The outcomes

Once a student has submitted his or her thesis a considerable wait may be anticipated. The Memorandum for Examiners states, however, that...

Unless a specific date for the oral examination has been agreed beforehand, examiners are expected to complete the examination and submit their joint report as soon as reasonably possible (and normally within three months of receipt of the thesis). If this is impossible, they are asked to notify the Examination Schools of the reasons for delay. Candidates are advised that they may approach the Examination Schools if they have not been contacted by their examiners about the date of the viva within one month of submission of their thesis. The University is particularly concerned to avoid candidates facing lengthy delays during the examination process. (Memorandum for Examiners, paragraph 1.)

Most universities consider the process highly confidential, hence, each examiner, without contact with the other, prepares a written report (generally about 3-4 pages) providing formative feedback to the candidate, supervisor and/ or university. However, in Oxford, following the viva the examiners jointly provide an agreed summative recommendation to the appropriate university graduate studies committee/ faculty board along the lines of one of the following - see the Report of the Examiners (GSO11a-d)

Possible outcomes 

  • DPhil is awarded with thesis being accepted as it stands, or with minor corrections
  • Candidate is asked to make major corrections to the thesis, to be submitted within 6 months
  • Candidate may resubmit for DPhil after making substantial revisions, or submit for an alternative Masters degree with either minor corrections or no corrections being required
  • Candidate may choose whether to resubmit for DPhil or an alternative Masters degree, substantial revision being required in both cases

In the case of a resubmission the following additional options are available to the examiners

  • Candidate may revise and resubmit for an alternative Masters degree only
  • Candidate is awarded a Masters degree, the thesis being accepted as it stands
  • Outright failure

The examiners support their recommendation with specific written comments. In addition, if they are recommending major corrections or referral of the thesis for substantial revision, they should provide full guidance for the faculty to pass on to the candidate. The graduate studies committee decides the outcome of the examination after considering the examiners' recommendation: naturally the recommendation of the examiners is followed unless, very rarely, there is some reason for concern. In such a case the committee would pursue this with the examiners, as necessary.

A student who wishes to enquire about the progress being made with consideration of the examiners’ reports should be directed to the chair of the graduate studies committee (with the explicit proviso that he or she is under no obligation to divulge the examiners' recommendation before it has been formally considered). If there is some urgent need for the outcome of the examination to be decided (for instance in the context of a job offer), then the chair of the graduate studies committee should be informed.

Any complaints relating to the outcome of an examination should normally be directed within three months of receipt of the result to the Proctors. Guidance on making complaints is provided in the Policy on Research Degrees and is also available from the Graduate Studies Office.

After a successful outcome has been reached, students must deposit a bound hard copy of their thesis with the University library and an electronic copy with the Oxford University Research Archive. Further information about Oxford electronic theses is available.

Meeting with your student immediately after the viva can be extremely helpful for the student. The experience of the viva is usually highly charged and can engender a range of emotional responses. Furthermore, emotions continue to play a role as students await the examiners' report, when they will learn what the outcome will mean for their further work. Thus, they may need ongoing emotional support.

Responses are often positive, as this student describes:

Once the viva was completed, it was the first time in four years where I really felt like I could completely rest ... the viva itself was a lot of fun ... I hadn't necessarily expected that, and they didn't tell me that I'd passed ... but I think I realised that during the viva, as many people had said before that I was the one who knew that information better than anyone else ... and they had a lot of... thought-provoking questions, questions that gave me a chance to see my research in a slightly different way, and yeah, it was terrific to be able to talk about it. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Others have mixed feelings:

... it's a bit sort of perverse really, because you want to go in and get it over with, but at the same time, you want it to be challenging because a PhD is hard-earned, isn't it? And you'd expect ... to have a few things that you have to maybe think about. There were a couple of questions that I thought, oh... I hadn't expected them ... [Now] I suppose a lot of the tension has gone, and I do look back at it positively, but I'm doing my corrections and I'm thinking, "oh, I could have maybe answered that question a bit better" - I think you always have that feeling... you think... maybe I should have said that. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

And still others may feel a letdown:

Both the examiners were really supportive, they really liked my work [but] it was a bit of a disappointing experience. I was always under the impression that the PhD thesis was going to be my point of view on the work I have done… The fact that it was so multidisciplinary, and the examiners didn’t appreciate that, and reduced that to a mere study of [X], saying [Y] aspect wasn’t needed… it’s just disappointing. (Doctoral student, STEM)

The range of possible outcomes can be seen by referring to the Report of the Examiners (GSO11a-d)

Here one student describes an outcome that is not uncommon, minor corrections.

I’m quite pleased because I’ve hardly got any corrections, and I’m just thinking…why am I taking so long with this? I could have had done them in a month. They gave me three. I had about 30 typos, and I was a bit risky with my writing - a big section of it is the empirical chapters, and my final concluding chapter was quite small. So I had it in my mind, “if they’re going to pick on anything, it’s going to be that”, and they did. They said, “Why don’t you just combine your last two chapters and make it a bigger chapter and it’ll just hold together better?” And they’ve just asked me to add about another 500 words to state the usefulness of the theoretical frame since they felt that I needed to just bring that out more. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

It can be helpful for students to understand how to situate such an outcome; one noted a helpful comment from her supervisor:

My supervisor was like, "Oh yeah, these are just very general comments about tightening up a conclusion and adding a few paragraphs." He was like, "Yeah, it's just quite a standard thing - don't worry about it." (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Students may especially need emotional support if they are asked to revise their theses, they may also need help to understand the criticism of their work and to consider what changes to make. They may see problems in finding the necessary time and funds to support this additional work.

They may just be resigned to pressing on as the outcome was not unforeseen and they want to finish:

I’ve been working exclusively on the second case study [since the outcome of the viva). My examiners were happy with the rest of the thesis, but did not like that I had dropped that second case study; the reason I did is because I was pressurised by the deadline to submit... It was incomplete, I knew it was incomplete. I knew I would have trouble defending it at the viva, which I did. The pressure on me to finish has not changed... I do not want to submit it this time until it is really finished. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Preparing your students to receive critical comment can be started early by encouraging them to publish in peer-review journals and to present their work at conferences where they are likely to have to cope with criticism. Supervisors can often model positive (or negative) ways of dealing with such criticisms from peers. Where research is undertaken in groups, encouraging supportive critique and discussing ways of dealing with criticism of every kind can all prepare DPhil candidates for receiving and dealing with examiners' comments.

The Vitae website also has a page on Possible Outcomes.

Candidate perceptions of the viva outcome

While the formal outcomes of the viva are institutionally set, it is important to consider the informal and formative experiences of the outcome on the student who has been involved. For instance, it can be confusing for a student to read an examiner’s report describing the thesis in glowing terms, yet simultaneously asking for substantial revision. Often this is due to a misunderstanding of the terms ‘minor’ and ‘substantial’ with one person’s minor changes being perceived by another individual as major changes.

At the same time, there is evidence that it is not the formal outcome alone that influences a student's perception of the result. For instance, in a study of psychology graduates post-viva, Hartley and Jory (2000) reported that nearly 40% of the participants had negative feelings about their experience although 85% of them were successful candidates. Wallace and Marsh (2001), in another study on experiences of the viva, discovered that it was the examiners’ role and behaviour, instead of the final decision, that made the viva affirmative or destructive for successful candidates. In other words, the way in which questions are posed in the viva can create a more positive view of the viva on the part of the student even when changes to the thesis are called for. Importantly, Jackson and Tinkler (2001) found that student experience in the viva had an effect on self-perceptions of academic competence and future academic prospects; even successful candidates may have their self-perceptions decreased due to negative viva experiences.

Studies such as these, which document the emotional outcomes for students of the viva are actually very few – leaving us much to learn about this crucial aspect of doctoral experience.

The above text was based on the following research:

Bourke, S., Hattie, J., & Anderson, L. (2004). Predicting examiner recommendations on PhD theses. International Journal of Educational Research, 41(2), 178-194.

Chen, S. (2009). The PhD dissertation defense as identity talk. Paper presented at AERA, San Diego, US. (Not electronically available)

Hartley, J., & Jory, S. (2000). Lifting the veil on the viva: The experiences of psychology PhD candidates in the UK. Psychology Teaching Review, 9(2), 76-90. (Not electronically available)

Holbrook, A., Bourke, S., Fairbairn, H., & Lovat, T. (2007). Examiner comment on the literature review in PhD theses. Studies in Higher Education, 32(3), 337-356.

Jackson, C., & Tinkler, P. (2001). Back to basics: A consideration of the purposes of the PhD viva. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26(4), 355-366.

Kiley, M. and Mullins, G. (2004) Examining the examiners: How inexperienced examiners approach the assessment of research theses. International Journal of Educational Research, 41(2), 121-135

Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). 'It's a PhD, not a Nobel Prize': How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.

Trafford, V. (2003) Questions in doctoral vivas: Views from the inside. Quality Assurance in Education, 11(2) 114-122.

Wallace, S., & Marsh, C. (2001). Trial by ordeal or the chummy game? Six case studies in the conduct of the British PhD viva examination. Higher Education Review, 34(1), 35-59. (NB: Electronic version of this journal is not available so link gives access to information about the Bodleian Library's paper copies.)