Examining a PhD in the UK: 10 Ways to Lead a Viva

In this blog post, we offer advice to would-be external examiners on how to effectively approach and manage doctoral examinations in the UK setting.

  1. Before the big day, you feel nervous. Will I be at the top of my form? Will I be able to defend myself? How will I appear to everyone in the room? All these thoughts might fly through your head as you enter the room as an examiner. If they do, stop right there, and remember that you are the examiner, and not the candidate. If you are nervous, think about the candidate. How will they be feeling? A lot more nervous than you. It will be their big day. Even though they might realise that failure is unlikely, it still haunts their lives. It would be a catastrophe for a candidate, and not such an overwhelming defeat for an examiner. Academic examiners will do many examinations in their careers, and they can survive one or two disappointing theses. PhD defences vary drastically around the world. This blog focuses on the examination process in the United Kingdom, though not all aspects are unique to it.
  2. Given that the candidate is likely to be nervous, an examiner should think about how they can help the candidate feel secure. A good way to start is by being open and friendly. The external examiner often takes the lead, and, at the outset, they can reassure the candidate by explaining what will follow. The external examiner will agree with the internal about what to say at the beginning of proceedings. One should not anticipate a final verdict at this stage. The oral examination is part of the process, and so the final result cannot be delivered until it is over. But one thing an external examiner may wish to say to the candidate is that they have enjoyed reading the thesis and look forward to asking them some questions to explore their ideas, and why they think they are important. It’s not your job to grill a candidate with the aim of catching them out. You should want to hear how the candidate sees their thesis and how it fits into the wider world of scholarship in the area. You may wish to inform the candidate about the rough length of the viva. It also helps to kick things off with a straightforward opening question, asking what is central to the thesis and following that up with a question about how it makes an original contribution.
  3. While candidates can and should suggest potential examiners for the viva, the supervisor is the one who typically makes first contact, even if the formal appointment subsequently comes from an administrative body. Before formal appointment, the supervisor extends an informal invitation to the external examiner requesting them to take part in the process. This is sometimes done in a mildly flattering way, with the supervisor perhaps suggesting that the examiner in question is a notable authority in the field. Hovering in the background is the thought that one is being selected because they are generally seen to be a kind and fair person, though hopefully not a complete pushover. But there are many additional considerations at play, such as the utility of references the candidate may hope to subsequently receive if all goes well. On the day of the examination, the supervisor is generally in the background. But nowadays they have the right, if the candidate so wishes, to attend the oral examination, albeit without speaking.
  4. Often, as an external examiner, you get lunch, or dinner, or a drink. If you are lucky. On rarer occasions, you may be lucky to get a cup of coffee, going home (assuming you have not Zoomed in) feeling dry, hungry and aggrieved. The home institution should offer lunch. Reading a thesis closely, and conducting an oral examination is hard work, yet rewarding, because it is wonderful to see a candidate contributing something new and significant. Examining is worth it without a free lunch, but a meal during which the internal and external examiner can discuss the thesis and their approach to the viva in a more relaxed manner always helps. A successful examination is often a treat, though, and you ensure that your schedule allows for a post-examination celebratory drink or dinner with the candidate, should all go well. It is a hugely important day for them and so – all else being equal – in-person vivas remain the preferable option by far. Of course, there are environmental, financial, psychological, and pragmatic reasons why an online viva may be preferable or perhaps even the only option from the point of view of the candidate and/or the examiner(s), so these should not be dismissed offhand.
  5. Meetings between examiners are rituals, but rituals do not always follow the same pattern. Typically, the internal and external examiner write separate preliminary reports on the thesis they are to examine. They see the report of the other examiner on the day of the viva, when they discuss how the oral examination is to be conducted. Usually, a preliminary report summarises the thesis, points to significant features, and raises a few questions to be followed up at the oral. It is helpful to have the discipline of writing a report. For examiners, seeing one another’s reports can raise questions. If the reports are very different, then the question of their difference looms. Differences in style may be overlooked, but differences in substance have to be addressed. The internal examiner’s role is to arrive at a fair judgment of a thesis, and in doing so to ensure the candidate has every chance to present their case. While it is tempting to characterize the internal examiner as good cop to the external examiner’s bad cop, it is not as uncommon as you might think for the former to be far more critical of the work than the latter.
  6. Is the oral examination important? Yes, for a number of reasons. It offers the candidate an opportunity to explain their thinking and reasoning directly to another expert, so that criticisms of their approach can be addressed. More generally, they get to be heard and can talk about their thesis to interested and well-informed parties, and so give voice to a project that has been their all-consuming interest for the past few years. The oral should not be seen as a trial by fire, but rather as a chance to converse with others who know the area and who are interested in what the candidate has to say.
  7. Entrances and exits. At the start, the examiners should let the candidate know what they are in for. They should say what kind of questions will be asked and how long it is likely to last. At the end, they should explain what is happening. Usually, they will let the candidate know that examiners are conferring for about 10 minutes and then they will recall the candidate and let them know how things stand.
  8. At the end of the day, a final report has to be written. The examiners talk over their views. This is usually not too convoluted, as often they have been in close agreement and the oral goes as expected. In the ideal case, the examiners agree on the direction of travel, and say ‘pass with no corrections’ and then agree a form of words relatively quickly that they can put on the report. But ‘pass with minor revisions’ is just as common, if not more so. Given that the student works closely with supervisors right up to submission, major problems should not be the order of the day. But sometimes ‘major corrections’ is the correct verdict. These can be trickier to specify, but it is vital that it this is done clearly and in a way that the candidate knows exactly what is being asked of them and why. If the examiners can report directly and on the day to the candidate the direction of travel, and follow that up with a well-written report, then they should be able to move forward with reasonable confidence that they will receive their PhD at the end of the process. In very rare cases, it is also possible for candidates to end up with an MPhil instead of a PhD. There is no shame in this and under certain circumstances may well be the most appropriate option for all concerned.
  9. It is good to take the time at the end of the examination to give the candidate advice on what to do after they have been awarded the PhD. Generally, you encourage the candidate to undertake publications, perhaps articles from some of the chapters and perhaps a monograph. If you know of a relevant series, you may recommend it to the candidate or, indeed, the candidate’s work to the series editor.
  10. Examining a PhD is demanding, but enjoyable. It is good to enjoy it and for it to be a positive experience for all involved. It can be instructive as well as enjoyable and helps both the candidate and the examiners to look at areas they work on from different angles.