A biased court with no appeal

February 20, 1998

The viva oral exam is an unfair way to assess a thesis, argues Ewan Gillon

One of the hardest tasks facing a PhD supervisor is assisting a student to prepare for their viva examination. The doctoral viva or oral exam can set the heart of even the most unflappable PhD beating hard. Such terror is unsurprising, as the viva is the final step of a PhD process that can often last years and involves considerable amounts of emotional and financial investment.

No matter how confident in their work a student or their supervisor may be, there is always an element of doubt - is their confidence valid or misplaced? As it is not until the viva that any significant objections to a thesis held by an examiner become apparent, helping a student deal with the build up to this day of reckoning is generally considered highly important by supervisors.

A candidate's viva exam follows shortly after the submission of a thesis in which they describe and justify their research. While the thesis itself is obviously of paramount importance in impressing examiners, a student's performance in a viva is crucial as it is during this exam that assessors decide on the award they are going to make. In cases where there is serious doubt as to the quality of a PhD student, a bad viva may be the final straw and the candidate failed outright.

An outcome such as this is obviously catastrophic for the student. Yet, controversially, universities regard the academic judgement of PhD examiners as irrefutable and offer no recourse to appeal. Fortunately such a result is awarded rarely. Examiners generally offer what they perceive to be weaker candidates the opportunity to undertake some further work, rewrite their thesis or even sit a second viva.

The most common outcome of a PhD exam is, however, less serious even than these - a requirement to make amendments to a thesis. However, even this may have serious repercussions for a student. Many PhD candidates enter their viva exam having started full-time work or with other commitments that may make carving out extra time to work on their thesis extremely costly. Therefore most students realise the importance of performing well in the the viva.

But performing well is difficult as a viva exam is subject to a number of potential biases that have led a number of critics to question its role in the examination process.

One is the aura of ritual that is conferred upon the viva by an academic world to which it has traditionally constituted the final entrance exam. Both examiners and students are expected to dress formally, and spend a number of hours debating the strength and weaknesses of the thesis. Although universities have different guidelines as to how vivas should be conducted, there is huge variability in their length and style. Some students whizz through their viva in less than an hour, having been informed at the outset that their thesis is up to standard. Others suffer three to four-hour grillings on detailed aspects of their thesis, also emerging with a PhD at the other end. This variability works to preserve the aura of mystique that is often considered intimidatory and distracting. Even the brightest and most knowledgeable of PhD students may be turned into gibbering wrecks offering monosyllabic answers to complex questions if the ritualised pressure of the viva gets to them. Moreover, it is simply the case that some individuals are better in the cut and thrust of debate than others. While it is usually possible to distinguish between a student lacking the required understanding and one who is genuinely introverted or badly affected by nerves, there are always instances in which these explanations for a poor performance may become interchanged.

Equally problematic may be the personal dynamics that emerge as part of the viva process. No matter how much a student or examiner attempts to conceal any personal animosities that emerge over the course of the exam, these may have a considerable bearing upon the flow of debate, and affect the final outcome. Examiners may simply come to dislike a student who is perceived to be overly aggressive or antagonistic in defence of their work. While in theory this dislike should play no part in the process, in practice there are instances where students are penalised by examiners knowingly or unknowingly for factors relating to their personality.

And it is not simply personal feelings between examiner and student that may complicate matters. The two or three examiners who constitute the examination panel may themselves not get on, or find themselves in competition to establish intellectual superiority at the expense of the student. It is common for a student to find a younger or inexperienced examiner attempt to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise to a senior colleague by probing more deeply and aggressively on issues than is required. Or this gamesmanship can work to a student's advantage. Examiners who know a supervisor personally may find it difficult not to take this friendship into account when carrying out the exam.

As a result of all these problems, there are calls for an inquiry into how PhD students are assessed. For many, the viva is no longer acceptable in an academic context where the importance of quality assured examination procedures is becoming increasingly recognised. However, universities seem adamant about maintaining the viva tradition, insisting that their approach to assessing PhD candidates is fine. The debate about vivas is only just beginning.

Ewan Gillon is a researcher with the AUT but writes in a personal capacity.

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