The pseudo intellectuals

March 20, 1998

EWAN GILLON's gentle critique of the viva oral examination (THES, February 20) may indeed, with luck, kindle a long-overdue debate about the suitability of this traditional form of assessing PhD candidates.

Last year we were both awarded PhDs, but have found ourselves unable to celebrate. We tell ourselves that we are two "successes". For both of us this was the culmination of a long and often exciting struggle and we expected to feel the euphoria of achievement. Instead we have found an anti-climax, an emptiness. In short our prize has been somehow tarnished and we wonder just how common this reaction is.

Talking with colleagues after the event, it occurred to us that, as with Tolstoy's happy families, positive experiences of vivas seem to be all very similar, while successful candidates emerging from destructive vivas recount those experiences in very different ways.

Some likened their interview with examiners to encountering Cerberus snarling at the gates of the academic establishment; others to the Monty Python sketch about the man who pays a pound for an argument but instead finds himself engaged in a bout of pointless contradiction.

Our point is not that some vivas are "easier" than others but concerns the power relationship between examiner and examinee. Gillon points out the potential for variability in candidates' experiences of the oral exam, and calls for an inquiry into the fairness of such examinations.

He suggests that there are differences in the length and style of vivas, and that factors such as the relationships between examiners and examined, and even between the examiners themselves could lead to very different experiences and treatment. Does anyone have reliable evidence which supports this view? Without it, Gillon's call for the debate to continue may well go unheard.

After all, who would gain from changes in the system? Not the universities, who might have to re-think the established tradition of viva examinations; not the examiners who enjoy the power and prestige of infallibility in the process of being judge, jury and sometimes executioner; even those who have successfully overcome the viva hurdle have little to gain and may even enjoy the knowledge that others will have to face the same assessment.

Prospective candidates have, paradoxically, the most to lose if examiners react against any moves for change, and the most to gain if such changes lead to greater fairness.

It seems to us that it is time for the collection of some data. We would like to get some idea about just how wide the variability in experiences might be, and would be grateful to hear from anyone who has taken their viva examination in 1997-98 and passed it.

Connie Marsh and Sue Wallace

Department of secondary and tertiary education Nottingham Trent University

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