Doctoral talking shops are the best we've got

May 9, 2013

The feature “Whim and rigour” (25 April) does not provide an entirely thorough analysis. It asks if the viva is still fit for purpose, so it should have examined in more depth its current purposes, one of which is to establish whether the candidate did the research or not (something external examiners in the Australian system cannot establish as they never meet the students face to face). Another function is to find out whether candidates can talk as well as write convincingly about their topics, with the pass dependent on both. The viva also determines whether the candidate is able to research independently of their supervisor.

Vivas differ considerably by discipline, yet almost all the academics interviewed in the article work in the social sciences or the humanities. In those disciplines, rewriting post-viva is much more common than in the sciences. Examiners may well have different perspectives on the topics than the students, hence there is more likelihood of disagreement, with candidates and supervisors perhaps feeling aggrieved at the outcome (sometimes unreasonably so).

It is true that in the open viva system common in much of Europe, the worth of the thesis is initially decided on the basis of a paper-based examination alone. When candidates get to the open viva stage, it is almost impossible to fail. However, this does not mean it is merely a formality: open viva performances are often graded, and a low mark will not be good for the candidate’s career.

The closed viva is difficult to research, and a number of those individuals interviewed in “Whim and rigour” have not done so per se. Even the work by Vernon Trafford, emeritus professor of education at Anglia Ruskin University, is based, I believe, on vivas he has attended as an examiner, supervisor or chair, not as a researcher. Gill Clarke, a former colleague of mine at the University of Bristol and one-time assistant director of the Quality Assurance Agency, is doing a DPhil at the University of Oxford on the viva and is attending the exams as a researcher, not in another guise. Such work may be a better guide than data drawn from experiential contexts.

While exploring the rather dubious possibility that students can be systematically “trained” to pass vivas using software or consultants, the article does not discuss realistic alternatives to the closed viva. The US system is different in so many ways that it does not offer us a way forward. As someone who has examined quite a few Australian theses on paper, I found it immensely frustrating not to be able to talk to the candidates, so I cannot recommend this approach. The only choices left are to continue to improve the closed viva (many institutions, as briefly mentioned in the article, now have independent chairs and/or digitally record the events, thus protecting examiners as well as students) or move to an open viva system. The latter is surely worth exploring further, rather than being dismissed as a mere “formality”.

Rosemary Deem
Vice-principal (education)
Royal Holloway, University of London
Executive member
UK Council for Graduate Education


It is some years since my PhD viva, which I personally found a useful discussion with two examiners who were experts in the field. However, it may be time to update the process. With today’s emphasis on the impact of research, perhaps a Jeremy Paxmanesque, University Challenge-style interrogation of the doctoral candidate, which is also webcast, would be just the thing.

Keith Flett

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