Doctor who and how

Viva PhD success - and let's fête the candidates a little, too, says Tim Birkhead

March 5, 2009

The PhD or doctorate of philosophy is said to be the most variable degree there is. The way that PhDs are assessed and celebrated is also extremely variable.

Generally what happens is that after writing an account of three or more years' research, the candidate undergoes a viva voce - literally "live voice" - an oral examination sometimes referred to as a thesis defence.

In the UK, a viva involves an external examiner (an "expert in the field") and an internal examiner from the candidate's institution or department, whose role is to see "fair play" - to make sure the external examiner operates by the rules.

Most do, but some external examiners use the viva inappropriately to flex their academic muscles - a trait most commonly seen in young, inexperienced men, but not unheard of in female examiners.

The examiners read the thesis and then, over a two or three-hour period, ask questions to establish whether the candidate knows their stuff and deserves the PhD.

A good thesis is a pleasure for everyone concerned. The candidate might be nervous, but the viva is likely to be an enthusiastic, rigorous discussion of the work that also opens up new avenues of inquiry.

Most vivas probably result in the candidate having to make minor corrections, which is tedious, but depending on how extensive they are, not unduly distressing. Major corrections and referrals are mercifully rare, but more traumatic.

When the candidate finally emerges there may be a glass of champagne and - depending on the outcome - hearty congratulations. But usually that's it. The candidate then goes off to spend the evening in the pub with a few mates. In many cases, the rest of the department is not even aware that there's been a viva.

Outside the UK, PhD procedures and celebrations can be more elaborate. In Scandinavia, for example, the candidate gives a public lecture on his or her thesis, followed by an hour or so of questioning by the external examiner(s) in front of the candidate's mum and dad, colleagues and anyone else who cares to come along.

The finale is a party, a celebration that may involve the entire department and the candidate's relatives. There is dancing and a series of sketches where colleagues re-enact different phases of the candidate's career: it is bawdy, carefree and extremely good fun.

In Norway, the post-viva celebrations are more formal (and expensive). Dinner jackets and long dresses are de rigueur at a meal that resembles a wedding breakfast, with speeches, toasts and the exchange of (surprisingly expensive) gifts - most notably from the supervisor to the candidate.

The more celebratory Scandinavian system undoubtedly stems from the fact that PhDs sometimes take longer than our usual three years to complete and are therefore a greater cause for celebration. The British PhD, rushed through in three (or lately, sometimes four) years, somehow seems undervalued by its understated procedures and muted celebrations (at least within the department).

The good thing about the British system is the viva's detailed questioning. As many a supervisor has said to a nervous candidate: "No one else will ever read your work in such detail." It is true, and one of the great strengths of our model.

The bad thing about the Scandinavian system is that by the time they get to their vivas, the candidates know they have passed. So the public lecture, however intimidating, is little more than a pantomime.

I have supervised close to 40 PhD students, and while I have shared their joy at success, our system does lack razzmatazz.

Two additional elements (neither of which need to be obligatory) would enhance the viva experience:

  • a public lecture attended by friends and relatives, followed by the usual closeted discussion with the examiners, during which the decision of pass or fail is made
  • a proper party attended by friends and relatives.

Not all foreign vivas are worth emulating, however, and one thing we certainly don't want is unnecessary pomp and ceremony. I once acted as an external examiner in another (nameless) country and was amazed by their system.

With no fewer than a dozen "examiners", all in academic robes, we processed in strict rank order into the ceremonial hall for the public defence, to the strains of the university orchestra.

The entourage was led by the dean, followed by the sub-dean, the vice sub-dean, the deputy vice sub-dean and so on. Last and very much least was me. We then proceeded to ask the candidate questions.

Contrary to my expectations, the amount of time allocated to each examiner was determined by rank and seemed to be inversely proportional to their knowledge of the candidate's thesis.

It was another kind of pantomime, the finale of which was the procession from the examination hall to the university canteen. There, still resplendent in our academic uniforms, we tucked into fish and chips served on paper plates with plastic knives and forks.

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