Fun way to assess

September 9, 2005

It is hardly surprising that the survey of PhD vivas revealed considerable unevenness and possibly unfairness ("Push for viva ground rules", August 26).

Putting three or four people whose status and power are markedly uneven into a small room for two hours without many ground rules is probably not the best, or most memorable, way of evaluating three or more years of research work.

Perhaps it is time that we gave some thought to the "public defence" approach to higher degrees that has been adopted in many European universities.

In this, the thesis (often a slimmer volume of published papers rather than the telephone directory usually required in the UK) is reviewed by a panel of internal and external experts and then defended by its author against an external "opponent".

The opponent, while probing critically, allows the defender the opportunity to display mastery of the subject.

The whole affair is conducted in public, with faculty, family and friends present.

Successful defences are often followed by a party.

This reasonably transparent methodology is fairer and is definitely more fun.

Roger Jones
King's College London

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