They being The Examiners of course. The all-seeing, all-knowing Examiners. Yikes! I often encounter candidates with a fear that Examiners are trying to find a way to really make them uncomfortable, and pull their work apart. Now, hopefully if you’re reading this you don’t think or feel that way – but you might still be worried about how “bad” questions can get. So:
What’s the worst question they can ask?
I’ve mulled this over for some time, and have several possibilities:
They could ask a question not in your field. Despite being a mathematician they ask you about Art in Florence during the American Revolution. If you’re a historian, they could ask you to derive general relativity from first principles.
Except that’s not going to happen. Your examiners want to know about your research and you as a researcher. Asking about a topic that is genuinely out of your field is not going to be productive in assessing your PhD worthiness.
They could ask you a question that you have never considered. They could ask something speculative or something that you have to reason out from first principles. It might be about applying your techniques or methodology to data that you don’t have access to. Or they could ask you to think about something with very little information to hand.
But is that so bad? If you’ve got to the viva you’re up to the task. You have spent three or more years learning how to think as a researcher. Your examiners are not going to ask something totally beyond someone in your field: they would reasonably expect that this is something you can do.
And you can.
These two possibilities aren’t so bad. Is there no worst question?
What’s the worst question they can ask?
You know the answer. I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but I can tell you how to answer this for yourself, just by asking one more question:
What do you really wish they wouldn’t ask about your work?
Think about your thesis as a whole. Think about your journey through your research. What would you really dread them asking about? What do you not want anyone to ask you about?
You may have experienced this at conferences before, or in seminars perhaps when you have presented. “Please don’t let them ask about this…” Why? Because you have nothing to share? No, you know something otherwise your answer would be “Well, I’ve not considered that case…” Then we’re back to reasoning from first principles or discussing things with your examiners.
My guess is that today’s question stems from a fear of imperfection. A fear of not having all of the answers. If this is connected to things outside of your research, there are two things you could do:
- You could do some more research: “I know nothing about Methodology X but I am sure they will ask me why I didn’t use it!” If you realise this before the viva you can examine what you don’t know and see how it fits.
- You could accept that you can’t know everything: instead focus on the things that you do know. Strengthen your understanding of your work. By extension you will probably get a better picture of where it fits in relation to other things that you have not considered much.
If the question that you dread is connected to your thesis, there are definite and practical steps to take too. Start by unpicking the core of your fear. Is it that you think you won’t be able to present what you have done or what you think? There are steps that you can take:
- You can do some more research;
- Sketch the flow of something;
- Or mindmap a model for how it all fits.
If you find a knowledge gap you can make a bridge.
Do you think that your examiners will find a flaw that you haven’t already considered? There are always compromises in research. There will be pros and cons for doing or not doing things. Start by focussing on the positives of why you did something, before you consider the negatives for either an alternative or the negative things associated with the path that you chose.
The worst question you can be asked…
…is one that you already know. You are the world expert in the research you have done: you are fully capable of finding an answer.
Thanks for reading this post about a common question about the viva! What do you want to know about the viva? Let me know and maybe it will be answered in a future post!