Friday, April 29, 2011

Re-thinking the viva

I've had a lot of conversions recently with numerous colleagues and students from various different universities who have had less than satisfactory experiences in the doctoral vivas which left me wondering....what the hell is happening to the viva? All of the books and website that students routinely read prior to their doctoral examination say useful and helpful comments along the lines of;
  • "you know more about your work than anyone else on the room"
  • "The examiners do not want you to fail"
  • The viva should be a discussion amongst peers
However from the individuals I've spoken to lately there is a real sense that students felt that their work was more under attack than under review with examiners dismissing the approaches taken, the epistemological underpinnings of the work and the standard of writing, leaving them demoralised and disillusioned. 
This made me think that may be students and their supervisors are under estimating the importance of careful selection of examiners and independent chairs. Indeed I was surprised to find that some universities do not have an independent chair for vivas which makes the student even more vulnerable. Is it fair, or even appropriate that the work of, for some students , 5 years or more is approved or otherwise by two people on one day? It's time for a re-think. Maybe it is time for a feedback website so that students can highlight good examiners or even for an examiners registry so that potential examiners can upload their areas of expertise and methodological interests so that examiner selection can be focused and relevant rather than being based upon who a student's supervisor think will be OK as it is at present. Or should we go further and try to think of a new way in which PhDs can be assessed - maybe by open access peer review?
If PhDs could be loaded onto secure websites for, say, a month and could be thoroughly reviewed by a minimum number of global reviewers - how much more valid would that be?


  1. Part 1

    Great post Carol. I have been dwelling with this issue since shortly having started my PhD. After all the horror stories I have heard, I fear that Viva, to be honest!!! Is that right? I don’t think so. Education is not about creating fear. It’s about inspiring to dare. Yet, so often we are penalized for doing so.

    I have heard time and time again how people fail their viva. Fail? I had to check that that was the word I was hearing. Fail...can you believe it? You spend a minimum of 3 years doing research, money just vanished from your account, time and life almost passes you by and you still manage to fail??????? ....or have major changes to a PhD project you have, theoretically, “been given the privilege” to do! It all sounds a bit too much for me.

    I did my MPhil in Portugal (there it’s called an Academic Masters) and I knew from Day 1 that once my supervisor gave me the sign to send the thesis to print I had passed. The defense day (that’s how we call the VIVA there, and masters are viva-ed too) is a day of celebrating your work and having an intelligent discussion about it with other experts in the area. Your performance in the discussion can raise (most often) or lower your grade (only if you really screw it up), but you know that once you send the script to print, you have a pass grade. I have never heard of people failing their PhDs there, because if they are not good enough they don’t get to the Viva. No way. And that in a way tells me about the relationship with the supervisor too.

    I also have a friend who did her PhD in the Netherlands and there this idea is even more exacerbated. The thesis is submitted to an internal committee who provides feedback and hints for improvement. Only after those are done and the committee and supervisor are pleased with it is the viva booked. The day of the viva is a day of celebration of *your* work. It’s not the examiner’s day to ruin your work and self-esteem.

    Both in PT and the Netherlands Vivas are open to the public. Anyone can attend. It’s a great opportunity to gather friends and family to celebrate such achievement.

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  3. So I don’t really get why/how people fail Vivas, or have crap ones (not that I know of, anyway!). Such thought already leaves me a bitter taste in my mouth, and I haven’t reached that stage yet!

    The PhD is a learning process which aims at improvement and refinement of the “young” researcher’s skills. The Viva should focus on that and showcase the progress of the individual. But above all, I also don’t get why people keep telling me to choose a reasonable examiner (?). I didn’t even know what that meant. I had to ask. Someone who is rigorous but shows empathy towards your work and understands it’s not going to be your best work. And I know by matter of fact the examiners to avoid because they have failed people in the past. That is sad!!

    Education is about humanity, not cruel treatment. I am not in favour of awarding PhDs left and right, but I am in favour that the student goes into a Viva knowing that s/he is going to discuss her/his research, not what someone else thought they should have done. as long is it well justified I do not know how someone can fail it. And that is the job of the supervisor: to check the dissertation is good enough to be sent to the print room.

    So that was talking about the traditional way.
    In a more modern approach (especially speaking about the UK context) I would like to see Open door Vivas. This is a huge project to be confined to a discussion amongst 3 people.
    I would also like to see Open Dissertations like you mention, so others can discuss it. Make you think. I am trying to something similar. I hope to publish the preliminary results of my research in an open access journal and then ask people to provide their input on my blog too. If that’s gonna work is something to be seen.

    But then again, I also think the dissertation is a too long document and we should be doing PhDs which are assessed in its process, in which we document our progress and growth as individuals and researchers. That part will never be accounted in my dissertation. And although I don’t totally identify myself with this form of doing a PhD, I have grown fonder of it particularly due to what I have learnt throughout the process, which in part has been thanks to the conversations I have had with my network and my supervisor. However, the examiner will never know how far I have come... s/he will only think s/he knows how much further I have to go. that’s only accounting for one side of the story. Theirs! Yet, this is my PhD!!!

  4. I also like the "Open Dissertations" idea, more so than the other technical Rate-My-Prof kind of solutions you proposed in the post. Cristina's idea of assessing the work while it is in process would be entirely compatible: put the whole thing in the open, not just the end results! I wrote a short essay about grant funding that suggests it should work in a similar fashion:

    Actually I think the viva is about presenting your work cogently. Cristina's comments above showed how practices in Portugal support that: simply, you won't get the signal to go ahead unless the work is "good enough". I'm leaving out the idea of rogue examiners from the original post -- I'm sure they exist, but they really shouldn't. Assuming good faith and a supportive culture, the problem would be what happens if you're running out of time/funding before you get to the "good enough" point! Aside from hard work on the part of the student, the only thing that can help with that is a properly supportive intellectual culture all the way through the Ph. D. The "end result" shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. If it is, that reflects badly on the institution.