A system in danger of overload

May 15, 1998

Is the PhD viva outmoded? Alison Utley talks to one candidate who thinks it destroyed his career, and (below) Ewan Gillon calls for a radical overhaul of the entire Phd process

In recent weeks there has been much discussion within the pages of The THES on the role of the viva in assessing the PhD. Academics, industrialists, students and many others have written to suggest ways in which the viva system may be amended, or protesting against any idea of change. In common with most discussion about the PhD viva, the comments that have been made tend to converge with the ideas of two main camps.

The first is populated by individuals who generally feel the viva plays an important part in assessing whether or not a PhD candidate is up to scratch. They argue that awarding a degree simply on the basis of a single thesis is unacceptable, for there is no way of ensuring that the student truly understands the research at hand and is not simply describing what they have rote learned out of textbooks or been told by their supervisor to say. By conducting a viva, universities and the academic community are able to safeguard the quality of their PhDs by satisfying themselves that no candidate without the required level of expertise slips through the net and is awarded the degree.

In the second camp are those who take an opposite view, arguing that the viva is an unfair and outdated means of assessment. They point to the difficulties encountered by many students in fully articulating and defending their work, often for the first time, in such a pressurised situation. Furthermore, they highlight the difficulties encountered by examiners in being forced to undertake an important assessment in a way that gives them little or no prior knowledge of the candidate, or even of the other examiners with whom they must work constructively for a day. Within this camp, the calls to change or even abolish the PhD viva are strong.

However, there is a more radical view gradually gathering support that changing the nature of the viva examination itself is not enough. Proponents of this view claim that it is the outdated and inefficient PhD process itself that must change.

Certainly there is no doubt that in recent years the demands placed on the PhD process have increased. Although many PhD students still set out with the intention of an academic career, the difficulties in securing a full-time post and the pressures on academic staff force the majority to look elsewhere for employment. The PhD now often constitutes an advanced training for a career in industry, teaching, administration or management. Yet many of those employing PhD graduates are dissatisfied with the kinds of skills that the PhD offers.

PhD students, too, are unhappy. They claim that the pressures of completing a major research project in three years are being compounded by the increasing demands for them to produce research publications, undertake teaching duties and acquire management skills. All in all, they argue, the PhD process is overloaded, under-rewarded and is failing to justify the tremendous level of commitment involved.

As a result of increasing dissatisfaction with the PhD process, there are growing calls for a new, more flexible model to be developed and introduced. Although, by its very nature the PhD degree will always involve the conduct of a significant piece of original research, areas such as project management and science communication could constitute training options that run concurrently with the actual research. The scale of the original research that could be undertaken would be reduced, or the time taken increased, if this model is adopted. However, by linking the research that is being conducted to the particular transferable skills that are acquired via these options, students may be able to write up aspects of their thesis in particular assessed stages.

The PhD viva is a form of examination that relates directly to the presentation of a single thesis in which the entire work of three or more years is represented, and under this invigorated model of the PhD its importance would be reduced. A viva may still feature as part of the final examination process, but the staged nature of this new PhD would take the pressure off for examiners and students, who would be aware that much of the work had already been completed and assessed positively. Examiners would be unable to fail an entire PhD, but instead merely the final unassessed aspect of it.

Proponents of such a rethink of the PhD claim a model such as this would mean happier students, as the risk to them from a poor viva is less. Universities would be happy because they now would have a number of opportunities in addition to the viva to ensure a candidate is of a sufficient calibre. And the other stakeholders in the PhD would be elated, for the degree and its assessment would finally have been dragged into the 1990s.

Ewan Gillon is education policy researcher for the Association of University Teachers but writes in a personal capacity.

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