Foot in mouth disease hits nation

May 17, 1996

Chris Hatton reports on a serious and growing threat to the mental health of the research community.

Recent advances in psychiatry have identified a new syndrome sweeping the nation's research community, post viva stress disorder. PVSD has many similarities to post traumatic stress disorder, which afflicts many people after being involved in major disasters, such as submissions to the Research Assessment Exercise. PVSD, however, is specifically linked to the emotional and behavioural disturbances displayed by postgraduates after undergoing an oral examination, or viva. (It is no coincidence that oral examinations are also conducted by dentists.) Several aspects of the viva contribute to the onset of PVSD. First, the viva usually takes place fairly soon after the postgraduate (in psychiatric parlance, the "victim") has finished writing the thesis. This ensures that the victim is isolated from society and divorced from the normal routines of everyday life.

In addition, any slack time between the submission of the thesis and the viva is usually used up by colleagues relating their favourite viva horror stories: the four-day vivas without food or water; those examiners with obscure neurological conditions causing them to shout "failed, you bumptious upstart!" at regular intervals; the time they turned up at the wrong viva to be grilled on the role of the potato in Carolinian architecture; or when they discovered they unaccountably missed the external examiner's seminal reference in the Guatemalan Journal of Theology and Radish Science.

The second element that can lead to PVSD is that the length of a viva is indeterminate. There are no guidelines concerning the acceptability of the victim taking short breaks for refreshments, toileting, or even quiet gibbering. This uncertainty can lead to the victim thinking they are still in the viva for several weeks after the event, and answering questions such as "tea or coffee?" with confused disquisitions on quantum theory and how it was all their supervisor's fault anyway.

Finally, there is the vexed issue of previous encounters with the external examiner. Unless he or she turns out to be a complete stranger, the external examiner generally will be known to the victim only through drunken exchanges at conferences, in which the victim will have told him or her "You're * brilliant, you are" or "You're * rubbish, you are".

At their cruellest, external examiners will actually have read the victim's thesis and will ask pertinent questions about its content. Such behaviour inevitably induces the early symptoms of PVSD - increased length of answer, a gradual absence of coherence or grammatical structure, answers ending in the words, "erm, yeah, I don't know really".

Post viva reactions depend partly on the outcome of the viva. A "fail" can, in extreme cases, induce post viva catatonia (or PVC) in the victim. This involves paralysis, alleviated only by a cold can of strong Bulgarian lager being placed swiftly in the hand.

A "pass with revision" often results in waxy PVC (also known as Barbour syndrome). Here, the victim remains in paralysis until the fingers are placed on a computer keyboard, at which point the changes required will be made, all without any apparent conscious effort.

A "pass with" or a "pass without minor corrections" induces one of two distinct forms of PVSD. The first form has been informally dubbed the Groucho Marx syndrome. Victims behave according to the principle that they could not possibly belong to a club that would have them as a member. The very fact that they have been awarded a PhD indicates its worthlessness. They are filled with feelings of depression and fraudulence, and any last vestiges of faith in academia are removed. The prognosis is poor: many victims are destined to become admissions tutors, laughing in a hollow fashion as they indiscriminately bin applications from eager students.

The second form of PVSD following a pass is more properly a form of mania. Here, victims believe they have actually become a real doctor. This has potentially disastrous consequences. Mild forms include ringing the bank within minutes to change cheque book titles to Dr, and the development of a strong desire to own a BMW. In extreme cases victims will wander the streets, offering to perform open-heart surgery on passersby with a coat hanger and a bottle of brandy.

While such behaviours could have disastrous consequences in the community at large, in a properly controlled environment (ie. a university) the prognosis is good, with victims almost inevitably becoming professors by the age of 40.

More research is urgently needed into PVSD, together with innovations in treatment strategies. To date, drug treatments have failed, despite extensive use. Behavioural programmes, such as giving people a job for life and shutting them in a windowless room, have also proved ineffective. If academics are to become valued and useful members of society, PVSD has to be conquered. Not that I have it, of course. Now where did I put that coat hanger?

Chris Hatton, research fellow at Manchester University, was awarded his PhD this year.

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