to get useful feedback in order to further enhance your project. 

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