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Understanding the question

In the panel academic members need to make sure that the candidate can answer questions under pressure and this requires practice. If panellists are unsure about the question, then ask the academic panel member to repeat it. If candidates are still unsure, a good strategy is relate back to the panel what is thought to have been understood from the question and the panel members will be able to clarify whether the candidate is correct. A good strategy for this is to re-phrase the question, which helps to clarify what is required. 

Typical Panel Questions

The best way to prepare for a panel is to anticipate the types of questions that might be asked. Some typical questions have been listed below, but try to formulate some more:

  • Tell me about your research to-date
  • Please summarise your thesis so far
  • Summarise your key findings to-date
  • What is original about your thesis?
  • What are the strongest / weakest parts of your work?
  • What are the main issues / debates in your subject area?
  • What are the crucial research decisions that you have made so far and need to make in the immediate future?
  • How are you tackling the ethical implications of your work?
  • How would you rate your progress with the thesis so far?
  • Has the research question / focus of your research changed significantly? If so, why?
  • How have you applied research training to your thesis?
  • What types of research training have you undertaken thus far?
  • What have been your main achievements/outputs?
  • How many chapters have you drafted?
  • What are your plans for the next phase of the thesis?
  • What methodology have you chosen and why?
  • What further work needs to be done to complete this chapter? (usually asked when you have provided the panel with a piece of draft work)
  • What training needs will you have in the next year? How will these help your thesis?
  • Have you experienced any difficulties so far and, if so, how have you dealt with these?

Structuring Your Answers

There are various ways of structuring an answer to a question. Candidates will inevitably get more skilled at answering questions with practice, but it is a good idea to think about structure. There are various methods of structuring an answer (see Murray, 2008):

  • Classification groupings
  • Analysis - breaking the subject into parts
  • Pros and cons
  • Problem-solution
  • General-specific
  • Narrative (of work done)
  • Other directions/structures
  • The structure of your thesis argument

Verbal Strategies

It is useful to employ several verbal strategies ahead of the panel. The oral communication skills used when presenting an academic paper will stand a candidate in good stead for formulating a verbal response to a question. Candidates need to make sure that they include just the right amount of information in their answer. Answers that are brief and underdeveloped will not be considered adequate during a PhD panel. The panel members are expecting candidates to demonstrate their ability to think under pressure. Candidates are, of course, allowed to ask the panel whether they can take a few minutes to formulate a response. Note down any things which come to mind on paper and use these notes to help structure a response.

Employing Academic Vocabulary

Doctoral candidates who reach the panel will, by now, be well versed in academic vocabulary. Be prepared to practice using this vocabulary when answering questions about the research - aims, objectives, analysis, theoretical frameworks, methodologies. When candidates use definitions they are tasked to clarify what their understanding of these definitions is, and why. Define any terms which are used in the thesis (indeed, the panel might ask for clarification to check meaning) and illustrate these with well-chosen examples from the doctoral work. Remember to be specific and be prepared to talk about things that have been completed so far.


Also come to the panel prepared to talk about the thesis in very frank terms. This means being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your research (and research question) and the thesis plan as well as being able to talk about them confidently and with assertion. Also be prepared to talk about the authorities in the research area and demonstrate any technical expertise and knowledge that has been gained. This will give the candidate credibility as a researcher.

Typical Panel Procedures

As a rule, the panel will consist of three or four members of academic staff, plus the doctoral candidate.  The panel will be made up of:

  • A Chair - this will usually be the PGR discipline coordinator or their representative
  • Supervisor(s) - at least one member of the student's supervisory team
  • Additional panel member = at least one independent member of academic staff. Depending on the school, this person usually takes an advisory role and are appointed because they have specialist knowledge of some aspect of the student's research or because they are experienced PhD supervisors and examiners whose general expertise will be useful to the other panel members.

How to Field' Questions - Presenting to the Panel

Briefly jot down a response to the following questions:

  1. Please summarise your thesis (or thesis plan) so far
  2. Summarise your key findings to-date
  3. What is original about your thesis?
  4. What are the strongest / weakest parts of your work
  5. What are the main issues / debates in your subject area?