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Colin Johnson’s blog

Viva (1)

An overseas colleague who is examining a PhD in the UK for the first time asked me for some advice on the viva. I thought that this would be worth sharing—some is specific to the Kent system, but generally it is generic. Enjoy.

You need to fill out a preliminary report form before the viva.

On the day of the viva we will meet and briefly discuss the structure of the viva and our general impressions before we ask the candidate in. The viva sometimes begins with a short overview presentation by the candidate. I am generally in favour of this, as it puts the candidate at ease.

There is then a decent length of time (usually around two-three hours) of questions from the external and internal examiners, often starting with some general questions, then drilling down into very specific detail (very specific questions along the lines of “on page XX, you said…can you explain why…” are usual). Typically this is structured by going chapter-by-chapter through the thesis. The question session often ends with a couple of general questions and an opportunity for the candidate to tell us about anything that they feel we have missed.

It is usually just the three people (internal and external examiners and candidate) in a room. If the candidate and examiners want it, the supervisor can attend, but I would advise against this, it seems offputting to the candidate. There is also an option for an “independent observer” to be present which wouldn’t normally be used unless there are no internal examiners.

There is, despite what you might have seen in films set in Oxford in the 1930s, no need to dress up like Henry VIII or carry a ceremonial sword. The candidate will probably wear a tie which is shocking after seeing them in T-shirt and jeans for the last four years.

At the end of the questioning the candidate is sent to pace up and down anxiously out the room or go out of the building and smoke an unfeasible number of cigarettes whilst the internal and external examiner make a decision, there-and-then. The nine different options that we have are listed in Part B of the aforementioned form. A brief guide to these options:

Option 1: Pass with no corrections. Very rare. Examiners like to ask for at least a few corrections to show that they have read the thesis.

Options 2 and 3: Minor corrections of two different lengths. Probably the most common outcome. Both of these basically indicate to the candidate that the thesis is basically fine. The first one is for minor points (e.g. grammar/spelling, redrawing graphs and diagrams, putting in some references, adding a few explanatory sentences here and there; the second option is if the corrections are more substantial but the basic argument of the thesis is clear and sound.

Option 4: Resubmission after a year. A not-uncommon option, means that the examiners are as yet unconvinced that there is a PhD in this work but that there is a reasonable chance that something could be gotten out of it with a decent amount of work. This is the worst result that should be given the first time round – we should, unless the thesis is a complete travesty, always give the candidate a second chance.

Options 5a and 5b: retake oral exam and/or take a written exam. To the best of my knowledge, these have never been used in the history of the universe/university.

Options 6, 7, 8. Various levels of failure or fallback awards. Shouldn’t be chosen this time round but would be options for a candidate who has been offered option 4 and has failed to get the thesis up to the level required.

We then fill out this form and call the candidate and supervisor back into the room and tell them the result. There is a detailed report to be filled out then, which we should ideally do there-and-then or could do by email a little later if you have to dash away. This should ideally set out precisely what we expect in the way of corrections (obviously, in the case of a resubmission where the original thesis was weak, this might not be so easy).

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