Pauline McGovern makes a good point about vivas (“Harsh interrogation”, Letters, 2 May). Their main purpose is to establish that candidates understand their work and can explain it in the context of the literature. Catching them off guard with a surprise line of questioning in an already tense atmosphere does not help.
I have led doctoral vivas in several countries, and it is my belief that the UK system is best fit for purpose. However, I would suggest that one rule of the European system be adopted, namely that of advance written notice by the external examiner of major issues to be raised at the viva (with a chair appointed to ensure that undisclosed questions are ruled out).
Advance knowledge of the examiner’s line of questioning does not make the process any less rigorous - the candidate may still fail if they cannot defend the thesis - but it does reduce the polarity of power in the room between examiner and student, and introduces an element of fairness if the latter at least knows where the attack is coming from.
Honorary senior lecturer
University of Bristol
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