It’s good to talk

May 30, 2013

Rosemary Deem (Letters, 9 May) offers a constructive critique of the views expressed in “Whim and rigour” (25 April) and mentions my PhD research. It involves observing ­doctoral vivas in different subjects and interviewing candidates, examiners and supervisors afterwards. These examiners are passionate about research and education in their subjects, showing commitment to the task, rigour in assessment and fairness to candidates. They want students to do well but aren’t prepared to compromise standards.

The candidate’s achievements are demonstrated largely in the thesis. Before the viva, the examiners I’ve observed (in science, social sciences and the arts) have read the thesis at least once and usually twice, so they can question the candidate thoroughly. The candidate has to answer their questions satisfactorily to pass. You could argue that the nature of the viva depends on the quality of the thesis: the higher the quality, the fewer concerns examiners will have. However, a high-quality thesis does not necessarily mean a short viva: examiners may enjoy discussing the candidate’s research outcomes with them. Variation in viva length is one of the subtle yet important differences between disciplines that exists for good reason and does not indicate variable quality. The viva is longer in some subjects to allow dis­cussion of complex technical matters or other factors unrelated to quality; “norms” in different subjects are generally accepted in the field.

The two-part final assessment tests abilities developed by doing research and following a doctoral programme. Passing the exam demonstrates analytical skills, the ability to communicate in a multidisciplinary, multi­media environment, and independent and effective problem-solving.

Regarding the “emotional burden” placed on candidates during the viva: this affects some more than others. We are increasingly aware of employers’ criticisms (some of which remain unsubstantiated) of graduates’ abilities. It is therefore important that PhD graduates, theoretically the most mature of any emerging from university, can hold their own in a ­situation of intense questioning about complex ideas and are prepared for similar employment challenges.

My interviewees believe the viva is ­important. Candidates think it is useful and ­developmental. Some say they would feel short-changed not to have this opportunity to discuss their research in detail with peers. Comments include: “…there are lots of things that are not written [in the thesis] that the examiners could think you aren’t aware of, or you didn’t think of”, and: “…it gives you a chance to defend the bits [of the thesis] that are weaker”. One examiner said: “The viva consolidates and confirms expectations” and supports “testing, debating and other scientific skills that a [PhD graduate] should have, which are not gained from just writing”.

Those entering academic careers receive invaluable advice from examiners – often international experts – about developing their methodology or publishing their work, helping to maintain the high standards of research the UK is respected for internationally.

Processes can always be improved. The use of a convenor or independent chair for oral examinations, as recommended in UK-wide guidelines, is increasing and is an effective innovation. Having observed this in practice, it assures “fair play” (as described by one of my interviewees) for everyone.

The final PhD examination in the UK is not perfect, but it is fit for purpose on the whole.

Gill Clarke
Vice-chair, UK Council for Graduate Education
PhD student (part-time), University of Oxford

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