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4 July: The PhD Viva

Published onJul 09, 2019
4 July: The PhD Viva

Today I spoke to a young geographer about his PhD viva. We were having dinner after a political event about racism in Europe and he started to tell me about his thesis defense. ‘The best advice my supervisor gave me was to think of the viva not as a threat but an opportunity’, he said. The postgraduate self-help literature describes the viva as an ordeal to be ‘survived’.

Traumatic viva tales reinforce the apocalyptic image of what happens in the context of this unusual oral form of examination. All varieties of PhD viva have a basic structure: examiners read the thesis and form an independent judgement about it then ask the candidate questions in the context of ‘live talk’ which is the literal translation of the Latin phrase viva vocé.

The stage in which this live talk takes place varies considerably across the world. In places like Norway and Sweden it is a public affair that takes place in front of academic peers but also friends and family, but in these cases the candidate’s performance in the viva has little impact on the outcome. In this sense, the viva is a mock defence and symbolizes the arrival of another intellectual figure in the field and not part of determining whether or not the thesis is to be passed.

In the UK the event takes place behind closed doors usually with two examiners – one external to the university and the other internal – sometimes with an academic chairing the discussion and/or with the supervisor present. There is more at stake because the viva is a real examination and can be taken into consideration with regard to the final outcome.

A candidate who has written a good thesis will not fail if they give a poor or even non-existent defence. However, the flaws or weaknesses in a thesis can be mitigated if the candidate offers a robust and eloquent understanding of how they would attend to them. There is a lot to play for in the give and take of the viva where the author of the thesis comes face to face with two readers who have read it carefully and also have to substantiate their criticisms.

In this sense, the viva for the student is a rare opportunity to talk in detail for one to two hours about their work with two people who have subjected it to a close reading. It would be wrong to minimize what is at stake. My young colleague described the viva as ‘a bit like gambling at cards’. What is being played for? The outcome of the viva can vary from a pass without any amendments to minor corrections that can be made within a few weeks to a referral in which major corrections are asked for, taking eighteen months and requiring re-examination of the thesis.

In most cases the outcome is minor corrections; extended corrections and unblemished passes are both rare. I have lost track of how many PhD theses I have examined but it must now be over a hundred. In all those projects probably five were passed without any amendments and a similar number were given extended referrals, sometimes not resulting in resubmission.

The viva is far from a foregone conclusion but I think it is some comfort to students anticipating it that the likely outcome is minor corrections detailed in their examiners’ joint report stipulating what remains to be done. There is something profound about the metaphor of the viva as a kind of intellectual gambling.

As in a game of poker you have to be clear about what’s in your hand. In a sense, this is about being clear going into the viva, the intellectual cards you have to play. What is of value in your thesis? What is it that other readers in the field will be interested in? What did you find out that surprised you and by extension will surprise others? What is the thesis about and what is its thesis, that is, what is its main argument?

In preparing for the viva it’s sometimes as simple as thinking through how to describe in clear and concise terms where the idea for the project came from, how the idea was investigated, what was found out and why it is interesting. Often students worry unnecessarily about being caught out by the examiners referring to an obscure article they haven’t read, or by a cringing typographical error that slipped into the submitted thesis. All of these things are of a lesser importance. What is crucial is that the student is clear about what they have in the hand, that is, the intellectual, ethical and political integrity of their project and what is to be learnt from it.

The viva has a kind of social etiquette. The examiners read the thesis beforehand, they write independent reports (if they manage their time well), then they meet prior to the viva (often over lunch) and confer and agree key questions to be raised in the viva and a kind of intellectual script designating to each examiner areas of questioning to lead on. The student is very often – almost always in fact – asked an opening question that is designed to get the conversation started. Examples of opening questions range from: ‘Tell us where the idea for your project came from?’ or ‘Reading over your thesis prior to the viva which parts of it were you most proud of and are there any parts of it you would do differently?’ Students can anticipate these kinds of questions and it is advisable to prepare or even practise how to answer them.

Some students like to have mock vivas. I am personally not convinced that they are necessary but what is important is to be prepared to describe in concise but substantive ways the key arguments of the thesis and its main qualities. It is important for students in the context of the viva to take time to reflect and make a considered answer; and to ask for clarification of the question if it isn’t clear. Also, allow the examiners to take their time in expressing their reflections and asking their questions.

There is a lot of advice available on postgraduate websites about how to dress, how much to smile, how to flatter the examiners or whether or not to shake hands. These kinds of impression management tactics are usually glaringly obvious and, at least in my experience, completely ineffectual. I think it’s better to be yourself and speak sincerely about the things you care about.

The viva is a nerve-racking experience and the most difficult ones I have been involved in have been when the candidate is so nervous that words fail them or where they can’t stop themselves talking. Give detailed but brief answers of between two and three minutes. The examiners will want a dialogue not a lecture. Also, they will want to hear what you have to say (it’s important to speak up and speak clearly) but a hectoring diatribe will alienate them.

Continuing the playing card metaphor, students must represent what they think and not fold. Most PhD students fear the question that reveals that their work is based on a false premise and fundamentally flawed, a question that renders them speechless. Often in preparation for the viva a student will try to go through the potential questions that might be asked, but it is simply impossible to anticipate all of them. It is possible to prepare how to address or explain to the examiners the weak points in the argument or in the structure of a thesis.

I often think that the best way to approach the examiners’ questions is to be both intellectually open to what is raised but at the same time to defend the project’s integrity and substance. Sometimes the examiners ask questions that result from misreading and misunderstanding the thesis. I have seen the indignation of an examiner evaporate on more than one occasion when the candidate responds by saying ‘If you look on page 315 I have addressed that issue directly.’

What should a student do if the question exposes a series of issues or consequences that s/he hadn’t anticipated or dealt with? The young geographer I mentioned at the beginning described this as the moment when you have to ‘decide like playing cards whether to stick or twist’. Sometimes it’s better to ‘stick’ and acknowledge that the incisive question is a good one that will be given further thought. The other option is to ‘twist’: ask for another card and gamble on opening up the question further, challenging the consequences of the line of critique and the basis of the examiner’s judgement.

Part of the art of scholarship is deciding when to accept and learn from a criticism and when to challenge it and elaborate a new argument that extends what you have already written and develops what you want to convey. The viva vocé must establish that the thesis is the work of the student, that it has a coherent argument that makes a distinct contribution to knowledge; that it affords evidence of originality and is situated within the relevant literature in relation to the field of study. Keeping these criteria in mind demystifies the viva.

At the end of the viva examiners will more often than not ask students if they have any questions. This can sometimes be very unnerving for students. After that students are asked to leave so that the examiners can confer and decide on the outcome and their recommendation. Once the outcome is known the examiners often discuss and give advice on where the work might be published and possible future directions for the candidate’s work.

At its best the viva vocé is a live engagement with the ideas of the student. Like the young geographer, some find it, while nerve-racking, an intellectually stimulating and even enjoyable experience. The viva vocé should not be a trial by ordeal. However, there are cases when examiners behave badly and these stories fuel postgraduate trepidation about the viva as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. In my experience there have been a handful of occasions when I have witnessed such unprofessional misbehaviour.

I think there are certain kinds of personality types that students and supervisors should avoid inviting to the viva conversation. The first of these is the intellectual narcissist – the kind of examiner who is prone to scour the bibliography for references to their own published work or even ask ‘. . . but where am I in the thesis?’ Such people can have a distorted self-consciousness about making intellectual judgements: ‘What will people think of me if I pass this?’ Or, they look at the pages of the thesis as if it were a mirror in which they only see themselves reflected, offering the pretext to go on and on about their own intellectual preoccupations and priorities. The second is the type I would characterize as the time-ruthless academic superstar.

The student’s thesis is something to be read at speed and judged – sometimes harshly and unfairly – on the run: ‘I only have forty-five minutes for the viva because I have got to catch a plane to my book launch in New York tomorrow.’ Many world-renowned and respected academics make fantastic examiners but for others the PhD thesis is a lowbrow read to be perfunctorily scanned.

The last kind of examiner to avoid is the member of the discipline police. Here the concern is usually less about what the thesis has to say than how it can be categorized: ‘Is this really sociology?’ A PhD student might ask understandably: ‘How do I know if the eminent person I want to nominate on my exam entry form falls into one of these categories?’ The best indicator of the quality of any given examiner is how they have behaved in previous PhD examinations.

The ideal examiner for a thesis is someone who will read the work in its own terms, be fair and intellectually open-minded and at the same time searching and critical. Probably 90% of all the people I have examined with have demonstrated these qualities.

In the midst of the scaremongering that surrounds the viva vocé it is important to realize that the weight of bureaucracy is for once on the student’s side: it’s much more time-consuming for examiners in terms of paperwork to fail or refer a thesis than it is to pass it. Difficult examiners can be chastened by the realization that their brilliant critical dissection might mean more time will be taken up reading the revised thesis and so keep them away longer from their own work.

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