Surviving Your Viva: My top 10 tips for oral exams

I’ve sat my fair share of viva voce exams in my time and I must admit I’ve always been pretty intimidated by them, that said they’ve never been as bad as I feared when I finally got in the room. They’ve been on my mind this week as one of my PhD students is due to have her viva on Friday and so I thought I would write down my top tips in order to bring your best self to the process. This post focusses a lot on PhD viva’s but I think a lot of the principles can be extrapolated to other types of oral exams.

1 – Do your prep

Some people think that the viva process is about what happens in the room. Although you have to ‘bring it’ during the discussion your life can be made much much easier by doing a good job in the prep phase.

If you are having a viva for a PhD this goes all the way back to researching the administrative side of the process and being actively involved in examiner selection. In an ideal world your supervisor would sit with you, talk you through the stages and actively involve you in the discussions, we both know however that the world isn’t always that ideal and you may have to be prepared to do this leg work for yourself.

There are some benefits to owning this phase of the work. For my PhD there was a communication breakdown towards the end and my supervisor wanted me to delay submitting for another year and therefore refused to sign the submission paperwork. I knew that I needed to submit on my current time scale as I wanted to sit FRCPath in my NIHR funded time. I also knew because I’d spent time researching the administrative side of things that I wasn’t required to have sign off, that part just meant that UCL weren’t responsible for any failures. So I submitted anyway and passed. I also researched, found and submitted my examiner paperwork and choices.

The downside to selecting your own examiners without supervisor support is that you run the risk of only selecting based on academic publications or area of interest. I was fortunate as I personally knew plenty of people in the field of IPC and so could select with greater context. If you only select on the basis of publications you can end up with an unbalanced panel or one that doesn’t support you to have a discussion that really represents you or your work to the best of your ability. So if you are in a position where you need to lead on this make sure you also find out what kind of examiner they are, and whether there are any political conflicts of interest before making a final decision.

2 – Have a practice

Whatever your situation it is always worth having a practice viva, preferably with people that scare you just a little. Ask that amazing post doc who has always been a little intimidating or the person that always asks good but challenging questions at lab meetings. You don’t want to destroy your shaky confidence at this point but if set yourself a challenge you will amazed at how much easier it is when you are in the room for the real thing.

One of my other PhD students had their upgrade recently and his other supervisor and I ran a mock. Now I apparently can get a little intense when I’m asking questions about science and very rarely I’ve been called ‘the destroyer’ when it comes to challenging the science presented by reps if I’ve found it to be misleading. It was therefore reported back that if you can survive a mock with me the actual event will be a walk in the park. I don’t know if that’s true, but what I do know is that if you have a relationship with your supervisor that permits this kind of mock session, your supervisor will know the strengths and weaknesses of your project intimately. They will therefore be able to ask ALL the questions that you hope your real examiners will skip over or not pick up on. The purpose of us asking these questions is not to discredit what you’ve worked so hard on, all work has weaknesses, it’s to help you develop a strategy to answer those questions.

These sessions can also be useful to prep the paperwork you’re taking into the viva with you. I had my thesis labelled up with colour coded tabs and had post it notes within it to remind me of key points in case I got flustered (Bayesian modelling haunts me to this day). A practice viva will help you work out whether what you have done works and if you need to change anything before the real thing.

3 – Know your examiners

I’ve already talked a little bit about researching examiners before you select them, but in the run up to the big event there are last minute things that are worth doing. Firstly, check any of their publications that have come out since you submitted your thesis. I had these printed out and annotated to take into my viva so I had prepared for discussion based on their latest work. Second, when your doing your thesis notes think about highlighting your examiners papers that you have referenced and be very aware of how they have linked into your narrative. They will also have published papers adjacent to your work which you may not have referenced, be aware of these and where the conversation topics may therefore drift to in order to help you be prepared.

Third, and this is a bit more work but worth doing if you have time, check out who they referenced. We all have go to references and authors, your examiners are no different. By looking at the reference lists in their papers you can see who their go to authors are and you can see where your over laps are. Also, be prepared for questions if you haven’t cited the same papers. Finally, check the latest publications within the big name journals within your field. Examiners may occasionally ask questions about the latest big work in your field, even if it’s not directly related to your work, to see how well read you are and if you have a wider interest. This isn’t a pass or fail question, but your PhD project may be different to where you end up as a post doc and it helps to gauge how you might make the transition to working in academia more generally.

3 – Think how you want to present yourself

This may seem like a given but it’s really useful to think about how you want to be perceived in the room. How much this matters, in part, is dependent upon some of the research you’ve done. There are some examiners who would immediately think less of you if you turn up in the room and aren’t suited and booted. The main thing In terms of clothing and outfit is that it’s important to be comfortable, whatever route you choose to go down. You may be sitting in that outfit for 6 hours and so you don’t want to have to constantly be adjusting necklines or moving waist bands that are cutting into you. You need to be in the moment and so choose an outfit that helps that by making you feel comfortable in your own skin, preferably professional enough that you don’t risk upsetting anyone. You may find wearing a T-shirt under that top that sums up who you are is helpful or having a mascot in your pocket that you can slip a hand into a pocket and grip if it gets stressful is useful. I genuinely don’t believe there are any hard and fast rules here other than to plan it before hand and make sure you give your an outfit a dress rehearsal to make sure it empowers rather than distracts you.

To be honest appearance isn’t something that is important to me when I examine, being present and polite in the room is waaaaaay more important to me. I find body language is really key in this kind of face to face assessment. You really need to be aware of what your body language is saying. No matter how you feel it’s going it’s important to stay open, smiling and responsive in terms of your body language. If you have a ‘resting bitch face’ it’s worth being aware of it as you don’t want to come over as angry or defensive when you are dealing with the questions. Mostly because you won’t get your point across anywhere near as clearly as it will be distracting for the examiners.

4 – Answer the question they ask not the one you’d prefer

This one is true whether it’s an oral exam or written paper, answer the question you are asked not the one you wish they’d asked. Now as part of your viva prep you will probably learn to answer some of the difficult ones like a politician, where you acknowledge the questions and then deflect to a strength when following up. This is different to just not answering the question. I’m so guilty of this one. I tend to be holding a conversation in my head at the same time as being in the room and so I will proceed to the next question in the conversation I’ve planned rather than listen to nuance of the one I’m actually being asked. I have to really force myself to be calm and really listen to the question. I always make sure I have water or something I can drink in the room and try to force myself to take a sip before I answer a question when I’m feeling stressed or nervous in order to stop me jumping in and make me focus on the question. Hearing the question can be especially tricky in a PhD viva when the questions may be long and multi-component. I took in a pad so that I could write down sections from multi-component questions (just words as prompts) so that I could try to ensure that I was answering everything that was asked of me.

Remember that in a PhD viva you are also able to take the lead in some of the discussion, this is your chance to really talk about your work after all, but it’s important that you bear in mind the point you are trying to make rather than meandering or going down rabbit holes. If you go off topic too much it can give your examiner doubts about your ability to prioritise key points, which can indicate a lack of thorough understanding.

5 – Don’t try to blag it

If you don’t know the answer please just say so, it’s OK. There is nothing worse than having someone try to pretend they know the answer or watching them actively make things up in a viva. Science is about the unknown and there will be numerous points in your working life where you don’t know the answer. If you try to blag it can indicate that you might not acknowledge key failings or points in your work/field you don’t know/understand, not just in your viva but in your practice. This can be a really big red flag and will mean your examiners push harder and dig more to uncover what other weaknesses may be present. It is perfectly fine to acknowledge that you are having a blank and would prefer to come back to a question later, or say that is not something you actually have a concrete answer for but you would consider X, Y, Z in finding an answer. Practice responding to questions you don’t have the answer to, it will stand you in good stead for conference questions and all kinds of other situations in the future.

6 – Give credit where its due

A lot of PhDs and other pieces of work contain sections where you supported rather than led. You may have had some statistics, bioinformatics, or sampling support. I’ve had a couple of (non examination) situations recently where instead of acknowledging this individuals have obfuscated the support they had. If this happens in an exam situation then it’s really concerning, if it comes out in an exam situation and has not been acknowledged in the thesis this is also really not good. It is OK to have work that has been co-created or even led by others, as long as this is well acknowledge and there is enough in your thesis that is unique or led by you. Again, hiding these other contributions makes your examiners question the level of your contribution and they will get the spades out to start digging. Science and medicine is a team sport, don’t be afraid to acknowledge that. Being able to work with others is a strength and not a weakness.

7 – Be prepared to talk about your why

Although PhD viva exams can feel like they are all about the data that’s not actually true. They are also about you as a person, not just the science. It is important therefore to be prepared to answer questions to help the examiners get to know more about you. What was it that made you want to do a PhD? What were your skills and interests when you started? What were your learning outcomes that you were aiming to complete by the time you finished?

A PhD is effectively an apprenticeship in research with the aim that you will become an independent researcher at the end. All that is about more than just data collection. What skills and techniques do you feel like you’ve picked up along the way? What other transferable skills have you learnt? Have you mentored masters students? Presented at conferences? Written papers? Have you undertaken any science communication or public engagement – what have you learnt? Which courses have you undertaken as part of your PhD? What networks have you become part of? What collaborations have you formed? Thinking and preparing to answer questions like this will give your examiners a much greater idea of where you came from and help to bench mark how far you’ve come.

8 – Prepare to talk about the future

The other thing that you should be prepared to talk about (after where you’ve come from) is where you are going to. A common question is ‘if money or resources were no object how would you change the work you have done so far and how would you plan the next steps for your project?’

You will have had plenty of time to reflect on the weaknesses of your work, this is the moment where you get to talk about how you would address those weaknesses by discussing what the next steps for your work could be. Practice both a realistic ‘I would put in a grant to X funding body to continue Y aspect of my work because….’ answer as well as a super ambitious version for if someone took away all of the resource limitations placed upon you.

You should also be prepared to talk about your plans for the future. Are you going to stay in academia? Are you interested in transferring to industry? Would you like to become a clinical academic? This a great way to help examiners understand why you may have made some of the choices of direction you’ve made linked to project, for instance taking a more clinical bent. It is also a good way to have a conversation that may help your thinking about where you want to be in 5 years and if you’re lucky gain advice from some very experienced people on next steps.

9 – Know we’re rooting for you

A lot of people go into the examination room thinking that it will be adversarial setting, the opposite should be true, we are rooting for you. Our job is to support you through the process to get the most out of both you and your work. Everyone understands that you will be nervous, everyone in that room has sat on the other side of the table, has sat in your shoes, they know therefore both how it feels and what it means.

Don’t be afraid to talk about challenges your have faced, in fact you will often be asked to talk about the biggest challenges within your project. It is important to think about what you want to discuss in response to this question: what was the challenge? how did you respond to it? what was the learning you took from it, both about yourself and the work? These questions are important for the examiner not just to understand what your progress to viva has involved but also how you think and respond. This is a great opportunity to talk about things that matter to you and to help the examiners get to know who you are as a scientist. By doing the work to prepare you are doing all you can to help your examiners achieve this. Stay open, stay engaged and stay hopeful.

10 – Keep calm and carry on

Finally, this is a big one. No matter what happens in that room know that it is rarely the end. For good or bad almost everyone comes out of that room with further work, with something more to do. That is very much part of the learning. A lot of people who haven’t done a PhD think that the viva is the end of the process, the big hooray, but I must admit it didn’t feel real to me until I stood at a graduation ceremony in my robes knowing it was truly done.

Whatever happens you will work out of that room with a whole bunch of concrete information that will allow you to put a bow on what will already be (probably) one of the best pieces of writing you will ever do. You will also have learnt more than you could dream in the process of prepping for the viva and during the event itself. You will come out of it as a stronger, better person who will have learnt so much about yourself and what you can really achieve when you put your mind to it.

So as much as any oral exam is terrifying, know that you will actually benefit so much from the process. It’s one of the few moments in your life where people will be forced to listen to you talk about a topic you will know more about than just about anyone in the world. Enjoy the captive audience and if you can try to be in the moment and make the most of the experience.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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