Monday, 9 June 2014

Why the viva – what’s with the torture?

Almost every country in the world today applies some kind of unique examination process at the end of the PhD, tailoring the determination that each candidate has reached the standard required for the award of what is typically the highest degree a university can routinely award to each individual student, designing in effect a completely personalized examination.

The PhD examination is of course unique for many reasons within the education system, including the aforementioned specialization necessitated by the uniqueness of each thesis, the involvement of expertise far beyond the university and the resulting recruitment of examiners on very much a one-off basis. It is also probably the only examination in which a student normally has the ability to take only when they (and hopefully their supervisor(s)) believe they are ready to pass it.

When considering the PhD viva, the grim inevitability of which grows invidiously closer with every passing month of study, it is perhaps helpful to see the purpose of the examination from the perspective of the External Examiner.

Every week, academics and researchers around the world crack open a new soft-bound copy of a thesis, or board a plane or train to examine the student at close range, like hired guns of the academic world being sent on some nerdy mission; their mission? to ensure that those entered to the ranks of those who hold a PhD meet what they regard, based on their experience, as the right qualities.

What are they looking for? 

Firstly, I think it is fair to say that they are looking for reassurance that the candidate can pass, not that they should fail.  They understand that having got to this stage generally implies some degree of encouragement from the supervisor(s), as mentioned above, and that an experienced researcher in the field has accordingly deemed the candidate somehow fit for examination.

How do they judge this suitability?  Obviously they will look for evidence of a substantial contribution to the field of study, and the easiest way to evaluate this is to rely partially on the advice of others as applied through the demanding rigours of the peer review process, and look for evidence of prior dissemination of the work though reputable academic channels.  One of the most common questions examiners are supposed to ask is whether the work is publishable in whole or in part as a work of serious scholarship.  In many countries, this is formalized by the expectation that the candidate will have published some or all of the work presented in the thesis in appropriate modes of scholarly communications, such as books, monographs or journals, depending on the discipline.  Where this is not a formal requirement, evidence of publication or the potential for this (e.g., by presenting work as publication-style chapters which are clearly on the way to being submitted manuscripts) should leap off the pages at the examiners, to reassure them that this vital requirement has been met.

They should get this from the thesis, and more besides to create a favorable impression: care in presenting the thesis (no silly typos!), good organization and flow, a high standard both of presentation and expression.


For more on this, see a previous PhD Skills post: Examination of the PhD thesis: first impressions last:


So, you want the examiners to read the thesis and think: ‘that looks like a PhD prepared by a careful and competent researcher’. 

But that’s only the first hurdle!  The PhD isn’t awarded to the thesis, it is awarded to the person.  In theory, the care, thought, imagination, drive to publish, design of studies and all the academic rigour could be the result of the supervisor(s), and it would be very difficult to tell this from reading the thesis alone.

The only way to establish this absolutely key point of the candidate genuinely ‘owning’ the thesis, is by looking the candidate in the eye, with the supervisor either absent or silent, and seeing if they can engage in detailed discussion of the work, its outcomes, rationale, flaws, strengths, and context, at a level which is suitable for someone suitable of the award of the degree of PhD.

THAT is why the viva, why the torture, and why academics every day are enlisted to challenge PhD candidates in gladiatorial combat to defend their work before the degree may be awarded.

For more on this, see also a previous post: What questions are asked during a PhD viva?:


Future posts will examine this process more closely, and consider the significance of differences in process between different countries.

PhD skill exercise

Make a list of three things about your own thesis which you plan specifically to make the best possible impression you can on the examiner reading your thesis.

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