Don't strike fear into their hearts

February 24, 2006

The viva is a key opportunity for a PhD candidate to defend a thesis, but it should also be viewed as a learning experience for all and not a chore or an opportunity to belittle the student, writes Harriet Swain

Right. The viva. Now's your chance to tell that student how he really should have written his thesis - at least that bit of it you've read. Think again. It is, in fact, your chance to listen. And be nice to him. "You will get a better response from a candidate and he or she is more likely to be able to think coherently about the thesis if you are pleasant," says Gina Wisker, director of learning development at Anglia Ruskin University.

She says it is important to recognise that it is a scary situation for students, so it is better not to feed their fear by looking irritated or bored.

If you really disagree with the way they have gone about their research, she says, you should ask them to explain why they approached it in the way they did, rather than just attacking their methods.

She suggests combining generic questions - such as asking them to explain their conceptual framework and their contribution to knowledge - with more detailed questions on the thesis itself.

Howard Green, chairman of the UK Council for Graduate Education, says that while you should critique a few pages in detail, it is tedious to take this approach to the whole thesis. In any case, the viva should not be too long - between two and two and a half hours is sufficient.

If you think changes need to be made, you need to be clear about what these changes should be, he says. But if you think the thesis is rubbish, it shouldn't be being vivaed at all and you should have decided that already.

He says the main purpose of the viva is to check the context of the thesis and to make sure it is the candidate's handiwork.

In their book on the doctoral examination process, Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson say it is vital to think about the purposes of the viva before you start and to make these clear to the candidate. If it's a good thesis, the viva will authenticate the work, clarify points and develop ideas. If it is borderline, it will help establish whether a doctorate should be awarded. All this should be discussed with your co-examiner. You also need to decide who will broach which questions, and in what order.

Think about your provisional decision on the thesis and the first question you will ask, as well as about what roles each examiner will play. Are there any questions pivotal to your final decision that will need to be raised early in the viva?

They suggest that you introduce everyone at the start of the viva, clarify how it will be structured and how long it will last, and tell candidates that they can ask for a break. Once the session is over, you should ask the candidate to leave the room and explain to them that you will stay behind to confer.

Green stresses that the viva is only part of the examination process. It is therefore vital to read the thesis. "Don't skim it," he warns.

Wisker says she first reads the abstract, introduction, conclusion and links from chapter to chapter to check coherence and contribution to knowledge before getting bogged down in the arguments. She then reads through the work carefully from beginning to end.

Rowena Murray, author of How to Survive Your Viva , says that not only should you have read the thesis but you should also have consulted some of the published literature on how to viva. You should be well acquainted with the viva regulations of the particular institution and department where the examination is taking place.

Simon Felton, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, says it is important to make sure that there is either an independent chair or a recording of the viva - a decision based on discussion between the postgraduate director, student and supervisor. The institution's postgraduate office should also send a "guide to the viva" to each student, supervisor, external examiner and independent chair setting out the institution's rules.

Murray says you also need to read the mood of the viva. "It's an examination but it's also a discussion," she says. You need to think about how you shift from one to the other.

James Hartley, professor of psychology at Keele University, has written about the viva and agrees that while it is important to be aware of the rules, you also have to adapt your approach according to the situation and the student. Some students may be so nervous that they cannot take anything in in the first few minutes, he says. Others will have written such a good thesis that it will be hard to stop yourself saying so. "It's a balance between being as helpful as possible while being rigorous if there are obvious errors," he says.

Felton says deciding whether or not the candidate has been successful should always be a matter of academic judgment. "The viva is an opportunity for the student to defend his or her thesis," he says. "It should not be used to test the student's command of spoken English." He says the student should have the opportunity to defend the work in case the examiners have misinterpreted the thesis.

Green says that you should regard the viva as a learning process on both sides. It is an opportunity for you to learn about the candidate's work, and for the candidate to receive advice from you about where to take the work in future. Your own career preoccupations should be kept out of the picture.

Further information

How to Survive Your Viva , by Rowena Murray, Oxford University Press, 2003.

The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors , by Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, OUP, 2004.

The Good Supervisor: Supervising Postgraduate and Undergraduate Research for Doctoral Theses and Dissertations , by Gina Wisker, Palgrave, 2004.

Top tips

Read the thesis thoroughly - don't skim

Make the student feel at ease - this is a discussion as well as an exam

Decide a questioning strategy with your co-examiner

Be clear about what changes are required

Keep your career preoccupations out of the picture

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