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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Defending Your Work

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I’ve often found the terminology that we use for examining PhD theses slightly misleading. At most universities, the examination is referred to as a viva, drawn from the latin ‘viva voce’ meaning oral examination. Yet, most students and staff refer to the examination as a ‘defence’.

While there is some truth to this description insofar as the viva is an opportunity to defend your project – there is also something profoundly unhelpful and counterproductive about this language. It sets people up to go into their viva voce in a defensive mode. The insinuation of this description is that the examiners will be aggressive and on the offensive. They will attack your work and the best way to prepare yourself is to put on your armour and get ready to fight back.

Approaching the viva as a defence of your work not only puts you into fight or flight mode as you prepare, the feeling of being under attack may also inhibit your performance on the day.

Subtle shifts can make a world of difference. Instead of approaching your viva in a fear-based way, my advice is to reframe it as more of a conversation about your project. This will help release some of the pressure surrounding the viva and allow you to tap into what first inspired you about your research area. A conversation does not have to be unpleasant or uncomfortable, and in fact, it can even be enjoyable.

Reframing the viva as a conversation will allow you to show up differently on the day. It will influence how you carry yourself, how you respond to questions and ultimately, how much you are able to get out of the experience. Considering how hard you’ve worked and how many years you’ve put into this, you owe that to yourself.

So drop the shield and the sword. Leave the fear behind and get ready for a fruitful and productive conversation about your work. Here are a few other things to keep in mind as you start to prepare for your viva:

Get Excited

Don’t lose sight of what you find exciting and enjoyable about the project. Given that you dedicated so much of your time to working on your PhD, the opportunity to have colleagues engage with your work is actually something to look forward to and be excited about. Tapping into your excitement is one of the best antidotes to fear and anxiety.

Failure is Unlikely

The prospect of failure may be your greatest fear – yet statistics reveal that this fear is often overblown in our minds. Very few students actually fail the viva and so it’s very unlikely you will be confronted with this result. The truth is, you wouldn’t have made it this far and your supervisor is unlikely to have let you reach this stage if a fail was likely. Remember, their reputation is on the line as much as yours is and in that sense your fear of failure is likely unfounded.

Your Thesis Isn’t Going to Be Perfect – And it Doesn’t Need to Be

For many, the weight surrounding the viva has a lot to do with the expectation that their thesis must be perfect. After all, this is the culmination of years of research and endless hours of work. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that the PhD isn’t going to be perfect. Now the good news is that it doesn’t need to be. PhD theses are rarely published as is and the majority will require some form of revision or updating before publication. This is your first major piece of research and not your life’s work. So, try approaching the viva as an opportunity to get helpful feedback on the project and let go of the expectation that it must be perfect.

It’s just the beginning

A lot of the pressure associated with completing the thesis comes from viewing it as the end of a journey. In actuality, this is just the beginning. If you decide to stay in academia, it’ll be the first of many research projects. Likewise, if you decide to go on and do something different, it’ll be the first step on a new path. Even if you end up going into a completely different field, you will have learned a valuable set of life skills that you can draw upon as you go forward. So, however you look at it, it’s certainly not the end

Keep Fight vs Flight Symptoms in Check

While it’s understandable that you may be nervous, remember to pay attention to how that stress shows up in your body. To help keep fight/flight symptoms at bay, take long deep breaths whenever you need to. Have water on hand and drink it regularly. It can also be useful to bring in a notebook with you in order to make a note of key points/questions. Taking notes will enable you to gather your thoughts before responding to questions. This can be a particularly useful technique if you don’t enjoy being put on the spot!

Dress for the Occasion

Rather than picking something standard from your wardrobe for the day, spend some time selecting an outfit. Not only will dressing for the occasion help you exude confidence, it will convey a sense of professionalism to your examiners. If it isn’t feasible for you to buy a new outfit, remember that little flourishes can also go a long way towards boosting your confidence.

As you go into your viva, keep these factors in mind. This will hopefully alleviate the enormity and overwhelm surrounding the task and allow your fears about the viva to dissipate.

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