The viva

Most candidates will not have been examined in this way before, so clarification of the three stated purposes of the oral examination may help them to have a better idea of what to expect. These purposes are:

  1. To enable the examiners to assure themselves that the thesis is the candidate’s own work;
  2. To give the candidate an opportunity to defend the thesis and to clarify any obscurities in it;
  3. To enable the examiners to assess the candidate’s general knowledge in his or her particular field of learning.

Examiners receive a copy of the Memorandum for Examiners for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy (GSO5) and this document sets out these purposes and the formal requirements for the oral (viva voce) examination in section 5.1, the practical arrangements in section 5.2, and its conduct in section 5.3; section 5.4 explains the requirements with respect to the examiners' joint report.

Students and internal examiners will be expected to wear academic dress for the viva examination (i.e. sub fusc with cap and gown). If you need advice regarding appropriate dress, talk to your College who will be pleased to help you.

One of the guidelines for examiners concerns the time allowed for the viva. They are informed "that the normal expectations relating to the length of an oral examination should be a minimum of one hour and a maximum of three hours."

This recommendation can be seen as indicating that the viva should be adequate for purpose without being so long as to be unfairly demanding. In exceptional circumstances, if the examiners consider that they need to extend the viva beyond 3 hours, then the following is commended as good practice:

  1. If the candidate shows signs of tiredness or distress that could significantly affect her or his performance, then the examiners should consider suspending the viva for an appropriate period;
  2. The candidate should in any case be offered an opportunity for a short break if it is felt necessary to extend the viva beyond 3 hours;
  3. If the viva is to be extended beyond 3 hours, the examiners should check that the candidate feels able to continue;
  4. An explanation as to why it was felt necessary to extend the examination and confirmation that the candidate was content to continue and was offered an opportunity to take a break, should be included in the written report.

A. Preparing for the viva

Encourage your student to think about the examination from the examiners' point of view

Carter has suggested that examiners might consider questions like these (adapted from Carter, 2008, pp370-371).

  1. What do you see as important aspects of the examination and how do these sit within the university's regulations?
  2. It is usual to devise questions that test different requirements of the degree: so, what sort of issues could be covered? (For example: originality, knowledge of the field and application of that knowledge in discussion, as well as in arguing the significance of the thesis.)
  3. To what extent do you think that the candidate should, properly, be put under considerable pressure as part of the ritual of the oral examination?
  4. How willing are you when you go to an oral examination to be persuaded to change your own initial judgement?
  5. What are the methods by which examiners arrive at a final decision if they disagree at the start of the process?

Encourage your student to remind him or herself about the contribution and significance of the thesis

Consider quality, significance and originality, and suggest that the student should consider what the weaker points of the thesis are and how these might best be treated in discussion.

This student felt stressed yet outlined strategies he could use in addition to seeking advice from his supervisor:

I only found out ... this week when the viva [will take place], so I’ll probably go and talk to my supervisor about how to prepare and what kind of questions they might ask, but the preparation won’t be a big deal. I’ll read through the thesis, look up the papers my examiners have written, and read them to make sure I’m not going against them, and to get hints on what they’ll ask. I might read four or five of the most important papers that I’ve referenced. I’m worried about the viva. It’s the idea of sitting down and getting grilled that really stresses me out and I’m very scared about it. But I’m not feeling overwhelmed with the preparation because it’s written, you know – like I guess I’m judged on what’s written. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

For students whose thesis represents a series of publications, this advice from a supervisor to put the exam into perspective is helpful:

Publication means that the work is of an international standing, so it is certainly a quality assessor, which ...if you’ve had most of your thesis published before you go for examination, it’s very hard for examiners to turn that over when it has gone through anonymous peer review in the leading society journals. That’s a pretty hard thing to do, unless you can spot fundamental flaws with the work, and usually by that stage, the chances of seeing that are fairly minimal. (Supervisor, STEM)

Have a rehearsal

You could use Twelve predictable questions as the basis for an effective viva rehearsal. It lists questions that Trafford and Leshem (2002) identified as appearing in some form in 25 doctoral viva examinations they attended and analysed.

Here's how one student described the value of a rehearsal with her supervisor:

My mock viva with my supervisor was fantastic because I just said to him, “Look, I’ve practised for this, I’ve thought of all the questions that I could be asked, but the worst thing is that I’m just so nervous.” So, he was absolutely brilliant; he said “just think about the strengths of your thesis – think about at least 20 points, all these strong points, and when the examiner is talking to you, think about those positives and always try and put those in.” And I just took it from there really, and that did give me a lot of confidence. So that was a big milestone really, for me, as part of my preparation, as well as my friends helping me. He just gave me that final boost at the right time. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

B. The event

While students may be nervous, they still largely hope their work will be seriously addressed:

Interviewer: And so on the day, you had questions, but you felt comfortable with them and…? Student: Yes. I mean, obviously, you want to be challenged, don’t you? You know, 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 expect it to…you know, to have a few things that you have to maybe think about. There were a couple of questions that I thought, oh…but I did answer them, but I hadn’t expected them. You can never predict. But I must say, my examiners were lovely. They were just so positive about the thesis, and just so nice, so it was a really nice experience. Now, I do look back at it positively, but as I’m doing my corrections, I’m thinking, oh, I could have maybe answered that question a bit better – I think you always have that, that feeling that you think, oh, maybe I should have said that or… But obviously, they were happy with what I said at the time. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Several useful pointers for students preparing for the oral examination are available on the Vitae website. For example, students could mark up their own copy of the thesis with post-it notes so as to be ready to refer to particular sections when answering questions during the examination. See Vitae's Your Viva page for more like this. The page also provides links to further advice about viva outcomes and thesis corrections.

The way in which the DPhil thesis is examined in the UK is distinct from the ways it is examined in Australia and in North America, and so, this section will focus on the findings of studies done on the use of the viva in the UK. These studies have revealed variation between disciplines and departments within universities as well as between different universities.

First, the viva is significantly shaped by layered local academic cultures, including the institution, the department, and the examiners, as well as the global culture of the discipline. To help you prepare your students for the viva, it may be helpful to talk to colleagues about their local experience (and equally, if you are to examine at another university you will need guidance about the particular expectations there). The influence of the local cultures is reflected in variations in both policy and practice across institutions, such as the selection of examiners, production and submission of examiner reports, and conduct of the viva. Other aspects of the examination that differ between institutions are the complex relationships involved in selecting external examiners (the institutional selection criteria may not be specific as to who can and cannot serve as examiners) and the degree to which external and internal examiners are expected to work independently of each other (some institutions require each to submit an independent report before the viva while others require a joint report after the viva). Additionally, the way the viva is conducted varies between institutions, e.g. with or without a chair. And, then there are disciplinary differences as well; in the natural sciences, patterns of questioning tend to be more linear than in the social sciences where questions involve multiple looping back. These layered cultures lead to diverse expectations and experiences for doctoral candidates (and examiners).

Second, there are differing perceptions of the relative importance of the viva and the written thesis. Many academics consider the written thesis rather than the viva as the substantive evidence for a candidate’s scholarship. However, since the viva is compulsory for the award of the doctoral degree in the UK it should occupy a central place in the assessment. Interestingly, empirical evidence suggests that, while many academics believe the viva can be formative and celebratory, students tend to conceive it as a test. This finding implies that students might receive mixed messages when consulting peers and academics for information about the viva. Further, precisely what is under examination can be slippery. For a good thesis, the viva is typically used to authenticate the text, develop the ideas, and provide advice on publication. For a very poor thesis, the viva is used to confirm the fail. And, in borderline cases the viva plays a crucial role in helping examiners decide whether or not to award the degree. As students may not be aware in which category their thesis falls, they may not be prepared for the approach adopted by the examiners. While students' expectations may be generally informed by their supervisors, by other students, and by their understanding of university regulations, what they actually experience in the viva will be heavily influenced by the examiners' perceptions of the quality of the particular thesis.

Lastly, drawing upon the questions that students ask in viva preparation workshops, Murray (2003) argues that the viva is a new and thus unknown communicative event in which doctoral candidates experience a return to novice status; there is a new audience (i.e. the external examiner) with a new purpose (i.e. more than talking about a completed study); Murray notes the need to “acknowledge that a new communication event can bring disconcerting side-effects in the shape of questions of identity. What feels like a crisis of confidence may actually be a crisis of identity” (p145).

The above text was based on:

Carter, Susan. (2008) Examining the doctoral thesis: a discussion, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45(4), 365-374.

Chen, S. (2009). The PhD dissertation defense as identity talk. Paper presented at AERA, San Diego, US.

Denicolo, P. (2003). Assessing the PhD: A constructive view of criteria. Quality Assurance in Education, 11(2), 84-91.

Joyner, R. W. (2003). The selection of external examiners for research degrees. Quality Assurance In Education, 11(2), 123-127.

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.

Murray, R. (2003). Students' questions and their implications for the viva. Quality Assurance in Education, 11(2), 109.

Tinkler, P. & Jackson, C. (2000) Examining the doctorate: Institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 167-180.

Tinkler, P. & Jackson, C. (2004) The doctoral examination process: A handbook for students, examiners and supervisors. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

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: There is no electronic version of this journal available, so the link gives access to information about the Bodleian Library's paper copies.)