Ten years ago, the sociologist Peter Burnham wrote that the PhD viva is "one of the best-kept secrets in British higher education". A decade later, many academics and research students feel that the situation has not changed. When transparency is a buzzword in higher education, why is the PhD viva seen to be "shrouded in mystery"? Is mystery a problem? Are and should things be changing?
Much of the mystery stems from the fact that the PhD viva is usually a private affair that takes place "behind closed doors". A few institutions operate "public" vivas, but access is still restricted to members of specific academic communities. More usually, a supervisor attends.
Sometimes there is a chairperson or observer. Often, however, only the candidate and two examiners witness the viva. It is unusual for a PhD student to have witnessed a viva before her/his own.
The variability of vivas in length, tone and content also contributes to their mystery. Students vividly portray these differences in their stories.
One said: "One of my friends passed his and it was fine, basically they were lovely. Another friend walked in and they said - 'Oh, it's great.
Let's talk about how to turn this into a book.' Another two friends had absolutely horrendous experiences where they've just been unable to speak properly for hours, and one of them for days, because they had such an upsetting time. (They had) aggressive, nasty, demoralising external examiners who seemed to think their job was to make the person on the other side of the table feel like they'd done a ****e piece of work."
Most vivas fall somewhere in between the extremes presented here, but there is no such thing as a typical viva. Current systems allow substantial variation in viva practice. This is legitimate - after all, PhD submissions differ considerably in quality, topic and so on - but "behind closed doors" there is often scope for bad practice. While most vivas are fair, accounts from candidates, academics and administrators suggest that this is not always the case. One academic commented: "The external examiner left the student in tears after the viva. He basically took the student apart. It turned out that he was very bitter about the research group that I was part of, that we had got money to do research and he hadn't. So I think... he was getting his own back." So how can institutions safeguard against rogue examiners?
Training examiners can help, but it is not in itself the answer.
Institutions must monitor vivas more closely than in the past, and many are beginning to recognise this. But change is slow and varied. Some universities have independent chairs in all vivas. Principally, the chair ensures that the viva proceeds fairly and in accordance with the institution's regulations. S/he can be a useful witness in cases of complaints and appeals and can provide developmental feedback to examiners.
Of course, this practice has significant resource implications and can add to academics' already overloaded work schedules. Other monitoring mechanisms adopted by some institutions include taking minutes or making audio tapes of vivas.
But does monitoring demystify the examination for candidates? At one level, yes. Monitoring helps to make vivas more fair and more consistent - this is reassuring for students and their supervisors. At another level, however, monitoring does not help students know what to expect in their viva. Nor does it help them to prepare for it. To be equipped for the viva, students need to know the different purposes of vivas, how they work, and they need to undertake long-term preparation. But that's another story...
Carolyn Jackson, lecturer in the department of educational research Lancaster University and
Penny Tinkler, senior lecturer in the department of sociology University of Manchester, are authors of The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Candidates , published this week by Open University Press, £60.00.