Commons Qs About The Viva: What If My Mind Goes Blank?

When did your mind last go blank?

The first time for me was in Mr R’s chemistry class in high school. Like a real swot I sat on the front row, even though Mr R was intimidating and had a habit of randomly picking people to answer his questions.

One day, I was really focussing as he talked about the concentration of substances in a solvent when he suddenly said, “…and the answer is… Ryder?” and turned his piercing gaze on me. My mind crashed and I lost the last ten seconds of what he had said: deleted, file error, 404 response. I had no idea what he said, even though I had been listening and all I could do was say “Uh, not sure sir,” to which he smirked, “Not listening, eh?! Bowness, how about you?”

(the answer incidentally was “2” and the question amounted to “what is 4 divided by 2?”)

(the irony that I would go on to get a PhD in maths is not lost on me)

Stress Trigger

That was the first time I remember my mind going blank – I couldn’t answer the question because the details of the question were just gone. When I’m asked “What if my mind goes blank?” in viva preparation workshops, most people are worrying that they will not have an answer when they are asked a question. They worry that the question will provoke nothing, no pre-considered opinion or stored fact.

This question is a cousin to “What if I don’t know the answer?” but perhaps with a side order of terror, because mind-blankness feels scarier For some questions in the viva it is perfectly fine to not know an answer. Vivas in some disciplines typically have questions where the candidate may not have encountered a situation or theory before. They may have to take completely new information and think about how to unravel or apply it; in this way they demonstrate their competence as a researcher in their field.

If you feel your mind go blank or if you get a question to which you have no answer forthcoming, there are practical things that you can do to help you provide an answer. The first, and most important thing to do is stay calm.

What Else?

Next, remember that you are a competent researcher in your field: you would not be at the viva if you were not. If no answer presents itself in response to a question, then ask some more questions as you think. In particular:

  • Do I understand the question? (If you don’t, you can’t answer it)
  • What sort of response are the examiners looking for?
  • If things seem vague, ask yourself what it seems similar to.
  • If asked for something specific, think about what you know in the general case; if asked for a general response, take a specific case as a start. Build your answer in the right direction from the information that you do know.

Don’t be afraid to think out loud if you are going through a process: this is not bad for your examiners to see. Don’t be afraid to ask your examiners some questions: if you really haven’t considered a situation before, then ask for clarification or more information. Don’t be afraid to take your time: the viva will take as long as it needs.

This is an ongoing series of posts about common questions that PhD candidates have about the viva; there will be one of these posts at least once a fortnight. Next week I’ll be answering common questions about the viva every day! From the workshops that I have delivered I have a huge list of questions that people regularly ask, and will be tackling some of the most commonly asked all next week. As this is an ongoing series though, I really want to answer your questions about the viva – so what do YOU want to know?

Thanks for reading! Either tweet questions at me, leave them in the comments or drop me an email!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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